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The Dangers of a Sentimental Education

The push for social-emotional learning brings managerial nihilism and corporate profiteering into the classroom under the cover of helping kids

Jasmine Hu Hollingshead
February 16, 2023
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman

In an elementary school textbook, a math problem is framed by the cryptic question, “How can you understand your feelings?” Another asks students to write “math biographies” to soothe “math anxiety.” Controversy erupted last April when this textbook and 19 others were excluded from the Florida Department of Education’s recommendations. Amid ongoing furor over the role of race and sexuality in America’s classrooms, Florida cited an obscure justification: “the unsolicited addition of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in mathematics.”

But what exactly is social-emotional learning? Proponents claim that it is a pedagogical method that fosters social and emotional skills, but finding a real answer requires a Dante-esque descent into an inferno of impenetrable jargon. A leading SEL organization, the Collaborative for Advancing Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), touts “evidence-based best practices” for making “framework connections” and claims “the story of SEL is as old as the first relationships between teachers and students.” In reality, however, the organized movement pushing for nationwide SEL only emerged after the passage of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law that allows states to use one nonacademic measure for accountability alongside the preexisting standardized tests routinely given to students. In contrast to earlier quantitative testing-based reform, SEL calls for the incorporation of nonacademic “soft skills” like empathy and emotional management into traditional classroom instruction.

Today, SEL is emerging as a lightning rod in the culture wars over school curriculum. Progressives uphold it as an unobjectionable method for building emotional self-regulation in students, something not just benign but potentially lifesaving in the face of rising teen suicide rates. But conservatives reject those claims and argue that SEL smuggles ideological indoctrination into classrooms, serving as a gateway to critical race theory or boutique gender ideology.

Conservatives are right to distrust SEL. However, SEL is not indoctrination, but something worse: the nihilism of managerial logic, which finds therapeutic platitudes more convenient and lucrative than ideological fervor. Under the guise of empathy and well-being, SEL enables the endless expansion of a bureaucracy of mental health and big data specialists, who profit off of America’s schoolchildren. Paralleling the recent trend toward the mindful corporate workplace, SEL is the public school equivalent of Amazon’s “data management” of its warehouse employees, who are offered meditation booths to offset the stress of being increasingly monitored and monetized.

SEL’s immediate aim is not to politicize classrooms. While ideologically loaded terms like equity and social justice flit in on occasion, most curricula don’t focus on race or gender. To be sure, as far as its actual educational content, SEL doesn’t focus much on anything. Programs span a panoply of buzzword-rich subjects: safety, teamwork, identity, self-esteem, anti-bullying, anti-harassment, kindness. One curriculum’s video module encourages students to “inhabit a growth mindset” by “drawing angry lines.” A set of digital lessons is both “trauma-informed” and “music-based”; another app claims an “innovative way” to teach children about “appropriate levels of touch.” If teachers are feeling left out, there’s even Adult SEL for educators to practice “self-care.”

For all the diversity of topics, materials largely consist of slideshows, video modules, and activity sheets. If the medium is the message, the message of SEL is not mental well-being, but something akin to mandatory corporate compliance training. The simplest act is often tortured into a litany of tedious technical concepts. A textbook discarded by Florida explains a basic counting exercise: “Students build proficiency with social awareness as they practice empathizing with their classmates.” What isn’t robotic is cloying (children are instructed to say “thank you for filling my bucket”) or obvious (materials trumpet the benefits of cooperative work).

While a basic familiarity with children might lead one to question how any of this helps kids regulate emotions better than story time or recess, SEL advocates insist that their method is backed by science. But the blizzard of efficacy statistics proffered by advocates don’t hold up to scrutiny. CASEL’s most-cited claim of SEL producing an “11 point increase in academic achievement” comes from a meta-analysis that aggregates educational studies conducted from 1970-2007 featuring the words “social,” “emotional,” and “learning,” cherry-picked on the basis of vague criteria; the results aren’t replicated by a later meta-analysis. That “11 point increase,” however, now justifies a profusion of SEL “solutions” that bear no resemblance to the in-school programs analyzed, from mindfulness apps to a 3D printing pen.

Further, far less consensus surrounds SEL than supporters suggest. It has been criticized by education specialists for being unrigorous and rooted in the “faux psychology” of the self-esteem movement. In condemning SEL’s “unexamined rise,” Robert Pondiscio writes that “ideas and techniques borrowed from popular psychology have aggressively inserted themselves into classroom practice.” Additionally, some teachers anonymously complain that SEL asks them to take on the role of provisional therapists for which they have no training. “Every day I had to organize for my SEL advisory class, which I had no qualifications for, and took a lot of time away from my real job teaching math,” one former New York City public school teacher told Tablet. “Wouldn’t it be better if I had put that time into being the best math teacher?”

