We Need More Social and Emotional Learning in Schools

Published: Apr 17, 2023  |  

Assistant Professor at the Yale Child Study Center

SEL School

Sending your thoughts and prayers won’t save our nation’s youth. It also won’t kill them.   

Politicians who ascribe to the mindset that guns don’t kill people, people do, are currently sending their thoughts and prayers in the wake of the Covenant School shooting while wearing gun lapel pins and demonizing social and emotional learning (SEL) in our nation’s schools

Expressions of empathy, or sharing with another person that you feel for them, have become common practice in our country in the wake of tragedies. Learning to express empathy is a hallmark of SEL, which refers to skills and strategies that support students to excel academically, make friends, manage their stress, problem-solve and make healthy decisions.  

Bans on SEL in the face of rising school gun violence are both irresponsible and ironic. The same politicians who are failing to address the rise in gun violence in schools are propagating SEL misinformation campaigns riddled with fallacies.  

Here’s the truth. Students who participate in SEL programs do better in school. SEL programs are consistently associated with student academic achievement, engagement in learning, attendance and on-task behaviors. Students who participate in SEL also have healthier behaviors at school and are both less likely to be the bully and to be bullied. 

Additionally, students who participate in SEL programs also feel better in school, reporting less anxiety, stress, depression and suicidal thoughts. These programs make young people feel safer at school. Students are more connected and included and have better relationships with peers and teachers.  

Suicide has skyrocketed to become the second leading cause of death among children aged 10 to 14 in the U.S. Today’s youth are simultaneously more linked in and less connected to peers and trusting adults. Students nationwide are performing at record low levels in reading and math, with more students scoring at “below basic” levels.  

There have been 367 mass school shootings in the U.S. on record to date, with more than 340,000 students having directly experienced gun violence in school since 1999.  

While some politicians may lie, these statistics do not.  

The necessity of SEL and mental health support in school is not an either/or situation. Investments in school-based mental health resources are Tier 2 supports and SEL programming is universal. This means that SEL is programming embedded in a school before students need intensive and expensive mental health support from counselors and specialized clinicians. SEL is prevention. SEL programs teach all students how to handle big emotions before they become too big to manage.  

Mental health counseling is intervention, critical support for a subset of youth in need of clinical intervention. Similar to other public social services, it is more expensive to treat a problem than to pre-emptively address the symptoms. In fact, investments in SEL have been found to have an $11 return for every $1 invested.  

Given the present mental health emergency in the U.S., how much will banning SEL cost the system? 

An overwhelming majority of parents consider the safety of their children to be a top priority. However, in the United States, we must reconcile with the reality that safety is defined differently across each family and community. Firearms promote security for some and are a threat to others. 

This deep-rooted difference of values will not resolve itself without collective problem-solving and responsible decision-making—ironically, more SEL skills. Children will not grow up in a world that works out differences if their adults and educational systems fail to teach them how. At the rate we’re going, they won’t live to see it. 

The beautiful thing about empathy is individuals don’t need to have the same experiences to feel the pain of other people. I am sending my thoughts and prayers alongside a call for immediate and preventive action—to support SEL in schools. Let’s not wait for gun violence to get any closer to your home to intervene. Our children’s ability to thrive personally, socially and academically depends on it.

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