Educational model wanted students ‘to be nice.’ That’s controversial in Florida now under DeSantis.

  • In what’s been described as an intimidation tactic, Florida’s education department recently surveyed every school district about its use of materials for social-emotional learning and related lessons.
  • A USA TODAY review of responses indicates some districts are already starting to phase out materials designed to develop kids’ personal and relationship skills.
  • Educators say the need for these skills has never been greater, given record-high rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness among today’s young people.

Earlier this year, the School District of Palm Beach County in Florida quietly stopped using the phrase “social-emotional learning,” or SEL.

The educational model – which teaches skills such as self-awareness, empathy and resilience – has over the past couple of years become linked to critical race theory by conservatives who accuse schools of “woke indoctrination.”

Palm Beach County schools, according to a document submitted to the state in February and obtained by USA TODAY, now call that model “skills for learning and life.” Recently updated resources reflect the change in verbiage, as does the district’s website.

This pivot away from the phrase SEL may seem superficial, inevitable rebranding given the culture wars over how and what schools teach kids about race and identity. But the district has made other changes too. It recently pulled out of a national research partnership focused on SEL in schools, for example, and reduced its emphasis on certain resources.

Educators say similar rollbacks are happening across Florida, a trend reflected in a collection of records from some of the state’s largest districts at a time when students’ social and emotional well-being is especially fragile. And while news of Florida’s library restrictions and rejected textbooks have made national headlines, some of these other shifts aren’t always so obvious.

As states ranging from Iowa to Montana consider legislation targeting SEL, the sometimes-subtle changes happening in Florida show the chilling effect state inquiries can have on work to support students’ mental health and make schools more welcoming places.

It’s “a tremendous blow to young people,” said Christiane Gunn, a veteran social studies teacher in Broward County, Florida. “Kids come to school with a lot of baggage. Right now, there’s not enough available that’s going to help them and it really scares me – what’s going to happen to the social-emotional wellness of some of these children” if these programs are cut?

What is SEL? A look at what it is and why it matters

Critical race theory and DEI:What do those terms really mean?

‘A form of intimidation’: The case of Miami-Dade and Edgenuity

The records obtained by USA TODAY were districts’ responses to a 34-question survey sent to every school system in the state last month. The questionnaire, due less than a week later, asked them to catalog any materials or programs used in areas including SEL, civics and sex education, and to specify the number of schools using “whole child,” “culturally responsive” or “trauma-informed” teaching practices, among others.

The state did not respond to questions about the origin and purpose of the survey. The DeSantis administration has in recent months queried schools about various topics, including a survey to state colleges and universities about their spending on transgender services, and last year rejected a slew of math textbooks partly over their inclusion of SEL.

Minus:Florida rejects dozens of math textbooks over critical race theory, Common Core standards

Educators believe the survey’s objective is in part to scare schools out of engaging with those materials and practices. Like SEL, the terms listed in the survey have come up frequently in debates over whether schools have a role in teaching about the trauma of racism and the intersectionality of LGBTQ identities and other sensitive or difficult topics. Some critics have suggested they promote concepts that have been – or could soon be – outlawed in the state.

In a memo sent to district leaders the day the survey responses were due, Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. singled out Miami-Dade schools for their use of an SEL curriculum made by the company Edgenuity. “Upon preliminary review,” the curriculum “appears contrary to Florida law,” Diaz wrote, without elaborating.

“I implore you to conduct a thorough review to ensure all content is compliant with Florida law,” he continued. “Edgenuity/Imagine Learning’s divisive and discriminatory content branded as ‘social-emotional learning (SEL)’ has no place in Florida’s classrooms.”

Neither the department nor Diaz responded to requests for comment. But for Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union, the goal appears to be twofold: to create divides between schools and parents and to pressure districts into eschewing any materials that use the terminology deemed controversial.

“If districts are getting surveyed on this stuff, it’s going to cause them to panic and worry that they may be called out and targeted and face consequences,” Spar said, pointing to the vague language used in DeSantis-endorsed legislation, such as the law commonly known as the Don’t Say Gay act. Florida is one of 18 states to have in recent years passed legislation or issued a rule restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism.

“The survey was obviously sent out as a form of intimidation,” said Liz Mikitarian, a retired elementary school teacher based in Brevard County. SEL is “becoming a bogeyman. … And doing things like sending out that survey? It’s definitely sending out a message: We’re watching you.”

The Miami-Dade School Board is now investigating SEL in the district to ensure it doesn’t violate the Don’t Say Gay law, also known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, DeSantis is poised to extend the provisions of that law, which bans instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades kindergarten through third, to students in older grades too.

