September 21, 2022

Alexandria schools will dedicate 10% of teaching time to social-emotional learning

This infographic © CASEL on the Virginia Department of Education website shows how “effective implementation integrates SEL into the school’s curriculum and academic culture, into broader practice and policy contexts. school-wide, and through ongoing collaboration with families and community organizations.

by James A. Bacon

Starting with the new school year, Alexandria City Public Schools will dedicate 30 minutes a day to “social-emotional learning,” according to the school system’s website. Additionally, Student Support Teams will provide more “focused and intensive” interventions for individual students identified through the school’s Tiered Support System process.

In Virginia, the standard school year is 180 instructional days, or 990 instructional hours. The standard school day includes 5.5 hours of instruction from Grades 1 to 12, excluding recess time, class changes and meals. In other words, 90 hours per year, or 10% of instruction time in Alexandria schools, will be devoted to social-emotional learning.

What is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)? According to the Virginia Department of Education, the definition is as follows:

The process by which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships and empower and caring decisions.

One could interpret this as a bureaucratic and jargon-filled way of saying that SEL teaches students how to behave.

But that would not capture the full meaning. The term has a social justice component. As VDOE also says:The vision for social-emotional learning in Virginia is to maximize the potential of all students and staff to become responsible, caring, and reflective members of our diverse society by advancing equityuplifting student voice, and infuse SEL into every part of the school experience.”

In the past, children were expected to learn at home how to manage emotions and behave. Teachers reinforced positive behavior and punished negative behavior. But large swaths of the population have experienced a social breakdown. In many neighborhoods, the “street code” reigns. To combat what they have called the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Virginia school systems have abandoned traditional disciplinary practices in favor of a therapeutic approach. It became the job of teachers, counselors and staff to teach students what they hadn’t learned at home: how to control their emotions, respect the rights of others and resolve disagreements without fighting.

The SEL strategy encountered unprecedented stress during the 2020-21 school year as students in many districts returned to school after a year of COVID-focused remote learning. Conditions were particularly difficult in very poor schools where the street code was most prevalent. Teachers resigned en masse, largely due to frustration and stress over their working conditions.

In Alexandria—and perhaps in many other “progressive” school systems—educators are doubling SEL in the new school year.

Clearly, the decision to devote 10% of school teaching time to something that parents, teachers and the occasional trip to the principal’s office could satisfactorily manage, represents a tacit admission that previous efforts to implement SEL implementation were not up to the post-COVID challenge.

Not all children suffer from a deficit in SEL skills, such as such as self-awareness, self-management, personal responsibility, decision-making, goal-oriented behavior, social awareness, relationship skills, and optimistic thinking. But Alexandria does not exempt anyone from the requirements. Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr.’s letter to parents states that SEL sessions apply to every school. Teachers or counselors will use the DESSA, a suite of screening tools and assessments, to measure each student’s social-emotional skills.

If I were the parent of a child in the school in Alexandria, this is the question I would ask: my child knows how to behave. He learns all these skills at home. Why is the school wasting resources evaluating my social-emotional skills of the child, and why my Is the child subject to a cumbersome bureaucratic process that corrects deficiencies for a relatively small percentage of the student population and/or only applies to certain schools?

Perhaps the process of social breakdown in American society is now so profound that we have no choice but to hand over the task of socializing our children to school bureaucrats. But I’m not convinced that’s the case. No doubt we need special tools to deal with recurring disciplinary problems. But students who come to school ready to learn shouldn’t be penalized by spending 10% of their instructional time teaching them emotional skills they already have.

(Hats off to James Wyatt Whitehead.)