Reflecting on Social Emotional Learning: A Critical Perspective on Trends in the United States

Jun. 20, 2009

Source: Review of Educational Research, Vol. 79, Iss. 2; p. 533-556, (June 2009).
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This critical cultural analysis of trends in the field of social emotional learning (SEL) in the United States considers how ideas concerning emotional skills and competencies have informed programmatic discourse.

What is SEL?

Generally, and for the sake of this analysis, the term refers to programs that attempt to enhance EI and emotional literacy and/or the development of what are perceived to be fundamental social and emotional skills and competencies.
These include such things as emotional awareness (being able to recognize and label one's own and other's emotions), having the capacity to express and manage emotions appropriately, making responsible decisions or choices, establishing positive social relationships, and handling difficult interpersonal situations effectively.

For this review, the author focuses on the practitioner-oriented literature in SEL, using both print and Internet sources.
This literature, which seeks to disseminate recommended practices and programs addressing emotional learning in schools, is a distinct outgrowth of a more general and rapidly expanding field of academic research concerned with emotions in education (Schutz & Lanehart, 2002). The latter includes a broad range of topics concerning emotions, cognition, and learning/ socialization, including multiple intelligences, achievement goal theory and achievement motivation, child emotional socialization in schools and families, test anxiety, the development of emotional self-regulation and its effects, and the conceptualization and measurement of EI.

The author's aim in this analysis is to highlight some of the major assumptions that characterize SEL and to open these up for deeper consideration.
She sees this as an important need, as SEL has gained wide currency among American educators without, according to some, adequate conceptualization and empirical study (Quaker, Gardner, & Whiteley, 2007; Waterhouse, 2006).

While currently stressing links between SEL and academic achievement, program literature also places emphasis on ideals of caring, community, and diversity.
However, recommended practices across programs tend to undermine these ideals by focusing on emotional and behavioral control strategies that privilege individualist models of self.

SEL in practice thus becomes another way to focus attention on measurement and remediation of individual deficits rather than a way to redirect educators' focus toward the relational contexts of classrooms and schools.
The promise of SEL to foster increased achievement and equity in American education may not be realized unless more work is done to connect ideals with practices and to address the political and cultural assumptions that are being built into contemporary approaches.

Qualter, P, Gardner, K. J., & Whiteley, H. E. (2007). Emotional intelligence: Review of research and educational implications. Pastoral Care, 11-20.

Schutz, P. A., & Lanehart, S. (2002). Introduction: Emotions in education. Educational Psychologist, 37(2), 67-68.

Waterhouse, L. (2006). Multiple intelligences, the Mozart effect, and emotional intelligence: A critical review. Educational Psychologist, 41(A), 207

Updated: Jul. 01, 2009


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