Is Social and Emotional Learning Effective Therapy or Harmful?

Abigail Shrier’s recently released book, Bad Therapy, delves into the reasons behind the current mental health crisis affecting young people. Shrier argues that society’s excessive focus on children’s emotions hampers their growth and their ability to cope with life’s challenges. She points a finger at modern approaches to psychotherapy, parenting, and schooling.

One contentious issue she highlights is social and emotional learning (SEL), a practice in schools aimed at teaching students crucial life skills like emotion regulation, conflict resolution, and decision-making. While she raises valid concerns about SEL’s potential downsides, Shrier’s critique may exaggerate the negatives while overlooking evidence that, in general, SEL can benefit children in terms of well-being and academic performance. Dismissing SEL altogether without discernment could exacerbate the very problems she is concerned about.

Like Shrier, there is an apprehension about the prevalence of “safetyism.” Similarly, others such as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind express the notion that common child-rearing practices are making children less resilient, counter to the principles of therapeutic methodologies like cognitive behavioral therapy.

One example they point out is catastrophizing, a distortion of thinking seen in individuals with depression and anxiety. This negative cognitive pattern, addressed in therapy, can spiral into deteriorating mental health. If children are taught to hyper-focus on their negative experiences and view them as threats, danger, and harm, it could lead to emotional fragility and distress in the long term.

However, the assessment of SEL’s role in perpetuating harm requires defining what SEL entails. The absence of a regulating body to set standards for what qualifies as SEL opens the door for diverse interpretations of SEL practices. A wide spectrum of SEL implementations exists, posing challenges for researchers advocating for evidence-based techniques that prioritize concrete skill development. This variability allows critics, like Shrier, to pinpoint SEL strategies that may seem ineffective or detrimental. Advocates for social and emotional learning need to offer more transparency about how numerous SEL programs diverge from the objective of fostering tangible competencies.

The disparities in focus and execution among SEL initiatives are apparent in studies such as a 2023 meta-analysis headed by Christina Cipriano from Yale University, revealing significant variation in the impacts of school-based SEL programs dependent on program content and quality of implementation rather than chance.

Despite criticisms, previous meta-analyses, including ours, indicate positive outcomes across domains from civic attitudes to social-emotional skills and academic performance. Shrier dismisses this extensive body of research that refutes the harms she attributes to SEL, suggesting that the upsurge in mental health issues is not solely caused by SEL adoption. Links drawn between the two without strong causal evidence are speculative.

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