What is "social emotional learning" — and how did it become the right's new CRT panic?

Right-wing culture warriors' new obsession: Widespread "life skills" approach is actually sinister "Trojan horse"

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published April 22, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Students sitting in a classroom and raising hands (Getty Images / skynesher)
Students sitting in a classroom and raising hands (Getty Images / skynesher)

Last Friday, Florida's Department of Education — which, along with Gov. Ron DeSantis, has been setting the agenda for conservative attacks on education for the last two years — announced that it had rejected 41 percent of the math textbooks proposed by the state's schools. Why? Supposedly the books contained "impermissible" material related to critical race theory (CRT), Common Core and "social emotional learning."  

In the department's press release, Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran, a longtime warrior against public education, described the move as a continuation of the state's commitment to "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." DeSantis himself suggested the textbooks contained "indoctrinating concepts like race essentialism," and praised Corcoran for having "conducted such a thorough vetting" of the books to make sure they complied with Florida's recent ban on CRT. 

On its face, this news seemed absurd — CRT in math curriculum? — but it reflects a new right-wing narrative, piloted last year but growing increasingly loud in recent weeks, to cast social emotional learning (SEL) as the "new CRT." If you've heard conservatives warning recently about "data mining" in public schools, complaining that American kids were being turned into a neo-Maoist "Red Guard" or using baffling language like "suicide grooming," that's about SEL. While SEL itself is a decades-old field focused on incorporating life-coping skills into classrooms, according to its critics it's "quack psychology," "occult" totalitarianism or a "Trojan horse" that uses the edifice of well-being to conceal the agendas of the World Economic Forum, the United Nations, the LGBTQ "lobby" and, of course, CRT.

"CRT is the theory, SEL is the delivery system," proclaimed one recently-formed activist group last week. "Let's make 2022 the year to SEL what 2021 was to CRT."

RELATED: How this tiny Christian college is driving the right's nationwide war against public schools

This may sound silly but on the right, it's working. In Wisconsin, Republicans proposed a bill to outlaw SEL, and similar efforts are being considered in Indiana, Oklahoma and Virginia. In Idaho, the state Department of Education announced it was dropping the label of "social emotional learning" even as it would continue to use its substance, because of how toxic the term had become. In Georgia last week, conservatives running for offices from state superintendent to U.S. Congress to governor have all adopted anti-SEL language in their platforms, with Republican gubernatorial candidate Kandiss Taylor (campaign slogan: "Jesus, Guns, Babies") tweeting, "Critical Race Theory, Social Emotional Learning, & Comprehensive Sex Education have no place in public education." 

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At its most basic level, SEL is an updated form of the "life skills" that have been part of education for decades, whether in designated class time or integrated into routine coursework. The framework was developed in the 1990s, largely led by the nonprofit group Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), as an attempt to address "the whole child." It focuses on five "core competencies" — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making — that mostly boil down to helping students understand and regulate their emotions, cooperate with classmates and be more empathetic. 

Sometimes SEL looks like a start-of-the-day check-in for students in homeroom. Sometimes it's the unspoken aspect of having students work in teams. Sometimes it's urging kids to collect themselves when they're angry. 

"It can take a lot of different forms, but generally it involves a focus on building positive relationships among students and adults and involves having dedicated time to learn and practice social and emotional skills like goal-setting or perspective-taking," said Justina Schlund, CASEL's director of content and field training. "In some respects, the concepts of SEL have been around since the first educators were teaching students in classrooms, because they understood intuitively that education isn't about dumping information into children's minds but engaging them socially, emotionally, cognitively, so they're able to connect with the academic content and develop into successful, happy and healthy adults."

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Dozens of states have established standards of guidelines for their schools to implement SEL programs, a list of which CASEL curates although it doesn't develop curricula itself. In March, Congress increased funding for SEL initiatives significantly: a sign that until very recently, the field has enjoyed broad bipartisan support. In 2019 alone, more than 200 bills related to SEL were introduced around the country. 