Perhaps taking time away from core skills like math to focus on emotional learning could be justified if it indeed resulted in happier and more resilient young people. But some teachers believe that, by priming students to be overly conscious of mental health concepts, SEL can in fact worsen emotional well-being and encourage its leverage as an excuse. “If you look at a kid as broken, they will break,” one teacher says. “By constantly talking to kids about anxiety, are we just making them more anxious?”

And yet despite scant evidence that SEL improves academic performance—and indeed some evidence that SEL may make students’ mental health worse—efforts to expand its programs are winning. All 50 states currently have SEL standards in preschool, and more than half have standards in K-12. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly the harm done to students by extended school shutdowns, have increased demand for mental health resources. From November 2019 to April 2021, SEL spending grew by 45% to $765 million. Today, it is a multi-billion dollar industry, well-poised for future growth.

SEL is not indoctrination but something worse: the nihilism of managerial logic, which finds therapeutic platitudes more convenient and profitable than ideological fervor.

This recent ascendancy is no coincidence. Disbursement of COVID-19 federal aid has ripened public schools for plunder. Companies scramble for a piece of the $122 billion of the American Rescue Plan that Congress allocated to K-12 education, as well as the $300 million mental health plan unveiled last October. Education management consultant Tyton reports with the refreshing candor of the for-profit sector, “The SEL ecosystem today is flush with dollars from grant funding and federal stimulus programs.” (Tyton warns, however, that “long-term sustainability is far from guaranteed” and recommends “pursuing embedded SEL programs and practices” interwoven with “core curriculum, general professional development, and other staples of school operations.”)

This wave of funding has created an expansive SEL bureaucracy located in a twilight zone between private industry, nonprofit organizations, local school districts, and the federal government. CASEL, for example, is partnered with Allstate’s nonprofit spin-off, the Allstate Foundation (which also partners with the educational DEI nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves, whose board cross-pollinates with Allstate’s corporate PR branch). Though brochures feature stock photos of smiling teachers and students, their real target is administrators and superintendents. CASEL’s promotional materials are written in acronym-studded corporatese: Students become “learners,” friendship becomes “team building,” education a “school career,” and teaching “classroom management.”

For these vested interests, SEL’s vagueness is a convenient feature, not a bug. It makes for a neat label for profiteers to consolidate disparate interests in funding applications. One seemingly benign concept conceals endless appendages: the curriculum providers, data collection and assessment services, technology and telehealth services, training and credentialing programs, and corporate-academic research collaboratives. This dense canopy siphons funding while the intended recipients, the nation’s classrooms, languish on the forest floor.

Since the industry leads its own credentialing and assessments, anything SEL-related easily validates and perpetuates itself. Take restorative justice, a recent trend often intertwined with SEL. Conceived by psychology and criminology academics, it advocates for justice reform through nonpunitive measures like circles, in which offenders meet and speak with their victims and broader community. Through a fuzzy equivalence between “prison” and “suspension,” education reformers have in recent years encouraged schools to adopt restorative practices. Despite their enthusiasm, research on educational restorative justice’s efficacy remains scant. Only one comprehensive study exists, which found that restorative circles led to the Pyrrhic victory of slightly lowered suspensions alongside slightly lowered math scores.

Lack of rigor extends to the credentials that certify new SEL administrators. Restorative Justice Education (RJE), for example, is a nonprofit organization that trains prospective restorative facilitators. Like many similar credentialing programs, RJE’s training, which costs $950, is completely virtual and self-paced. Participants aren’t asked to lead a restorative circle before becoming “Certified Specialists in Creating a Culture of Care in Schools.” RJE’s online FAQ asks, “Where can I find research on the effectiveness of Restorative Practices?” The answer links to a bizarre Google document that recounts not robust statistics but its founder’s various Maori colleagues and conference presentations.

Meanwhile, restorative justice practices have grown dramatically in schools across the nation. Administrators boast of lowered suspension rates while teachers on the front lines are regularly cursed at and assaulted. Bans on punishment tie their hands; some resort to wearing padded bike suits to protect themselves from student beatings. As Jeremy Adams, a California public school teacher and the author of Hollowed Out writes, “Many teachers feel that they are being held hostage to an ideological experiment that harms them and their ability to teach, that harms innocent students who are trying to learn, and that in the end harms the very people it is meant to help by not holding them accountable.”

