Explaining SEL to Parents

social emotional learning
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Explaining your school’s SEL policies to parents has become increasingly important. 

Outside of the education world, few people know that SEL stands for social and emotional learning, and even those who understand the acronym are often uncertain as to what SEL programs in schools look like. 

In our highly politicized education landscape, this can have unfortunate consequences, especially as schools and districts continue to invest more in SEL — according to one analysis, spending on SEL increased by roughly 45 percent between late 2019 and early 2021. 

As it turns out, SEL has become the latest flashpoint in the education wars, with conservatives in some districts equating SEL with liberal identity politics, according to the Hechinger Report. 

“It's very disheartening to see something as overwhelmingly agreed upon as a priority turned into a politically divisive issue by politicians that are looking to be divisive instead of doing what's best for kids,” says Melissa Schlinger, vice president of Practice and Programs of CASEL, a nonprofit leader in SEL education. 

However, once people understand what SEL is, they rarely have problems with it regardless of their political background, Schlinger says. That’s why she and other SEL experts advise the following to make sure parents understand exactly what SEL programs are and what they are not. 

Establish Lines of Communication to Discuss SEL and More  

The first step to effectively describe your school’s SEL program is to establish open communication with parents and the community, Schlinger says. “[Schools] need to make sure that they are providing opportunities to be in discussion with parents about the social-emotional learning skills, and that they are focused on what it means to create a supportive climate founded on relationships and belonging,” she says. “Invite open conversation and make sure parents recognize that their voices are not only welcome but encouraged as part of SEL implementation.”

This type of transparency and openness can go a long way to alleviating potential concerns about SEL programs before any crop up by giving parents a clear understanding of what these programs are actually about. 

Explain SEL to Parents and How It Will Help Their Children

“What we've heard from our superintendents and our district leaders is that when they show parents ‘This is what we're focused on, and these are the skills, and here's how we do it,’ there's really very little disagreement,” Schlinger says. It’s when education jargon and acronyms are paired with political interests looking to stir up anger that some schools get pushback. In those instances, Schlinger advises sitting down with parents, unpacking what SEL is, and saying, “Here are the competencies that make up social-emotional learning, and here's how we promote them.” 

Getting specific about what these competencies entail can also help, says Brittany Zakszeski, Ph. D, a training and consulting specialist at Devereux Center for Effective Schools, which is run by Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Consulting, a behavioral healthcare nonprofit. “We want to be teaching things like recognizing emotions, managing emotions, using coping strategies – a lot of these things are ones that most people would agree are important for school success, and that are not related to any partisanized outcome or agenda,” she says. 

Research supports this. A poll conducted by the Fordham Institute found that although there is broad support among parents for teaching SEL-related skills in schools, the term ‘social and emotional learning’ is relatively unpopular. 

Share What SEL Provides Students  

“As schools, we're in the business of preparing our children for life,” Schlinger says. “If you look at what employers are saying that they need from a future workforce, they need people who can work with people who are different from them, who can collaboratively problem solve, who can manage stress, and who have self-awareness.” 

It’s also important not to frame SEL as somehow separate from the academics that occur at your school. 

“We know that this is actually foundational to all academic learning,” Schlinger says. “It's not like we're taking away time from academics to focus on these things.” 

Remind Parents Why SEL is So Important Now  

SEL is particularly critical as we move out of the pandemic, and parents may need to be reminded of how much regular socialization and in-person school many children have missed, says Laura E. Rutherford, Ph.D., director of training and a research psychologist at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health Consulting. “I think most parents will say, ‘Oh, yes, now that you're saying it this way, I do see a need. My child is not used to the things that we would think of as typical that I grew up with.’ We actually have to go back and teach and help students learn them.” 

It’s important for parents to understand that schools need to create a safe and positive environment in which kids feel like they belong and they're connected. “That's a really important strategy for promoting mental well-being, which we know is really critical right now,” Schlinger says. “There's certainly a lot of depression and anxiety and behavior issues that are happening. And we know that social-emotional learning can play a really important role in providing supportive environments for kids to be in.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.