Special Education
Student Mental Health and Social/Emotional Learning

Many schools and districts are today confronted with rising demands to address a growing number of increasingly challenging student mental health issues. An increasing number of them are responding to these demands by launching “social-emotional learning” curricula.

Here is a comparison of 25 different Social/Emotional programs.

However, this plunge into social-emotional learning has been controversial. For example, here is a critique of SEL programs by Fordham’s Chester Finn (here is the CASEL SEL competencies graphic he uses), and here is Marc Tucker’s commentary on it. Finn notes the similarities of some SEL programs to what the Guardian newspaper has called “the great self-esteem con.”

As critics see it, SEL may be a solution to the wrong problem. Rather than having a need for better social-emotional learning curricula, what many schools are experiencing is an upsurge in student mental health issues that manifest themselves in substance abuse, absenteeism, and classroom disruptions. For example, see this report by San Mateo County in California, and this research that shows the very substantial long-term impact disruptive students have on their peers. And as this report notes, high achievers are the ones who suffer the most.

What many schools may really need is much better mental health services, in the form of psychologists, social workers, counsellors, and better relationships with outside mental health providers (for an overview of the current approach to providing student mental health supports, see this overview from the Colorado Department of Education). An excellent example of this is Massachusetts’ successful experience with Wrap Around Zones (here is the replication guide for a WAZ, and here is AIR’s evaluation of the Massachusetts experience).

Before jumping on the SEL bandwagon, you may want to first diagnose what your real problems are, and then proceed to assessing the best ways to address them.

Here is a draft project plan you can use to make progress in this critical area. It includes key background data, and initial hypotheses to guide the diagnostic phase of your work. Here is a report on how Social/Emotional Learning fits into the new ESSA accountability framework. And here is a very throught-provoking report on how East Asian nations are integrating Social/Emotional Learning to prepare their students to survive and thrive in the 21st century economy.