Missouri Ed Leaders Say Social-Emotional Learning Guidelines an ‘Ongoing Discussion’
A new behavior and character education framework will be provided to Missouri schools, but many are confused as to what’s next.
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Missouri education leaders knew establishing social-emotional learning guidelines for public schools would draw controversy, with some celebrating the idea and others decrying it as government overreach.
So when the Missouri State Board of Education decided earlier this month to change course and pursue social-emotional learning as an optional framework instead of a statewide standard, the reactions were unsurprisingly mixed.
Some Republican officials celebrated the move, declaring it a victory for critics of the idea. Proponents, meanwhile, were left scratching their heads and wondering how social-emotional learning got wrapped up in the culture war.
State Board of Education President Charlie Shields told The Independent the board’s decision will ultimately be a positive thing for social-emotional learning in Missouri.
“If we would’ve moved forward with standards, I think that, frankly, would have set us back in terms of trying to change what’s actually happening,” Shields said.
Missouri’s proposed social-emotional-learning framework is a set of goals intended to progress soft skills, like teamwork and self-motivation.
Board members spoke enthusiastically during the October meeting about expanding the current guiding document into resources for educators, hoping to curb teacher burnout.
According to Google Trends, social-emotional learning has had interest for much of the 21st century, being searched consistently but not widely until around 2016. The phrase dramatically increased in prominence in August 2020 before peaking in September 2020.
Christi Bergin, a research professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and director of the prosocial development and education research lab, said social-emotional learning has been a tool to correct student behavior since the 1970s.
Social-emotional learning has grown in popularity as students returned to school from COVID-19 closures and teachers noticed additional behavioral issues.
“It was always a need,” Darbie Valenti Huff, a professional developer at the Missouri State Teachers Association, told The Independent. “When our students started to really struggle and had a hard time adapting after the pandemic, it just spotlighted that maybe they didn’t have those skills to help regulate and things like that beforehand.”
Valenti Huff was named Missouri’s teacher of the year in 2017, heralding her success as a result of her continuing education in social-emotional learning.
She told The Independent that she was always interested in social-emotional learning, but now others are taking notice.
The State Board of Education discussed improving classroom behavior and expanding resources for educators during the October meeting with a focus on teachers. The charge to bring SEL statewide came from a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education blue ribbon commission, a group that hopes to improve teacher recruitment and retention.
But some, following the meeting, spoke as though the blue ribbon’s recommendation was dumped entirely.
Jeremy Cady, lobbyist for conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, posted online that the board “halted“ the proposed standards. State Rep. Doug Richey, a Republican from Excelsior Springs who is running for state Senate, posted on social media that the board’s decision was “welcome news.”
“After my effort to defund (social-emotional learning), this past session, met with significant opposition, I wasn’t sure this day would actually arrive,” he wrote.
Richey sought in March to pull state funding of diversity, equity and inclusion programs, or DEI, not social-emotional learning. Though for some in Missouri, the two initiatives sound similar alarms.
State Sen. Bill Eigel, who is running in the GOP primary for governor, labeled social-emotional learning as “awful” during an appearance on a television program operated by Mike Lindell — creator of MyPillow and election conspiracist.
“As governor, I am going to dismantle DESE and continue to lead the fight against children being used as research experiments for leftist agendas. No to government bureaucracy in education. No to social emotional learning,” Eigel posted on social media alongside a clip of the interview.
A portion of Missourians who responded during the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s public-comment period on proposed social-emotional-learning standards linked the guidelines with DEI. There are more than 1,000 instances of commenters writing “DEI” in their messages about the standards.
Many negative responses are identical or nearly identical.
“Please focus on teaching students how to read, write, math, science, and etc.,” one respondent wrote. “Social-emotional learning and DEI programs do not help students learn and have no place in the students’ of Missouri education.”
Shields told The Independent he doesn’t understand why people draw a connection between DEI and SEL. He wondered if some opposing commenters read the 15 guidelines before condemning them.
