Social Emotional Learning Controversial? How to Talk to Parents about SEL 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
Drive the conversation about SEL by building trust, communicating, and connecting.

ICYMI social emotional learning is now a controversial topic. Not sure there is a better example of our current politics than heated arguments about teaching kindness. Parents are being told to worry about their local schools - they are trying to instill values you don't agree with and change your children. 

I think a couple of things happened.

  1. Schools expanded their SEL programs to respond to student need.
  2. CASEL revised their SEL standards to include equity.
  3. The pandemic left parents out of the loop.
  4. Politicians, talking heads, think tanks, and dark corners of the internet saw an opportunity.

Now if this was just some over-reaching state policy, my advice would probably be to put your head down and keep doing what was right for kids. But this push-back is happening at the local level. School board meetings have concerned parents walking up to the mics and saying things that make you blink your eyes over and over again in disbelief.

We could ignore it, but we wouldn't be very good models of SEL skills if we did. I think we should take back the conversation instead.

Become An SEL Advocate

Educators know that social emotional learning means essential skills for the classroom and life. Things like working together, setting goals, persisting with challenges, including others, and handling big feelings. SEL programs improve academic performance, decrease disruptive behavior, improve attitudes, and lead to life long success.

As a school psychologist, I was no stranger to parents being wary of what I did and what it meant for their children. Parents didn't want their child labeled. They were hesitant about them seeing a psychologist. I quickly realized a big part of doing my job was advocating for it when it was necessary.

I did this by

  • making sure parents and students saw me every day. It's easy to fear what you don't know.
  • getting rid of the education and psych jargon.
  • advertising counseling and behavior supports.
  • telling them about the small wins their child was experiencing.
  • meeting parents where they were at. 
  • sticking to what I thought was good for a student.
  • being flexible with how I provided supports.
  • keeping my services goal focused and short-term.

I didn't win over everyone. But I did over time make counseling and behavioral supports accepted and sought when needed.

When Controversy Comes Knocking

As the times get more and more bizarre, it is essential to keep advocating for what we know works. SEL is a positive in schools. It is invaluable to students at every level. To make the case, we have to 

  • show that social emotional learning represents the skills we all value and use every day.
  • have open conversations where we acknowledge concerns.
  • talk about what SEL is not.
  • keep ourselves honest about practices, what is needed and what works.
  • build connections with parents.


Share the activities you are doing and their purpose so parents can learn about how you teach SEL. This could be in a monthly newsletter or weekly email. 

When you share about activities, share student quotes, work, or videos, if okay. Focus on helping parents see and hear how SEL really works.

TRY: In your weekly email, share that you read Mean Jean The Recess Queen and had conversations about how to make recess fun for everyone. Include a picture of the whiteboard with all the ideas students came up with to improve recess.

SEL in Lessons

Parents are very open to SEL being taught in the moment and in relation to academics. They want it to be meaningful and in context. I don't disagree.

*There are some states that don't want SEL in the academic curriculum. Hi Florida and Oklahoma. For right now, this doesn't seem to be the norm.

TRY: In lesson plans, add relevant social, emotional, or behavior objectives. For example, maybe they need to be able to work with a classmate or resist distractions. That objective should be taught and reinforced as part of the lesson.

Tell parents the SEL skills you are working on each week during lessons (i.e., setting goals, collaborating, sharing your thinking).

DON'T insert SEL where it doesn't belong. I don't often agree with the anti-SEL crowd, but I'm not sure we need to talk about feelings while we are doing geometry. Keep the skills authentic to the activity. 

Speak Plainly

Take out any jargon whenever possible. You live in the education world every day and use these terms as a shorthand. The educators around you know what you mean and it's a quick way to talk about things. 

The reality is that parents are in favor of schools teaching social emotional skills. BUT they are not big fans of the term social emotional learning. In a recent study done by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, parents felt most positive about the term life skills. They were also generally positive about the term social, emotional and academic learning.

TRY: Pay attention to how much jargon you use when you talk to parents and see if you can find more common-place words to use.

Focus on Specific Skills

In the survey mentioned above, parents were overwhelmingly positive when questions focused on specific SEL skills rather than the broad term. This goes hand in hand with speaking plainly. There is no reason to make this technical sounding when we are all familiar with the social skills we use daily.

TRY: Talk to parents about topics they are familiar with. Things like setting goals, handling frustration, positive thinking, making friends, being a leader. 

Real World

Companies often talk about the skills they are looking for in new hires. The majority of them are one social-emotional skill or another. Think about how you can connect your SEL activities to skills students will need later on.

TRY: In your parent newsletter, have a blurb from a CEO about the most valuable skill they look for in their employees. Then connect that to lessons you are doing in your classroom.

Involve Parents

The best way for parents to trust that social emotional learning is a positive for their child is to experience it. Consider events or activities where you can involve parents and let them take ownership. 

TRY: Send home SEL activities that parents can do with their child, like creating a plan for a stress free standardized test week.

Have a room parent plan a party when students finish a big writing unit. (SEL Skill - celebrating your accomplishments).

Shared Vision

Parents want their children to be good people who have all the tools to be successful. Period. Parents also rightfully see themselves as very much responsible for helping their children learn these skills. 

Consider that developing social-emotional skills is more of home-school partnership than other skills you teach.  

TRY: Survey your parents about the skills they think are important to be successful in school and life. Follow-up with the ways you are planning to teach and reinforce those during the year AND some ideas for how parents can do the same at home.

Share Outcomes

Often we share data within the school when we are talking about behavior or bullying. There is no reason not to include the outcomes of your SEL programming. Visibility is essential for trust.

TRY: Connect to the purpose you set out. If you are trying to use SEL instruction to decrease disruptive behavior in the classroom, then share the data. This may be more helpful at a school level than a classroom level.

Tell Them Why

Tell parents why you are teaching SEL skills. Maybe you are trying to decrease behavior issues or bullying incidents. Maybe you want to improve attendance and class participation. Be honest about the intentions of your activities and the outcomes you are looking for. 

If your why is not in line with your parent community, then there are more conversations to have. Parents want to know you are working with them, not around them.

TRY: Use because statements. 

"We teach students to see someone else's perspective because it will help them find compromises, treat others kindly, and understand why someone acted a certain way."

I Hope

I hope when you see another negative headline, you know that the majority of parents support the work you do. Social emotional learning is important. Here is to building trust, communicating, and connecting as we drive this conversation.

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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