Most parents want their children to be happy, healthy, and good people.

So, when parents hear schools say they use an interpersonal skill-building process called Social Emotional Learning for their students, it raises little concern. But now, we are seeing SEL being used to hide the tenets of critical race theory and other controversial ideas. 

The largest organization in SEL training, Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), defines Social Emotional Learning as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

The tenets of Social Emotional Learning are something most people experience while growing up, such as learning a new skill or how to deal with stress.

It boils down to the idea that schools are helping students learn to deal with emotions and how to treat others because some students are coming to school without those skills.

At the same time, however, CASEL has introduced a program to collect data on students’ emotions and well-being. The data is being used to gauge how students handle their feelings, emotions, and thought processes.

Districts in Texas that are working closely with CASEL include Austin ISD, Dallas ISD, and El Paso ISD. Even school districts not listed as partners use their training. Some districts have been using SEL for years. However, if you go deeper into CASEL’s website, you will find the explanation of something called “Transformative SELs.” 

This form of SEL is aimed at redistributing power to promote social justice through increased engagement in school and civic life. It emphasizes the development of identity, agency, belonging, curiosity, and collaborative problem solving within the CASEL framework.

“SEL teaches children the lessons they need to understand and practice racial equity. Social emotional learning starts with bringing an end to racism and injustice,” says Empowering Education—an organization that “enables learning by contributing to the social & emotional wellness of students, families, and educators”—when describing how SEL goes hand in hand with racial equity. 

One example of “transforming” SELs affecting the classroom comes from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A teacher, who wishes to stay anonymous, was told to take down a “not equal” sign in a non-math class.

The sign was being used to demonstrate a contrast between two different concepts, but the teacher was told that it was a racist symbol and was instructed to remove the sign.

Many school districts have departments or committees with names like “equity department” or “diversity committee.” One example comes from Grapevine-Colleyville ISD in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, where the “diversity advisory committee” states one of their responsibilities is to “promote diversity and inclusion by suggesting strategies, activities, and educational resources.”

Districts across Texas are spending money on curriculum to teach SEL in the classroom. An invoice obtained by Texas Scorecard from Grapevine-Colleyville ISD shows that one curriculum, Character Strong, cost taxpayers more than $10,000.

In August of 2020, Character Strong partnered with educator Erin Jones “to bring … a series of courses designed to help you and your staff develop an equity lens.”

Why are districts starting to move to social emotional learning? The answer lies in the Texas Education Code, which requires schools to teach positive character traits. While the traits that are required do not fall under the critical race theory or social emotional learning, school districts are using this requirement to justify programs that promote equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Concerned parents may look at their child’s assignments and ask teachers and librarians how they are teaching SEL in their school.

Tera Collum

Tera Collum has 13 years experience as a government and economics teacher in Texas public schools. She recently was the director of The Travis Institute of Educational Policy and Teachers for Texas.