It is important to understand what Social Emotional Learning (SEL) actually is, in order to tackle any misinformation about SEL, including the allegation that SEL is tied to gender identity and hence “harmful” for children’s mental health.
There are many different ways in which SEL is defined within the education sector, with almost all the definitions having a common theme of learners being able to understand their emotions and those of others that they communicate with, in order to maintain better relationship for mutual gains. One practical example that achieves this aim is where learners are asked to work with others to achieve collective team goals; these learners will end up learning important life skills such as team work, empathy, interpersonal communication, appreciation of equality and diversity, and finding common grounds. This should explain how SEL can promote tolerance and harmony at societal level whilst benefiting individuals, when SEL is embedded at the school education level.
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The above should make it clear that SEL has a much wider scope than simply achieving a specific political correctness, though the latter is often alleged to be an intended outcome of SEL, depending on the educational setting in which SEL is practised. For example, after concerns were raised by parents that their children might be exposed to confusing information in regards to their gender identity, the government in England had to issue guidance in 2020 to school teachers in the UK. The guidance educated teachers not to encourage children to think that they might be different genders based on their clothing or other preferences. Even though the parents welcomed this initiative, the move was criticised by LGBT charities (The Guardian, 2020).
In my own experience of having discussed this issue with many primary school teachers that I have trained, I have arrived at the conclusion that it’s unwise and hence ineffective to have a generic rule on how far the SEL must be stretched before it’s considered harmful for the children’s mental health. It is the merits of the situation in hand that should decide whether or not a particular issue must be covered in an SEL intervention initiative. For example, I agree that children in schools should only be taught to respect the rights of others including their right to identify themselves as a specific gender, but must not be confused with information that will make them unnecessarily question their own gender identity. However, I would see a higher merit in a more open debate at a secondary or higher secondary level, as the learners are much more mature to engage in that discussion.
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The “fear of unknown” makes people reject any new ideology if they do not understand it well enough, and this seems to be the reason why a lot of people are misinformed about the scope of SEL. The fact that SEL often makes it to the headlines to support causes that are considered a bit too “leftist” could also be a factor where a negative presupposition is held by many. It won’t be fair to say that not enough work is being done to counter this presupposition as a lot of recent literature, political discussions and education policies are focused at improving awareness about the benefits of SEL. In my opinion, it’s just a matter of time that more and more individuals become aware of and appreciate that SEL has a much wider scope than the political correctness that it is wrongly affiliated with.