That spike was largely a result of the tragic Parkland school shooting in Broward County, Florida, the year before. In the aftermath of the massacre, groups from the American Psychological Association to the Aspen Institute to Betsy DeVos' Department of Education promoted SEL as an intervention for students dealing with trauma and young people at risk of suicide, and also as a preventative measure that might head off school shootings in the future. That became such a dominant theme that some argued SEL was being used to avoid taking action on gun control. 

"Out of the Parkland shooting, we got a lot of legislation that talked about social and emotional learning and cultural competency, meaning more mental health services in our schools," said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest education workers' union. "I think a lot of it was in response to not having to deal with gun legislation, [to say] that this was a social emotional, cultural competence and mental health issue instead." 

Now, said Spar, "you're seeing the opposite of that, where they're saying, 'Don't touch cultural competence!'" 

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While the news from Florida has brought new attention to SEL, conservative activists have been cultivating opposition to it for several years. 

In 2019, the right-wing think tank Pioneer Institute released a brief charging that SEL "represents progressive education's greatest victory in its 100-plus-year campaign to transform our public schools, and thus, the nature of America itself." In part, Pioneer's complaint was that SEL allowed the government to inculcate "approved mindsets" in children, although at the same time, it lamented that SEL had replaced "Judeo-Christian religion code" in public schools, wherein teachers had long been designated as "moral educators," with a more vacuous framework of "character education." 

In 2019, a right-wing think tank suggested that SEL was "progressive education's greatest victory," and allowed the government to inculcate "approved mindsets" in children.

The same year, writing in the National Review, conservative researcher Max Eden, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, echoed the complaint, suggesting that SEL was a poor substitute for old-fashioned virtue instruction, stressing "value-neutral methodological 'competencies' while remaining outwardly agnostic about the particular or universal good toward which those competencies are directed." It was also possible, he suggested, that progressive ideology would fill that vacuum, rendering SEL a "Trojan horse for delivering" left-wing ideology into elementary schools.

At that time, Eden, then at the Manhattan Institute, was in the midst of promoting a book he'd written the previous year with the father of a Parkland victim. The gist of the book — and the ugly 2018 Broward County school board fight that Eden helped inspire — was that the shooting wasn't the result of lax gun laws but rather of an Obama administration policy urging schools to reduce racial disparities in school discipline, as a means of addressing the "school-to-prison pipeline." In many ways, Eden's 2018 crusade against efforts to address racism in school discipline served as a dress rehearsal for the CRT fight, in the sense that it tapped into right-wing racial grievances in order to advance conservative educational priorities. In 2020, through one of Eden's successors at the Manhattan Institute, Chris Rufo, that playbook went pro, launching a nationwide moral panic around CRT. Today, the terms of the fight are shifting again. 

Two Utah mothers got their district to drop an SEL curriculum by objecting to the program's call for students to "disrupt" bullying. They associated that term with Black Lives Matter and antifa.

In late March, Laura Meckler reported at the Washington Post that numerous states were witnessing new challenges to SEL, which conservative activists were now calling "the latest child-indoctrination scheme." In Indiana, one parents' group warned that the "mindfulness" language many SEL programs used was rooted in Buddhism, not Christianity. In Utah, two mothers successfully got their district to drop an SEL curriculum after they wrote a 25-page list of objections to its content. One such objection was that the program called for students to "disrupt" bullying, a term the pair associated with Black Lives Matter and antifa.

Last May, Florida's Richard Corcoran telegraphed his plans to reject textbooks in a speech at Michigan's Hillsdale College, which, as Salon reported in an investigative series this March, has become the unlikely center of the right's fight against public education. In his talk — which more broadly described a plan to collapse public education through attrition — Corcoran described SEL as a devious means that education curriculum publishers (a profession "just infested with liberals") use to disguise CRT. 

RELATED: The guy who brought us CRT panic offers a new far-right agenda: Destroy public education

While CASEL's Schlund said that widespread mental health issues amid the pandemic, including rising rates of youth suicide, have led to a dramatic increase in demand for SEL resources, at the same time, political polarization has made SEL a target. Sometimes critics argue that SEL reduces valuable instruction time for core subjects. Sometimes they say SEL was once acceptable, but has now been co-opted by progressive ideologues.

