Separating Fact from Fiction: Common Myths Surrounding Social Emotional Learning - Stanfield


Separating Fact from Fiction: Common Myths Surrounding Social Emotional Learning

When it comes to the classroom, few concepts have garnered as much attention and controversy as Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL is not just a pedagogical buzzword; it’s a framework with the potential to transform how we understand and approach learning outcomes, behavior management, and societal development. 

As a teacher, you need to have a firm grip on what SEL is – and isn’t – so you can effectively advocate for its place in your school. In this post, we’ll explore some common myths and misconceptions about SEL – and what that implies for your classroom.

What Research Says About Social Emotional Learning

social emotional learning in the classroom

SEL programs have proven to be more than just a nice-to-have in the educational sphere. They are linked to various positive life outcomes, such as higher academic achievement, improved attitudes and behaviors, and reduced emotional distress. 

Early SEL interventions show a strong correlation with long-term benefits, too. Graduates of schools with SEL curriculum have been shown to have better chances of future employment, higher lifetime salaries, and lower rates of substance abuse and incarceration. In short, SEL equips students with the tools to succeed in and out of the classroom.

SEL encompasses a wide range of abilities, from self-awareness and self-management to social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These competencies form the foundation of a child’s ability to learn, grow, and flourish, making them just as crucial as academic skills.

But we aren’t focusing on these skills nearly enough. In fact, a report by the AEI/Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity found that, despite the undeniable importance of social emotional learning, we haven’t focused enough on developing these skills in our students.

Common Myths Surrounding SEL – Plus, the Truth

hands around a heart, fingerpainting

Ready to go down the rabbit hole? Here are some common myths and misconceptions about social emotional learning – and what the data actually says instead.

1. It’s Just About Feelings

Social emotional learning is often reduced to simply understanding and expressing emotions. Critics argue that schools are not therapy centers and that focusing on feelings detracts from academic pursuits.

In reality, SEL is much more than a feelings-fest. It involves recognizing and managing a wide spectrum of emotions, understanding how emotions affect decision-making, and even the ability to empathize with others. These skills are fundamental to overall student well-being and academic engagement.

Programs like RULER, developed at Yale University, have integrated emotion-based learning into school curriculums, demonstrating marked improvements in student interactions and classroom climate.

2. It’s Just About Behavior

There’s a misconception that SEL is solely about behavior modification. It’s seen as a program for discipline-challenged students, a one-size-fits-all strategy for improving classroom management.

SEL is actually about fostering a positive classroom environment where all students can thrive. It’s not just about correcting misbehavior; it’s about teaching the social and emotional skills that prevent negative actions in the first place.

3. SEL Isn’t as Important as “Hard Skills” 

Some stakeholders believe that SEL is secondary to academic skills, often referred to as “hard skills.”

Academic achievement and social-emotional competencies are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are interconnected. SEL helps students manage the stress of academics and equips them with the “soft skills” that are increasingly in demand by employers.

It is these skills – such as teamwork, empathy, and adaptability – that not only enhance classroom learning but are also highly sought after in today’s workforce. Google’s Project Aristotle underscores this fact, revealing that the most effective teams thrive on soft skills like emotional intelligence and communication.

4. There’s Only One Way to Teach It

There’s a common view that SEL can only be taught through set curricula and lessons, not integrated into the school environment or other subjects.

SEL can and should be integrated into every aspect of the school day. Classroom routines, informal interactions, and even math or science lessons can include SEL activities, promoting a culture of emotional intelligence and collaboration.

5. Its Results Can’t Be Measured

It is often believed that the outcomes of SEL programs are too abstract or subjective to measure accurately.

While SEL outcomes may not be as straightforward as test scores, they are quantifiable. Measures such as improved attendance rates, fewer disciplinary infractions, and self-report surveys on social and emotional competencies all contribute to a holistic assessment of an SEL program’s effectiveness.

6. Kids Need to Learn These Skills “In the Real World”

Some argue that social and emotional skills are innate or will be naturally learned through life experience.

Like other competencies, social and emotional skills need to be taught and encouraged. Explicit instruction helps students understand and practice these skills in a safe and contextually appropriate environment.

7. It Distracts from Academics 

The fear that SEL will detract from cognitive learning is unfounded. On the contrary, students with strong social-emotional skills are better able to focus on and engage with their academic work. SEL, far from being a distraction, provides the foundational support for effective learning.

8. It Will “Fix” Your Classroom Management

Here’s another dark truth: some educators believe that teaching SEL alone can solve all their classroom management problems.

While SEL can greatly enhance classroom dynamics, it isn’t a quick fix for classroom management issues. Instead, it should encourage a proactive approach to managing behaviors by addressing the underlying causes, rather than simply reacting to the symptom. 

9. It’s Only for the “Bad” Kids

One of the biggest misconceptions about SEL is that it’s designed for struggling students. In reality, every child can benefit from social-emotional learning, regardless of their academic performance or behavior. 

10. It’s Just for Elementary School

SEL is typically introduced during a child’s formative years, given the critical role it plays in emotional and social development. However, the principles of SEL are just as valid for high school and even adult learners. 

In fact, adults who missed out on SEL in their own education may find that they have much to gain from these practices. SEL is not a subject to be outgrown; rather, it should evolve to meet the changing needs of individuals at all stages of life.

Final Thoughts

two girls embracing

Social emotional learning is more than just an academic add-on – it’s a critical component that enriches just about every face to four students’ lives. By teaching social emotional skills, you can equip the young minds in your classroom with the tools they need for personal growth and academic achievement.

At the end of the day, SEL is not a one-size-fits-all solution but a dynamic framework that, when integrated into the fabric of our classrooms, can unlock unprecedented levels of engagement, understanding, and achievement. 

Do you envision a future where education transcends traditional boundaries, fostering not just academically proficient, but emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and socially responsible individuals? If so, then SEL might be just what you’ve been searching for. 

The Stanfield Way

The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.

Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.

Stanfield Special Education Curriculum

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