Parents Seethe Over Schools’ ‘Social-Emotional Learning’ Exercises

Another flashpoint has arisen in the ongoing battle between parent activists and teachers. 

Norma Mortenson via
Children heading back to school. Norma Mortenson via

Activists and parents are protesting what they see as increasing pressure on children to divulge personal information in school activities in an effort to build empathy in social-emotional learning exercises.

The latest example comes from the coast of Long Island, New York, where Shelter Island parents stormed a local school board earlier this month after an activity that crossed the line for many parents.

The activity, “Cross the Line,” asked students to respond to various prompts about their identity. Students situated themselves on either side of a line in response to the prompt, hence the name. Middle-school students were asked questions about their identity — political affiliations, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation, gender identity, and personal traumas. 

According to the Shelter Island Reporter, some were even asked whether they had been victims of sexual assault or had suicidal ideations. The Reporter says the activity’s goal was “to make students aware of differences and similarities and … to develop empathy.”

Apparently, however, empathy was not increased universally after the activity, and students were bullied based on their responses. Parents demanded resignations and asked that the “Cross the Line” exercise never be conducted again.

The district superintendent, Brian Doelger, apologized and admitted to the Reporter that there was flawed execution in the program.

“Cross the Line” is just one activity related to social-emotional learning goals, which aim to work on students’ soft skills — self-awareness, empathy, decision-making, and more. 

It’s also a fast-growing industry of curriculum sales and facilitated workshops, a market valued at about $1 billion annually, with public school districts shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars collectively for resources on SEL.

While social-emotional learning has not generated as much opposition as critical race and gender ideology, they are viewed as part and parcel by some school administrators — including the New York education department.

The state education department sees “equity” as an important part of its social-emotional learning mandate, particularly understanding the root causes and manifestations of so-called implicit bias, or judging others based on stereotypes.

“Implicit bias stands as a major obstacle to achieving equity in education, but increasing SEL competencies can help us to manage it,” a primer from the state on social-emotional learning reads. “Equity, implicit bias, CRT, and SEL are inextricably intertwined.”

One of the major parental rights activist groups, Parents Defending Education, has dedicated resources for learning about SEL and fighting what they call “transformative SEL” programs in schools.

“‘Transformative SEL’ is basically race and gender ideology embedded into what had previously been neutral student competencies,” the Parents Defending Education guide reads. 

The organization’s vice president, Asra Nomani, has called SEL a “Trojan horse” used to funnel more controversial ideas about race and gender into classrooms. It’s another flashpoint in the ongoing battle between parent activists and teachers. 

The largest teachers union in the country, the National Education Association, says SEL programs “increase student achievement” and help them develop lifelong skills.

The conflict between parents and schools on the issue will be headed to court in a new lawsuit. On Wednesday, America First Legal announced a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania school district for refusing to grant religious exemptions to SEL instruction.

The plaintiffs in the case believe the school’s SEL curriculum “conflicts with their Christian beliefs.” The school administration refused to grant the request for an exemption because the parents did not identify “specific instruction within the curriculum” that was antithetical to Christianity.

Elsewhere, the issue is being addressed by statewide policy makers. In Louisiana, the state board of education is revisiting its SEL curriculum and standards after receiving hundreds of comments opposing it, according to 

Critics allege that the current iteration would encourage conversations about gender identity in students as young as 5 years old.

In Arizona, the recently elected superintendent of public instruction has planted a firm flag in the anti-SEL camp. The superintendent, Tom Horne, canceled all seminars on social-emotional learning at a statewide teachers conference this week. He also canceled sessions on diversity and race.

Mr. Horne’s office said these programs distracted from core academics. “The presentations that were removed don’t address core academic issues such as teaching reading, science and math,” the office said in a statement.

The New York Sun

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