In part, that reflects changes in SEL since around 2018, after progressive critiques that SEL programs weren't addressing the reality that many students' social-emotional realities are directly impacted by racism. CASEL responded by discussing a new form of the field: Transformative SEL, which suggests that social emotional learning might serve "as a lever for equity" by including references to the ethical implications of decision-making, "distributive justice" and "collective well-being." This version of SEL, says CASEL, is just one among many schools can choose from. But recently, it's become the way conservatives characterize the field as a whole. 

If the campaign against SEL began to ramp up last year, in the last couple of months, it's taken off with a vengeance. In early April, the National Review published an essay warning conservative parents who'd been alerted to the CRT threat that "a broader suite of radical ideas, couched in therapeutic language, is quietly being advanced under the banner of SEL," exemplified by lessons urging middle schoolers to intervene in situations where classmates are being bullied for their perceived sexuality. 

Last week, the National Association of Scholars, a conservative education reform nonprofit whose board features such right-wing notables as Ginni Thomas, released a brief warning that SEL had undergone "ideological drift" and calling for recruits to join their new network of state activist organizations to fight its spread. 

This issue is increasingly showing up in politics at all levels. In late March, Ivy Liu, a Colorado Springs-area school board member elected in 2021 as part of a conservative sweep of the board — or rather, a further-right takeover, since that city is already so conservative it has been called "the evangelical Vatican" and its school district was the first in the state to ban CRT last year — pressed her colleagues to ban SEL as well. Citing a 45-page document a local parent had compiled about SEL in general and CASEL in particular, Liu charged that SEL was intended to "turn out social justice warriors" and that its use of words like "collective" indicated a plan to instruct children in socialism. 

At a subsequent meeting last week, reported Heidi Beedle at the Colorado Times Recorder, tensions around the SEL debate became so pronounced that the board chair read aloud threatening letters that members had received around the topic. One letter, notably sent even to one of the newly-elected conservatives, complained of "SEL and more SEL," warning the new member, "we can take you out if you screw with our kids." 

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As the anti-SEL campaign has expanded, the charges against the field have also grown, sometimes to cartoonish extremes. A key exemplar of that trend is James Lindsay, the right-wing activist whom Chris Rufo credited with laying the intellectual groundwork for the CRT fight he went on to popularize. 

James Lindsay has described SEL as "so much worse" than a "gateway" for CRT. It's also, he claims, "psychological abuse, data mining, and the cult grooming technique for American Maoism."  

In January, Lindsay designated SEL as the movement's new target, tweeting, "If the fight against CRT in schools burns with the heat of the sun, the fight against SEL needs to burn with the heat of a thousand suns." Last week, he upped the ante, writing, "However mad you are about Critical Race Theory in our schools, you should be a solid 10-20x madder about Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). Honestly, if you understood it, you'd be at least as mad about it as you are about the grooming. It's how the grooming works." 

In the last few weeks, Lindsay has described SEL as "so much worse" than just "a gateway for CRT concepts." It's also, he charged, "psychological abuse, data mining, and the cult grooming technique for American Maoism." He's described the field variously as "a brainwashing tool" and "a hypodermic needle for injecting" CRT, gender theory and "a psychological immune suppressant into your children." He has repeatedly called for its criminalization, suggesting a "Nuremberg 2.0" tribunal that would imprison "SEL facilitators for at-scale child abuse" and charge educators who use it with felonies "and, where the bigger purpose of its use is known, sedition." "Unlike the purveyors of CRT, who merely deserve to be fired," he wrote, "those implementing SEL belong in prison for the rest of their miserable lives." 

In a remarkable new extension of the right's recent adoption of "groomer" as a slur to denounce both LGBTQ people and those who oppose legislation like Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law, Lindsay also charged that SEL programs tied to student suicide prevention amount to "suicide grooming of children" that merits a "life sentence." As outlandish as it seems, that has been echoed by other right-wing activists. As Tyler Kingkade and Mike Hixenbaugh reported at NBC News last fall, parent activists have accused SEL programs of "advertising suicide" to students by having counselors deliver suicide prevention presentations to schools, and the group No Left Turn in Education had similarly tied SEL to "grooming." 