SEL’s technological emphasis also provides ample opportunity for growing e-learning and digital health industries. Though reports detail the record learning loss that resulted from remote schooling, digital specialists and advocacy groups still push virtual content by engineering false needs. The nonprofit Common Sense Education loftily touts the benefits of “digital citizenship in a connected world” while selling gaudy apps that charge subscription fees. Most top SEL programs now offer entirely virtual options consisting of games and videos, removing any socialization from social-emotional learning. It’s darkly ironic that, after a year of remote or masked instruction, kids are being instructed to recognize facial expressions through online exercises.

The long-term incorporation of virtual content bodes poorly for the future of public education. Peddled to teachers as a sophisticated solution to time-strapped curricular demands and bulging classrooms, digital platforms and classroom management technologies threaten to supplant traditional instruction. As curricula are increasingly automated and parceled out to e-learning providers, teaching will become little more than the pushing of buttons.

And while online exercises are unlikely to improve students’ social or emotional skills, they do feed a secondary market for technological and medical data collection. SEL assessment services like Centervention boast of “high fidelity early intervention data’' gathered through “gamified point systems’' and “daily emotion check-ins.” They even collect “unobtrusive measures,” like the time taken for any action, or the order in which tasks are completed. Educators can “automatically track and monitor progress” to target students who need more “intensive intervention” in the form of more profit-seeking initiatives. More data allows administrators to show off statistics and bolster bureaucrats’ claims of “impact.” Students are not beneficiaries, but the captive base fueling a data economy.

Apart from a therapeutic bureaucracy’s endless push for expansion, at the heart of SEL is a set of false premises about what constitutes emotional well-being and how it is acquired. Contrary to the claims of new specialists, social and emotional skills are not acquired as cognitive concepts. We don’t study for them as we might a test. They are acculturated-modeled by those we love or respect, developed through competition or play with peers. When we recall the sagest advice we’ve been given, we likely think as much of the advice-giver as the advice itself. Calm can be found in contemplating beauty, after vigorous exercise, or through tapping into one’s inner resilience. Such epiphanies make no sense as a technical discipline delivered by PowerPoint, but should naturally flow from a learning process that endows students with the competence that fosters true emotional strength.

SEL’s mindless approach to mindfulness is part of a larger educational trend toward hollow technocratic solutionism. The bipartisan standardized testing movement that preceded SEL, including the Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act and the Obama-era Common Core overhaul of education, imported the business model of management science, which emphasized measurable results. Standardized testing provided a uniform measure of progress across schools, while teachers were analogous to employees, overseen by their manager-administrators. And as Common Core advocate and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it, the student is the “product,” standardized for the efficiency of the eventual modern workplace.

This results-based reform resulted in little more than an empty, nonintuitive curriculum. The much-derided Common Core mathematics standard, replete with “number lines” and “number sentences,” deadened the electric thrill of sudden insight. The humanities fared no better. Prioritized over fiction and history were nonfiction informational texts, tailored to testing for content comprehension. The ideal “product” molded by this education was a worker in a knowledge economy, an “effective relayer of information.”

Small wonder the young people affected by testing-based reform are so depressed, aimless, and anxious. Their schooling deprived them of meaningful knowledge while inundating them with pedantic busywork. Neglected by moral authority and cut off from deeper historical awareness, they are extra-dependent on institutional shelter and the certitude afforded by strident narratives of power and privilege.

Indeed, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act that precipitated the surge in SEL was meant to amend the failures of standards-based reform. A shift to soft skills was attractive to both teachers beleaguered by punitive testing demands and administrators looking to boost flagging scores. Reformers soon clamored that focusing on social-emotional development, not test scores, would produce “better outcomes.”

But by adopting the unquantifiable as a method of quantification, the very soft skills that were originally not measured by tests became subject to standardization and assessment. Test-based reform’s banal utilitarianism has ceded to something even more hollow and less sensible. What is instinctive or obvious is rebranded into a top-down discipline owned by experts. Everyday concepts like grit are “discovered” by pioneering Ph.D.s. The teacher is divested of her moral authority, transformed from role model into lackey who “delivers” content, standardized for assessment measures. Instead of number lines for math, SEL offers number lines for emotions.

Current conservative attempts to treat SEL as merely an offshoot of the “woke” DEI industry are misguided, and neglect its insidious adaptability. Legislation like Florida’s Stop Woke Act, which prohibits classroom discussion of race or sexuality, is not a solution. It limits free speech, and further evacuates history. Initiatives like SEL are hydras and will reshape themselves to survive. (Coalitions defending SEL against “politicization,” initiated by CASEL, have already formed.) There is simply too much money at stake.

America’s schoolchildren deserve more than corporate simulations of empathy. The solution to a youth mental health crisis cannot be outsourced to experts of dubious quality. But SEL bureaucrats won’t check themselves. Their revenue stream depends on it.

Jasmine Hu Hollingshead is a writer in Virginia. More of her writing can be found at