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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

Educators often have a tendency to use confusing terminology when speaking about their field. But jargon may now be playing a role in the politicization of social and emotional learning — often referred to as SEL.

Social and emotional learning isn’t a new concept According to the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for the United States (SEL4US), it’s a practice that helps kids and adults learn and apply the skills necessary to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy, establish strong relationship skills, and make responsible decisions. Over the last two years, the concept has seen a spike in popularity as way to help students deal with mental-health challenges exacerbated by the pandemic.

But schools have seen a backlash against SEL in recent months. Some experts say the use of jargon and the lack of a specific explanation of SEL’s content and purpose is one reason for parent anger and misunderstanding.

“SEL has been happening in schools since before there was ever the term ‘SEL,’ said Jim Vetter, an SEL subject matter expert at the Education Development Center who serves on the leadership team for SEL4US. “This is not a new thing. It’s really a central part of education,” he said. Vetter recently served as a panelist during a webinar on how schools can respond to the growing pushback.

Fellow panelist Erica Buchanan-Rivera, the director of equity and inclusion for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indiana, echoed the sentiment.

“One of the many purposes of SEL work is to improve students’ capacity to maintain and develop healthy relationships,” she said. Long before SEL was the latest education buzzword, educators had been “accustomed to helping youth make responsible decisions, as well as develop social awareness.”

An August 2021 study on parents’ perceptions of social and emotional learning by the Fordham Institute found that while parents on both sides of the political divide want their children to learn SEL-related skills, such as goal setting and understanding differences, the term itself is divisive.

Parents surveyed for the study also didn’t respond well to abstract terms like “whole child development” and “soft skills.”

The authors of the report argue that if policymakers and educators use simple language and describe the specific skills that make up SEL, rather than focusing on abstract ideas, a majority of parents will support it. For example, when the survey asked parents, by political party, specific questions about which skills schools should address, Democrats nearly unanimously supported all the SEL-related skills and Republicans voiced strong support for instruction on things like empathy (about 70 percent) and sensitivity to different cultures (68 percent).

These findings ring true to Buchanan-Rivera. During her time as a teacher, parents she spoke to wanted to know about more than just the academic progress of their child.

“They wanted to know if their child was kind within school settings. They wanted to know if they were able to speak up and be assertive when being protective of the needs of others. They wanted to ensure that their children were active listeners,” she said. “There was this [unspoken] rule that education in many ways was more than just building the intellectual capacity of youth. It was about the work of ensuring that our youth become better humans.”

What social and emotional learning looks like in a classroom can differ. The Fordham Institute study recommends thinking of indirect methods for developing these skills. For example, developing the idea of resilience by assigning readings about “characters who struggle to overcome a challenge.” This development can also be done by leveraging the influence of other adults, like coaches or youth leaders, the authors say. In December, I wrote about Classroom Champions, a nonprofit that uses Olympic and professional athletes as mentors to help teach students these skills.

The key takeaway when talking about the practice, according to the Fordham Institute researchers: “Discuss it concretely, honor the role of families in its development, and — whatever you do — do not call it social and emotional learning.”

This story about social and emotional learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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Javeria Salman is the digital news producer, and she reports and writes the Future of Learning newsletter. She covers K-12 education issues through the lens of innovation and technology, and helps manage...

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