Behind all this vitriol is a movement that's increasingly well-organized. 

Parents Defending Education, a Koch-connected group founded in 2021 that played a significant role in boosting Glenn Youngkin's successful gubernatorial race in Virginia, has become a prominent anti-SEL voice. Last fall, its vice president, Asra Nomani, a former journalist (who once wrote for Salon), helped launch a conservative narrative that SEL student surveys — which largely focus on questions of personal well-being but often seek demographic information and ask whether students feel accepted or discriminated against — was a scandalous plot to "data mine" American children in order to create psychological profiles and "give activist school boards cover to infuse curricula with divisive ideology." 

The claims came amid Attorney General Merrick Garland's first testimony to the House Judiciary Committee, as conservatives argued that an education consultancy group for which his son-in-law once worked, Panorama Education Inc., was somehow part of a larger plan to cast protesting conservative parents as domestic terrorists. But while the Garland accusations faded, the charges of student data-mining have only grown. 

Online, conservative speculation about the true purpose of student surveys and SEL has run wild. One blogger who writes under the pseudonym "Undercover Mother" charged that "CASEL uses data taken from our children" to refine its efforts to "'cultivate anti-racist mindsets' and achieve 'equitable' outcomes." Urging parents to collect copies of any surveys their schools administer, she warned, "Do not let your children have sessions with school SEL administrators … They will groom your children against you."  

Activist Jennifer McWilliams suggests SEL may be used to establish a "social credit system" that tracks students into adulthood and measures employability "through a woke lens."

One advocacy group that appears to have been founded within the last month, Courage Is a Habit, is promoting a "guide to defending your child" which offers 10 questions parents should use to confront local school administrators. Among an otherwise predictable list of queries about bathrooms, pronouns, sex-ed and racism, the group's first question is whether a school district uses "in-class surveys to collect data on students." 

Another activist, Jennifer McWilliams, a former Indiana elementary school reading specialist who claims she was fired in 2020 for opposing SEL, has founded a consultancy business to "educate parents and legislators on why SEL delivers harmful political indoctrination." Although McWilliams has made an array of unlikely claims — SEL can be traced back, she says, to occultists hoping to create a New World Order — she has gained a number of influential supporters on the right, including both Lindsay and Max Eden, as well as high-profile activist groups like Parents Defending Education and Moms for Liberty. 

"One of the most alarming parts of SEL," McWilliams wrote this March in an overview of her arguments for the right-wing think tank Center for Renewing America, "is its potential in establishing an American social credit system through data collection." When SEL programs facilitate companies like Panorama to collect data on school children, she continued, the findings may end up being used not just to justify the creation of new "gender identity clubs" (for students who report on surveys that they feel they don't belong), but also a system that will track students from school into adulthood, where the data might be used "to measure employability through a woke lens." 

Lindsay elaborated on this theme in a tweet this month, writing that SEL "data mining" will result in both "hyper-sophisticated" profiling of children "so they can be individually propagandized" and also a "social credit" system that will force them to adopt progressive viewpoints or risk ostracization. 

What it all adds up to, Lindsay argues, is an attempt "to recreate the psychological destruction of children" that Chinese leader Mao Zedong undertook in the 1960s Cultural Revolution. In a four-hour podcast this March — much of which was dedicated to reading aloud an academic paper about SEL — Lindsay elaborated that SEL surveys were a means of setting students up for "struggle session environments in the classroom," a reference to the ritual public denunciations of the Cultural Revolution, in which militant young people were deployed to battle intellectuals and other elites Mao considered political threats. 

Similarly, last week, Parents Defending Education researcher Rhyen Staley shared an iconic image from the era — four Chinese girls raising their fists at a rally in 1974 — as a parallel to the threat of CRT and SEL. "These kids were also taught that the system was oppressing them," he wrote. "They eventually rewarded their teachers for the education by beating them, humiliating them, and murdering them." As though warning young people who might oppose his activism today, he added, "Later they became the victims of the second wave of oppressed kids who saw them as the oppressors." 

