Selling the Christian Community on SEL (Social-Emotional Learning)

K-12 schools serve the Frozen generation, children and adolescents who have grown up with “Let It Go” as their anthem. Perhaps it is not surprising that Social-Emotional Learning has become a hot topic in education in order to support students who have spent their youth singing lyrics like, “let it go, let it go, can’t hold it back anymore.”   

Emotions are the “it” that students cannot hold back anymore. As a result, schools are increasingly teaching students how to manage their Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). The idea is to provide direct and explicit SEL instruction, in the same way that instruction is provided in math, reading, and writing. Educators no longer assume that students come to school with a skill set for regulating their emotions or social interactions.

This begs the question, what exactly is SEL? Furthermore, does SEL align with Christian values, and is it something that the faith-based community should support?

The Committee for Children is a great SEL resource and has been used as a guide for framing the contents of this article. To begin, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process by which people build skills to:

  • Understand and manage emotions
  • Set and achieve positive goals
  • Feel or demonstrate empathy for others
  • Establish and maintain positive relationships
  • Make responsible decisions

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is also research-based and built on a theoretical framework called the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. This framework identifies the following five core competencies:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Responsible decision-making
  • Relationship skills
  • Social awareness

The research also shows that school-wide SEL programs bring about a variety of positive short and long-term results for students such as:

  • Improved academic outcomes with an increase of 11-percentile-points
  • Future wellness in society: lower rates of teen pregnancy and drug use; up to 12% reduction in high school dropout rates; lower incarceration rates; increase in college degree completion; and the ability to hold a full-time job as an adult
  • Reduction of bullying in schools
  • Improvement in teacher competency and lower rates of teacher turnover
  • Fewer school office discipline referrals
  • Long-lasting benefits and positive life choices

In addition to the benefits, the Committee for Children also highlights alarming statistics that demonstrate a need for SEL such as:

  • 100% increase in suicide rates among children ages 10 to 14
  • 70% of teens self-reporting that they struggle with some aspect of mental health
  • 64% trauma rate among all students
  • 37% increase in teen depression

Overall, SEL promotes behaviors that are generally associated with a Christian lifestyle such as kindness, empathy, reaching out to those who are broken and hurting, having positive relationships, and coping with the difficulties of life in a positive way. What is missing? SEL teaches these behaviors without Jesus, the Bible, or prayer as its foundation.

A faith-based approach would clearly be prudent and preferable for Christian families. Nevertheless, with the separation of church and state in K-12 public schools, SEL is a step in the right direction. Many adults can think of a special child in their lives such as a relative, close family friend, or someone they might coach or mentor. With this special little person in mind, think about if that child would benefit from treating others with kindness and being treated with kindness. Think about if that child would enjoy a peaceful classroom where their teacher can focus on teaching and learning and not managing difficult and disruptive student behaviors. Think about if that child would appreciate coming to a school that values strong and healthy relationships. The answers here are yes and amen.

What the research does not show is whether or not SEL makes students more open to accepting Jesus Christ as their personal savior. I like to think that if such a study were conducted, the results would overwhelmingly show that learning to treat others with kindness opens up one’s heart to receive the love of Jesus. Hearts would become “unfrozen” and “let it go” would also mean surrendering to the great I Am. The moral of this story: the Christian community can feel good about being “sold” on SEL and supporting this important work in our K-12 public schools.