Misconceptions about Social and Emotional Learning – Misconception Five

Misconception #5: “Social Emotional Learning Makes All Kids the Same”

This post is the sixth in a series about misconceptions we often hear about social emotional learning (SEL). In each post, we will tackle a common misunderstanding about SEL and attempt to clarify some misconceptions. In this post, we will discuss the belief that social emotional learning erases students’ individuality.

One criticism of SEL that we have encountered is that it turns (or attempts to turn) students into automatons – that is, that SEL programming will make all students the same and erase their individuality. We don’t want to put children through curricula that will fundamentally change who they are or turn them into a carbon copy of their classmates. Fortunately, neither of these outcomes is the true goal of SEL programming.

The true goal of SEL programming, much like traditional academic programming like English and math, is to give students the skills they need in order to be successful in school and in life.  SEL programming just happens to focus on a different set of skills: things like teamwork, organizational skills, and managing stress. Also like traditional teaching, we hope that students will see value in the skills they are being taught, but we don’t expect them to be extremely enthusiastic about all of the skills or to engage in certain skills when they are not required or on their own time.

To illustrate, I’ll pick on math as the prototypical example (in spite of the fact that I am a former mathlete). Students need to learn at least a basic amount of math skills to be successful in secondary, postsecondary, and work contexts. We hope that through the course of the instruction, they learn to see its value and appreciate it, but we don’t expect math to be every student’s favorite subject. In the SEL context, we know that students need to (for example) be able to work effectively as part of a team or on a group project in order to succeed in school and, later, at work. Effectively working with others is a pretty fundamental skill. However, we don’t expect to turn introverts into social butterflies; rather, we just want to give them the skills they need to be successful in group situations when necessary.

This example also shows how SE skills are fairly narrow in focus, as compared to the broad character traits that make up a person. We’re really talking about the capability a student has to perform a skill or behavior, rather than a broader tendency or preference to behave in certain ways. This narrower definition of what constitutes an SE skill has a couple of advantages. One is that it is easier to measure and observe more specific instances of a behavior than it is to try to capture how someone typically behaves over a long period of time and in different contexts. Another is that it is easier to intervene and help students improve on these skills when they are more narrowly defined (and as we know, SE skills can be taught). For example, trying to tell a student to just be more organized, dependable, and diligent is not very helpful because it does not tell the student what they are supposed to do in order to improve on these skills. Giving a student programming on specific methods of organizing notes, noting due dates in a planner to keep track of their assignments, and teaching them how to break work into manageable chunks is much more effective in terms of helping them improve their SE skills and success in school. This approach to identifying narrow skills that are easier to observe and improve is informed by ACT’s Holistic Framework, which contains hierarchies of knowledge and skills that students need to be successful in school and in their future career.

This post marks the end of our series on correcting common misconceptions about SEL. Hopefully, we have eased some concerns in those of you who are interested in SEL. At ACT, we take a formative approach to SEL, which includes the ACT® Tessera®assessment and ACT® Mawi Learning™ curriculum. If you would like to know more about ACT’s approach to SEL, please contact us and one of our SEL consultants will be in touch.

Jason Way, PhD

Jason Way, PhD

Jason Way is a senior research psychologist in the Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. His research focuses on the assessment of the social and emotional skills that impact important academic and work outcomes.