Aggressive comments didn’t persuade the board’s actions to make the guiding social-emotional-learning document optional, Shields said. Instead, he was focused on others’ worries that the standards would become part of schools’ accreditation and scoring system.
“We were very careful that we didn’t set the effort backwards by moving it forward as standards,” he said. “We actually think we can move forward the guidelines and possibly have more impact.”
Shields said the board will continue to discuss social-emotional learning, including the development of resources for teachers to apply the 15 points outlined in the initial document.
Bergin, who is the co-chair of the work group who created the standards, described the following situation when talking to The Independent.
A teacher has a classroom of students that haven’t been behaving well this school year, perhaps bickering or calling one another cruel names.
It lingers in the teacher’s mind, and it would be nice to have a lesson on cooperation or respect — but there’s an intimidating list of core-subject lessons to complete.
If the state and district administration encourages social-emotional learning, that teacher will feel like there’s permission to pause and teach social skills. The feeling of permission is the reason Bergin likes standards instead of an optional framework.
Bergin has helped numerous districts implement similar programs.
“The climate of the classroom improves, and children are happier there,” she told The Independent. “They actually learn more because when children are in environments where they feel like all their classmates care about them, they care about each other. They are free to learn more, and they’re more engaged in the classroom.”
She has watched test scores improve as students learn social-emotional skills.
Valenti Huff was also part of the work group that created the standards.
“Our approach was, ‘let’s try to find that common ground that we all agree on…’ I don’t think that’s quite what happened,” she said.
She wonders if the name “social-emotional learning” caused some commenters to disagree.
The work group began meeting in February and prepared a document of standards members believed the whole state could appreciate. They presented a first draft in May.
The standards have three categories — me, we and others — to help students with a “healthy sense of self,” “relationship-building skills” and “prosocial skills.”
The most current version includes a glossary of traits for each category and student indicators of goals. Skills include cooperation, emotional regulation, respect and active listening.
The group included educators from Missouri’s urban districts and rural districts to ensure the goals worked for everyone because it was created to be a standard, and, therefore, not optional.
“Without them being a set of standards that we all agree should be a priority and should be taught, I just am afraid that it will fall by the wayside in some districts,” Valenti Huff said. “It will maybe be used as a resource, but I’m afraid it might be an afterthought.”
Others were opposed to another statewide standard.
“I think teachers barely have time to teach what we were trained to teach and that SEL is the responsibility of counselors and families,” one public comment says. “I am not a trained therapist or life coach.”
The Missouri National Education Association, the state teachers’ union, has not made a formal statement on the guidelines. But its policy is in favor of character education and prefers local school boards to have the final say on curriculum issues.
“It is really about these policies and maintaining some flexibility for districts so that they are not looked at as cookie-cutter communities, but instead are allowed to do what’s best for their students where their students are at,” Mark Jones, the MNEA’s communications director, told The Independent.
He said teachers will be looking for clarity and consistency if their district adopts the guidelines.
“It’s really about helping educators have tools and access those tools that benefit their students while conducting their normal lesson plans during the day,” Jones said.
He sees social-emotional learning as an additional layer of learning that is incorporated into the school day, like having students work in groups and practice collaboration.
Bergin said social-emotional learning can be applied in many ways, but she also sees it fit into the everyday rhythm of the classroom.
“My preference for approach is what we call interactional, which is when we just work on tweaking the way that educators interact with students during their regular academic curriculum,” she said.
Currently, the state has not prepared any directions for educators or materials for professional development.
Valenti Huff said the original plan was to have a team help with implementing the standards by creating resources for teachers and detailing them further.
Shields said the board has not abandoned the next steps and has directed DESE staff to look at best practices nationwide and provide options to districts.
“This is not a one-and-done discussion,” he said. “This is an ongoing discussion, so we will circle back on this in the future.”
Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.
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