The Rise of Public School Therapy

Photo: Arbutus Speech Therapy

Michigan’s Hamilton Community Schools was engulfed in a maelstrom. Alarmed by the district’s plans to implement a social-emotional learning (SEL) program, parents formally sent dozens of questions to district leaders, ranging from critical race theory concerns to dubiousness surrounding the qualifications of the people implementing the program. The district was unable to answer these questions, and subsequently postponed SEL implementation. 

For millennia, one of the primary functions of education has been to ferment virtue. Great philosophers and thinkers, from Aristotle to Thomas Paine, were concerned with the transmission of civic virtue in children in some form or fashion.

SEL is like virtue transmission in that it sees education as a catalyst for a child’s moral development. Unlike virtue transmission, however, SEL seeks to cultivate a certain mindset in students, particularly those who have undergone some form of trauma. In his new report for the American Enterprise Institute, Robert Pondiscio postulates that social-emotional learning is a “sudden and dramatic expansion of schools’ missions, growing to encompass monitoring, molding, evaluating, and assessing students’ attitudes, values, and beliefs.”

Having left the public school system only three years ago, I can testify that SEL is everywhere. Even if it is not referenced by name, its principles are applied in a majority of lessons, in a majority of courses, and in a majority of states. My old school district in a conservative part of Texas has a whole page on its website devoted to its implementation.

Pondiscio also argues that SEL represents a massive departure from the traditional role of education. In essence, Pondiscio asserts that SEL is more therapy than pedagogy, and represents a profound shift from the traditional principles of education. As mentioned previously, education has historically focused on cultivating virtue and establishing the student in the objective reality in which they live. Now, SEL takes a pragmatic, almost utilitarian approach to education, attempting to intercede in a child’s ethical development on a more fundamental level.

 While it is natural for a school to be concerned for the mental and emotional well-being of a child, there are legitimate questions surrounding the extent to which that concern should go. 

He writes:

“Whether SEL can benefit academic outcomes is an interesting and important question, but it’s secondary. The more salient question, which tends to go unasked but must be settled first, is about the appropriate business of a school. Similarly, at what point does a school’s concern for its students’ emotional health and well-being, however well intended, become too personal, too intrusive, and too sensitive to be a legitimate function of public school and thus the state?” 

“Finally, there is a risk, also too little acknowledged and discussed, that the increased focus on SEL fundamentally changes teachers’ responsibilities, forcing them into roles they may embrace reluctantly or not at all and that they are unqualified or unsuited to play, with potential negative consequences for students. As damaging to children as it might be for a teacher to perform poorly at teaching reading, math, or history, the effect of being a poor mental health professional could be even more dire.”

While SEL generally enjoys broad support, western Michigan is not the only locale to share Pondiscio’s reservations. Idaho’s proposal to add SEL to the state curriculum was met with fierce pushback from parents and legislators. In 2016, parents in Tennessee led a successful movement to pull out of an SEL collaborative, though the state still implements SEL programs unilaterally. 

If nothing else, the conflict and controversy signifies that SEL is not settled science — undoubtedly a statement and sentiment that would earn me much consternation from the education elite. But the debate matters, as do parent concerns that schools are wading too far into the roles of both parents and therapists. 

For Pondiscio, the situation can be summarized bluntly: “However devoutly it may be wished, SEL proponents cannot declare the tension between the traditional and progressive views of schools resolved…the risk is that schools are assuming powers and responsibilities far beyond their brief and asking educators to work beyond their training and expertise.”


Garion Frankel
Garion Frankel is a graduate student at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service with a concentration in education policy and management. He is a Young Voices contributor, and Chalkboard Review’s breaking news reporter.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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