The Real Meaning of “Social and Emotional Learning”

John D. Sailer

Resolute is the Civics Alliance’s newsletter, informing you about the most urgent issues in civics education. Above all, Resolute will provide information about federal and state legislation that seeks to impose action civics, or to preserve traditional civics.

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The Civics Alliance has released a new policy brief on Social and Emotional Learning. Readers of Resolute are no doubt familiar with this educational framework, which is ubiquitous throughout American schools. Curriculum developers often tout a wide assortment of teaching material, from social studies lessons to in-class games, as beneficial for students’ social and emotional development. Yet the framework is vague and open to ideological drift. There’s increasing evidence of this ideological drift across the country, as lessons designed for “social and emotional learning” have begun to focus on social justice activism.

Social and Emotional Learning

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is everywhere. Thousands of schools across the country and the world have implemented SEL programming. All 50 states have adopted at least preschool SEL standards. But SEL’s ambiguous definition invites “concept creep,” and the concept has come to justify ever more ideological activities. Today, many schools and activists offer a politicized education through SEL programming, which calls for permissive disciplinary practices, a politically charged notion of equity, and student activism.

In the Civics Alliance’s latest policy brief, I explain how. 

Schools and school districts increasingly emphasize a new theme in their SEL programming: equity. [The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning] leads the charge. CASEL now touts the connections between SEL and equity.

This theme—“SEL as a lever for equity”—has been embraced by many school districts, and it has been accompanied by a new model: “Transformative SEL.”

Transformative SEL contains two elements. First, it focuses on examining injustice and on changing systems with “justice-oriented civic engagement.” This focus reorients SEL toward teaching a radical political agenda and promoting student activism. Second, it explicitly emphasizes group identities, above all race. Community building exercises, a hallmark of the SEL 3 Signature Practices, have been racialized: “although these programs and practices can create more inclusive classroom and school settings, it is necessary to explicitly consider issues of race/ethnicity and class to advance an equity-focused SEL agenda.”

What does that look like in practice? While there’s no end to the ways schools can try to achieve SEL goals, one tool stands out as particularly relevant to the Civics Alliance: Action Civics.

The Boston Public Schools Action Guide recommends action civics as “one opportunity for youth to contribute to positive community change”—and provides a link to the website of the action civics nonprofit Generation Citizen. Facing History and Ourselves also lists action civics as one of its key practices. Its From Reflection to Action Toolkit offers a template for a group social action project. After teachers give “an overview of the social action project at the start of the school year,” students are encouraged to reflect on and gather “information about issues—as well as types of and tools for activism.” The project follows the basic action civics framework: “Identify a problem,” “Come up with a solution,” “Identify action tools,” “DO SOMETHING.”

Read the full brief here.

Civics Alliance State Affiliates

The Civics Alliance would like to build up a network of state affiliates—groups dedicated to removing action civics in their state, whom we would list on our forthcoming website. If you would like to form such an organization, or suggest an existing organization, please get in touch with David Randall ([email protected]).

Continuing Priorities: Federal Legislation

At the federal level, the Civics Secures Democracy Act threatens to impose action civics nationwide.

The Civics Bill Tracker

Civics Alliance members may now use the Civics Bill Tracker to track all proposed federal and state legislation related to civics.

Public Action

We encourage Civics Alliance members to inform the public and policymakers about the stakes and consequences of action civics bills.


John Sailer is a Research Associate at the National Association of Scholars and serves as Keeping the Republic Project Lead.

Image: Tim Mossholder, Public Domain

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