Dear Leaders: SEL Matters. A Lot.

Dear Leaders: SEL Actually Matters. A Lot.

Emotions are running high across American public education in 2022. Pundits set on stoking the country’s divides are calling it a culture war. What’s clear is that whether it’s about kids wearing masks, mass shooter drills, or the content of textbooks, parents and politicians across the country are making their voices heard louder than ever. Take what just happened in Florida where the state’s Department of Education rejected 41% of their textbooks because of violations of Florida’s Benchmarks for Excellent Student Thinking (B.E.S.T.) Standards. These “standards” include a complete rejection of Social Emotional Learning (SEL).

Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran said Florida should “reinforce parents’ rights by focusing on providing their children with a world-class education without the fear of indoctrination or exposure to dangerous and divisive concepts in our classrooms,” by keeping out unsolicited strategies such as SEL.

Every parent wants a world-class education for their child. But is SEL dangerous? Hardly.

There are many things wrong with our school system. As a parent of three school-age kids, I see it every day. Funding cuts mean fewer resources and more stress for teachers. Learning loss from pandemic closures echoes into the present day. The new math is weird! But whatever side you stand on in the culture debate, SEL should be something we can all agree on.

There are many misconceptions about what SEL is (and isn’t). In a nutshell, SEL helps students develop five key skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These skills empower students to express and manage their emotions, set goals (and achieve them), build meaningful relationships with others, and help them stay more engaged in school.

Governor DeSantis did a great job at explaining what SEL isn’t – SEL isn’t replacing facts with “how you feel about [a math] problem.” Florida’s rejection of these math textbooks was, at least in part, a bad faith effort in linking SEL to CRT, commonly understood to mean “Critical Race Theory,” a term that has become a shorthand for any discussion of race in the classroom. Whatever your feelings on CRT, SEL is not the same.

The truth is, SEL stands on its own as a proven method for making kids happier and more successful. Incorporating SEL across all subject areas, including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), is not only essential for students’ intellectual growth, but also for the future of our society. For example, at Empatico, our Coding with Empathy Challenge program (in partnership with,) invites middle-school students to leverage coding skills in combination with SEL skills to solve an actual issue in their community. When empathetic problem-solvers begin by recognizing our shared humanity they’re able to consider how those problems can be seen from different points of view. They can identify potential biases around them and question how their unique perspective might influence the outcome of a problem differently than another student. Empathetic problem-solvers see the world through a wider lens, and are more apt to design solutions with those impacted by the problem in mind.

We at Empatico know that the children of today are the future leaders and problem-solvers of tomorrow. And they’ll have big problems to tackle: climate change, managing new technologies, and global discord, among many others. The fate of our society is in the hands of the youth in classrooms right now, in every community from Miami to Anchorage (and beyond.) And no matter who they are or what state they live in, these young minds must be provided with the support and guidance to learn how to communicate by talking and listening and working together in teams, knowing the diversity of their backgrounds and perspectives is their strength. 

If our schools are supposed to build the future leaders of our communities, then we need our local leaders to enact policies that encourage a future generation of curious, more understanding, empathetic learners. By teaching the skills that are necessary for us to unite, we are enabling the development of future leaders who can help us achieve a just and free society.

There’s no denying that we’re living in a world that’s increasingly divided, and the need for bridge-building is more important than ever before. Some of our leaders are failing us when they twist methodologies and frameworks like SEL that are meant to unite us into boogymen that scare busy, hard-working parents into thinking that every subject in school is going to be just as confusing and alienating as new math. Parents: It is weird, right?!

Efforts to remove SEL from the classroom hinder educators’ ability to provide a meaningful learning experience for their students. We at Empatico stand with the educators that work tirelessly every day to find creative solutions to create a more compassionate, empathetic society.

Ryan Modjeski

Executive Director, Empatico

Simple Ways Teachers Can Infuse SEL into the Classroom

  • Reading: When reading a book during class, invite students to use design thinking to address a problem that a character is experiencing, and use perspective-taking to understand their actions and behavior in a certain situation. Additionally, explore different cultures through reading texts written by authors from diverse backgrounds (example activity).
  • Project-Based Learning: Incorporate project-based learning so students can learn to work together to apply different cross-curricular skills towards solving a real-world problem (example activity).
  • Writing/Literacy: Practice writing skills by having students keep gratitude journals (example activity) or write a letter to their future selves (example activity).
  • STEAM: During the beginning of the school year, facilitate student introductions and strengthen your classroom culture by creating and displaying students’ self-portraits to help them explore each other’s identity (example activity), or use programming to create an interactive “About Me” poster to share about themselves (example activity).
  • Science/Math: Encourage students to foster a growth mindset by learning from their mistakes and approaching problems from different angles (e.g., during math and science class).