Some of this may be social media hyperventilation. But the same arguments are making their way, in more restrained and respectable fashion, into discussions at every level of government. 

In October, Parents Defending Education wrote to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to request a hearing on "Big Tech's data mining of America's children." In Colorado Springs in March, two of the school board's new conservative members raised the threat of SEL data mining and "what the federal government is finding out about our kids." This month, Max Eden was one of three experts to testify about SEL before a House Appropriations subcommittee, arguing that SEL had not only become "an ideologically charged enterprise" but also that it posed "major" concerns about student data privacy.

In Florida, noted New York Times education journalist Dana Goldstein, an overlooked aspect of the "Parental Rights in Education" law, which is most famous for banning classroom discussion of LGBTQ issues or people, is that it takes "particular aim" at the use of mental health questionnaires "intended to determine what students might need." 

This week came news that Florida's Department of Education has silently withdrawn from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a biannual survey of high school students created by the CDC that has been used for 31 years in 46 states. The survey includes questions about wellbeing and mental health, students' thoughts of suicide, sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2021, it tracked the first increase in suicide attempts by Florida LGBTQ high schoolers in close to a decade. If the state forgoes the next survey, warned Norín Dollard of the nonprofit Florida Policy Institute, there will be no way to know how Florida's restrictive new education laws are affecting LGBTQ students. Perhaps, as Marni Stahlman, president of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida, told the Orlando Sentinel, that's the point.  

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"A lot of these attacks on SEL that we're seeing are not based on research, not based on what social emotional learning actually looks like in practice," said CASEL's Justina Schlund. "And frankly, they're not based on what parents have said they actually want in schools or what's best for kids."

Billy Townsend, an education journalist and former school board member in Florida's deep-red Polk County, likewise said that he'd never received a single complaint "about CRT or a child being made to feel ashamed of whiteness in my four years [on the board], talking to thousands of parents. But every single parent I spoke to, of all races, parties and ideologies, insisted that schools take the social and emotional well-being of their child into consideration in their schooling." 

On Thursday, Judd Legum, Tesnin Zekeria and Rebecca Crosby at the media accountability website Popular Information reviewed eight of the 26 Florida math textbooks that had been rejected for "prohibited topics." They found nothing that could conceivably be cast as critical race theory (unless capsule biographies of notable Black mathematicians or equations that mention sickle cell anemia count as CRT). While some of the books include principles that could fairly be called SEL, they amounted to short sections of text asking students to use teamwork, have a positive attitude and encourage their classmates. 

Later on Thursday, the state's Department of Education belatedly responded to questions about the textbook rejections by posting three examples of offending passages on its website. One example used data showing how racial bias varies by age groups as the premise for a pre-calculus exercise. The others concerned SEL, including an elementary-school lesson about counting numbers that included a tertiary objective of increasing students' social awareness of their classmates.

Underwhelming as that "evidence" is, as with so many other recent conservative attacks on education, SEL was never the real point. On Wednesday, capitalizing on the newfound energy around the fight, the right-wing organization Accuracy in Media released the third part of a series it's been running since late March. In seeming imitation of Project Veritas, the group used hidden-camera recordings of school administrators in various states describing how recent bans on CRT and the demonization of SEL had compelled them to shift their language while teaching the same core concepts. To Accuracy in Media president Adam Guillette, it was proof that not only was SEL a "Trojan horse," but it was merely one in a long line of euphemisms progressives would deploy, and which Guilette promised to continue to expose, "finding CRT wherever it may be." 

"Once again, we've seen that simply banning critical race theory will not get it out of your schools," he said. "Teachers will call it social and emotional learning, or mental health, or whatever they need to call it so that you don't think your child is being indoctrinated." In all three videos the group has released to date, Guilette reached the same conclusion: The only real solution to CRT, or SEL, is a widespread conservative movement to promote "school choice." 

To follow Guilette's lead, that is to say the privatization of education. In that sense, the right's Trojan-horse metaphor might turn out to be strikingly accurate.

Read more from Kathryn Joyce on religion, education and the far right:

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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