It’s Time to Work Together to Defend SEL

Our organization, Big Thought, was hosting a showcase created this past spring break by an amazing group of teenage young creators. The program, Artivism, invites youth to tap into that powerful element that has forged the entire nation’s sense of propriety and purpose–youth voice. Tell stories that move people to action. As I sat in the audience listening to their talk-back after a beautiful documentary short displaying their work, I was in awe. First, at the remarkable self-awareness from people so young. But also, the words they shared left a deep imprint:

  • “I’m a 20-year-old 17-year-old.”
  • “I know I’ve experienced arrested development.”
  • “My life feels like I’ve had two years with no closure. It’s hard.”

I’ve been privileged to be in youth-adjacent work for nearly 15 years, going back to when I was an undergrad. Mentoring, afterschool programming, childcare services, tutoring. So many youth in so many spaces …

And I’ve never seen as widespread a generation of young people in desperate need of explicit and ubiquitous social and emotional learning (SEL) as the youth in our communities right now.

Because of the pandemic, which has deprived young developing minds of the security, assuredness, and human connection at these most critical years of brain development, we find ourselves in the middle of a quiet crucible. Suddenly, children across the country, across the world, have been introduced to a new adverse childhood experience (ACE) that no adult alive has any remote context for understanding. Layer onto that a racial reckoning that’s stirred social revolution, an economy whose tremors are being felt in every household, climate effects bringing extreme conditions they’ve never experienced, and social media bringing a constant bombardment of messages the human brain was never intended to have the capacity to filter, and it’s no wonder that SEL is becoming a more strident focus for school districts across the country.

But it seems just when many are awakening to the need for these timely skills, a troubling narrative is threatening to limit access or, in some cases, outright ban their imparting. A tide has risen to threaten the advances that over three decades of research and awareness in the field of SEL has made. Thanks to the practitioners, researchers, and youth development professionals dedicated to child well-being, we know that well-executed SEL can lead to positive mental health, increased academic performance, and a greater sense of belonging. With youth facing a reality that is increasingly less predictable and that promises more challenges ahead, the skills to thrive through a nebulous tomorrow is a responsibility that we educators and youth development professionals have an obligation to provide.

Yet in states across the nation, laws and policies are being introduced that would mislabel SEL, tagging it with nefarious intent antithetical to its inception. SEL is being cast as merely a cover for indoctrination, of originating ideas that would make youth ashamed, question who they are, or reject their familial connections. Activist groups have descended upon school boards from coast to coast, calling SEL everything from “a Trojan horse for critical race theory” to a means of indoctrinating children to become LGBTQ. The absurdity of their “proof,” let alone the overt bigotry animating these attacks, should render the protestations null at face value, but the unfortunate reality is that we are seeing an alarming efficacy in their organizing. Bills in state legislatures and policies from state departments of education have been introduced to outright ban SEL from schools, to bar any organization with SEL in its practices or curriculum from working with the school districts, and to enable parents to opt out of any social-emotional skill-building activities.

The stakes are high. Now is not the time for us to stare aghast at the unraveling of over three decades of gains in the field of research-backed, evidence-based science that’s benefited thousands of young people. These children deserve to be seen as whole human beings in our schools and youth-serving spaces. The misinformation about SEL cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.

This is a time to fight.

On every front, from every seat, those who know the value of social-emotional skills-building must rise to this moment and move from being only practitioners to also being policy advocates. Every educator who believes this is what their students need must write their state legislator defending the value of speaking life into youth’s social and emotional well-being. An army of community-based organizations and youth-development nonprofits must meet the misdirection at the podium of school board meetings with the truth of SEL’s impact. And funders, both local and national, must choose to resource advocacy and policy shaping efforts unlike they’ve ever done before–leveraging the strength of their voice and their resources can shift the Overton window back in line with the light young people need ablaze.

SEL is power, and in an age when youth need it more than ever, it’s time for us to lean into ours.

Defend SEL.

This article was written by Big Thought’s CEO, Byron Sanders, for CASEL’s blog, Constellations. See the original article here.