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3 Misconceptions about SEL

“My district has been implementing SEL for years, and this is the first time I hear that SEL is not a behavior management system.” One of my students at Teachers College, Columbia University, shared this with me during class, after I described what SEL is and how it can be effectively implemented in schools. Although the student’s response did not surprise me–I have heard this before–it shows that there are still misconceptions about what SEL actually is and how we can use it to support our students’ growth, including those students who have been traditionally underserved by our educational system. 

3 Misconceptions about SEL

Misconception 1: SEL is a behavior management tool to help students meet behavior expectations.

While teaching students tools and strategies to consider and manage their behavior–known in the HEART in Mind model as Elect Your Responses–is an important component of any SEL instructional model, it is not the only one. For students to develop their social and emotional capacity, SEL needs to be focused on creating a rich environment for connecting, sharing and learning, not only compliance. Self-management skills, such as taking three deep breaths before responding to a frustrating situation or avoiding distractions when working in Google Classroom, support students’ ability to engage with the work presented in class; however, when schools prioritize compliance versus authentic engagement, they are missing the benefits of helping students to develop the full range of HEART skills, not only those related to self-management. This is especially problematic in schools that serve Black and Latinx students, since they are more likely to receive disciplinary actions than their white peers.

When schools prioritize compliance versus authentic engagement, they are missing the benefits of helping students develop the full range of HEART skills, not only those related to self-management. 

While creating behavior expectations is a normal part of building a classroom community, there are many other aspects that should be part of implementing SEL and nurturing a positive classroom culture. Check out this post for a review of 4 important conditions for learning.  

How to spot if your school or district is using SEL as a behavior management tool:

  • SEL instruction is heavily focused on students’ behavior regulation. 
  • SEL is a top-down process from the teacher to the student, and not the other way around. Students don’t have opportunities to co-create the classroom’s expectations, norms and values. 
  • SEL is taught without attention to the context–classroom, school, community–in which students need to operate. 

Misconception 2: SEL is only for the students, not for the adults. 

Due to the pandemic, more and more schools are recognizing the importance of supporting the SEL competencies of adults working with children. While this is great news, many educators are left with messages of  “take care of your needs” or “do some self-care this weekend” without any intentional school structures or practices that support teacher well-being. Research shows that SEL initiatives have better outcomes when teachers have the time and space to develop their own social and emotional capacity through intentional supportive and caring school practices and routines. 

A sustainable and effective SEL initiative incorporates the necessary resources and structures to support educator mental health, and social and emotional growth. Check out this brief to learn how some districts are doing it.

How to spot if your school or district believes that SEL is only for the students:

  • You receive no training to implement an SEL curriculum or if you receive support, it is solely focused on how to teach SEL, without opportunities for you to practice the skills. 
  • Adults don’t have structured spaces to check-in with each other, share successes and struggles, and participate in decision-making processes. 
  • Leadership does not model SEL skills in their actions and practices–how they welcome parents to school, how they run meetings, or how they provide feedback. 

Misconception 3: If you teach an SEL curriculum, you are “doing” SEL. 

Creating time and space for explicit instruction of HEART skills is an important component of SEL implementation. No doubt. However, when schools equate SEL implementation with teaching an SEL curriculum, they are missing the importance of creating opportunities for students to develop and practice these skills on a regular basis inside and outside the classroom. Effective SEL implementation is integrated into the daily work of the classroom and takes into account the context and the experiences of students with the goal of creating equitable outcomes for all students. 

In order to rip the benefits of SEL, schools need to integrate these HEART skills into teaching practices and academic content, while paying attention to the social and emotional conditions for learning. Check out these additional resources: removing barriers to learning, whole-school approach to SEL, and 3 bridges to center SEL in equity

How to spot if your school or district has a limited understanding of SEL:

  • The emphasis of SEL implementation is on the SEL curriculum being taught. 
  • You don’t have conversations, collect data and/or receive support to successfully integrate SEL with your academic instruction or teaching practices. 
  • There is no attention to the experiences of students or the context they need to navigate inside and outside of the classroom in your SEL planning. 

When you think about SEL in your classroom and school, remember to focus on the whole range of skills that students need to navigate and question their experiences and context; challenge your school or district to provide the necessary resources and structures to support teachers’ social and emotional capacity; and go beyond the SEL curriculum to include the conditions that make learning and growth possible for your students, including integrating HEART skills in your teaching. Question, challenge and act. 


Equity Centered SEL

Based on popular demand, I will be sharing one resource that can help you center your SEL work in equity in each post. While the 3 bridges to an equity centered SEL can be a starting point to understand the necessary shifts, the work is complex and we will need to pull as many resources as possible to make this work happen.

Teaching Tolerance has many resources to support your equity centered SEL. The Future Voter Project helps educators to teach about voting rights and registering young voters before they finish high school. 


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