WICHITA, Kansas— On the first day of school at Enterprise Elementary, Kasey Curmode gathered her sophomores on the mat and asked a question, “What makes a good classmate?”
someone who sharessays a student.
Someone who says, ‘You’re really nice,’ said another child, or ‘You can do it!’
Someone who doesn’t lie, say mean words, or take other people’s business.
Curmode’s first lesson of the day – and of the school year – centered on feelings.
“It really helps these students … get into a positive mindset,” she said. “Some of them don’t know how to regulate their emotions. So even 20 minutes a day will help them immensely.
Social-emotional learning—often referred to by its acronym, SEL—has existed in Kansas classrooms since the one-room schoolhouse. Teachers have long encouraged children to strive, set goals, control their anger, and treat others with respect.
But now it is an explicit thing that teachers must teach. Socio-emotional growth is one of the five priorities for the Kansas Department of Education and included in the standards the state uses to measure students and schools.
It’s also the latest flashpoint in the classroom culture wars. Schools — their teachers, their administrators, the companies that sell them pre-made lesson plans — see SEL as a smart, empowering way to make kids more empathetic and resilient. The same program appears to conservatives as a backhanded way for secularists to promote gay rights, racial guilt and something that blurs fundamental differences between boys and girls.
Conservatives took control of two seats on the Kansas Board of Education this month, in part by saying that schools should focus on basic academics and leave social and emotional education to parents.
“A lot of people are concerned about indoctrination rather than education,” said Dennis Hershberger, who ousted holder Ben Jones in the Republican primary and went unchallenged in November. “Teachers…deal with things in the classroom that are much more about creating a society that most parents don’t agree with.”
Cathy Hopkins, who beat the incumbent John Clifford in western Kansas, said on her campaign website that she wants to “protect our children from the liberal standards of education handed down to our schools by Washington, D.C. liberals” and “give our local schools back to academics.” .
Hershberger and Hopkins say social-emotional learning in public schools should be opt-in, meaning it would only be taught to students whose parents specifically approve of it. They also oppose surveys, for example, that ask students about their personal relationships or their mental health.
During recent Kansas Board of Education meetingBoard member Michelle Dombrowsky raised concerns about some SEL documents and reminded parents that they have the right to remove their children from any activity that goes against their personal beliefs. .
“Whether it’s suicide awareness, I can take them for ice cream that day. They won’t be involved in that,” Dombrowsky said. outside and who talks about it… Sometimes, if they’re young enough, it puts things on their minds.
Earlier this year in the Kansas Legislature, some supporters of a proposed parent bill of rights said classroom instruction is to be “armed” and that social-emotional and diversity programs train young children to be activists.
Child psychologists and social and emotional learning experts say it’s misunderstood.
“If you ask a parent, ‘Do you want your child to work well with others? Would you like them to develop strong communication skills? Do you have employability skills? … The answer, unequivocally, is yes,” said Jessica Lane, educational counseling specialist at Kansas State University. “It’s just that the terminology has, for some reason, caused a lot of controversy.”
Wichita, the state’s largest school district, spends about $100,000 a year on a program called Second step for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
The lessons for young pupils include posters, songs and hand puppets like Slow-Down Snail, which encourages children to pause and catch their breath if they feel angry or upset. Older students learn to recognize symptoms of depression and manage test anxiety.
A school district in Utah suspended its Second Step program last fall, following a backlash from parents who said schools were teaching objectionable content about sex.
Parents said Second Step directed middle schoolers to a website, loveisrespect.orgwhich provides information on dating and sex. Pop-ups on the website tell visitors how to quickly exit the site and clear their browsing history, which opponents say was an affront to parental supervision.
Counselors and social workers say lessons about consent and domestic violence are important for older teens. But the bulk of social-emotional programs focus on basic character building that has nothing to do with sex.
Erin Yosai, director of the Center of Psychoeducational Services at the University of Kansas, says more than 20 years of research shows that students who feel safe and learn to control themselves not only do better in class – they also get best grades and test scores.
“Our reading, our writing, our arithmetic, all of our other subjects are impacted and interrelated with our ability to have positive social experiences, knowing how to regulate ourselves in different areas,” she said.
A study published in 2015 showed that improving social skills in kindergarten can predict a child’s success more than 20 years later. Children with more developed social and emotional skills had better attendance and were more likely to graduate from high school on time and earn a college degree.
“The fact that people say you can pull yourself out (of social-emotional learning) from academics – really, we wouldn’t like that,” Yosai said. “These two things go hand in hand.”
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.
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