“This is trickle-down censorship,” said Julio Ligorría, a Miami-based political consultant who specializes in education policy.

A big book ban? U.S House passes GOP’s Parents Bill of Rights Act

More:Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill into law

A distraction from academics or integral to learning?

In the eyes of critics such as Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the conservative activist network Moms for Liberty, SEL instills problematic values in kids while also detracting from their academic learning.

“SEL delves into an area of the child’s life that the school has no business working in,” said Justice, who helped develop a guide for parents on how to remove such programming from their children’s classrooms. “It’s meant to replace the child’s values and morals in the home with an idea of spirituality.”

‘We are war moms’:Moms for Liberty dominates school board politics across US

At the root of SEL’s “dark beginnings,” according to Justice: the nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. Justice believes CASEL, whose ubiquitous framework informs most SEL curricula, promotes new-age thinking and forces teachers to act as if they’re neuroscience experts or health professionals.

Aaliyah Samuel, the president and CEO of CASEL, said she is well aware of the claims. All of them, she said, are frustratingly false and “a distraction from the critical work that we know is ahead for recovery.” CASEL was founded and created the term SEL three decades ago, and has been a fixture in schools since. A body of research shows students who participate in CASEL-based programs have better academic and behavioral outcomes.

CASEL’s framework, notably, consists of the same competencies identified in Palm Beach’s rebranded curriculum: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness.

They aren’t morals or values, Samuel said, but rather skills needed to be successful in school and life. “Trying to disentangle social and emotional learning from academics or from school is virtually impossible,” said Samuel, who started her career as a public school educator in Florida teaching special education. “All learning is social and emotional.”

One meta-analysis of dozens of studies found an 11 percentile point boost in test scores among students who learn these skills. And, Samuel stressed, SEL isn’t a substitute for mental health therapy but rather a form of prevention that can help protect kids from needing that care.

CDC survey:Teen girls report record levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk

With or without the fancy curricula, many teachers agree SEL is or at least should be an organic and core part of the classroom experience. As a kindergarten teacher, Mikitarian “did SEL all day long.” SEL is very broad umbrella (term) for teaching kids to be nice to one another to be nice to themselves,” said Mikitarian, who left teaching around 2007 to focus on advocacy work and eventually started the group Stop Moms for Liberty.

Changing or banning the terminology doesn’t get rid of teachers’ ability to engage kids in SEL, Samuel acknowledged. “But it does make it more difficult for educators, students and parents to actually access the resources that we know are the best practices based off decades of research,” Samuel said.

Samuel cited a conversation she had with a teacher. Samuel had asked the educator what would happen if she wasn’t allowed to say “social-emotional learning.” What would that do to her classroom?

“You’re still dealing with the same behaviors, you’re still dealing with the same student needs, you’re still dealing with it all,” Samuel said the teacher responded. “The difference is the types of tools and supports and professional development that I’m able to have to understand, to manage, the behaviors, to connect with my students. It just makes me a better teacher.”

Can we recover? Half of nation’s students fell behind a year after COVID school closures.

An about-face on SEL

Schools across Florida went all in on social-emotional learning in the aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in 2018, thanks in part to legislation passed by Republican lawmakers. They incorporated lessons on grit and problem-solving and relationship-building. They trained staff on how to deal with students’ trauma and foster a healthy school climate.

At times it was teachers who said the efforts went too far. At a high school in Palm Beach County, for example, educators in 2021 expressed concerns about a plan to make SEL a daily requirement. Educators said it distracted from academics and put them at risk of getting in trouble for bringing sensitive topics into the classroom.

Now, some districts appear to be shying away from these initiatives. Throughout the state, “there are a lot of conversations going on” about the future of SEL, Florida Education Association’s Andrew Spar said. “In some schools, there’s talk of stopping the use of any materials.”

Opinion:Kids are in a mental health crisis. We need real resources – not culture wars.

The School District of Lee County, for example, several years ago touted its “whole child” approach, but in its responses to the February survey said it now only uses it in 3% of schools. The “whole child” model essentially treats students as multidimensional individuals and schools as community hubs that provide an array of physical and mental health supports.

Pinellas County Schools, which in 2021 won an award for its “commitment to whole-child education,” said in its answers to the recent state questionnaire that whole-child is now in zero schools.

Earlier this month, the Sarasota County School Board voted to suspend the district’s character education program, which uses SEL. “It’s a complete distraction,” said Board Chairwoman Bridget Ziegler, who was appointed by DeSantis. “Our focus must be on the academic rigor and our excellence of our students and not about anything else.”

On pause:Sarasota School District poised to suspend character education program

Catherine Augustine, a researcher at RAND who has been studying SEL program partnerships in six communities across the U.S., including Palm Beach County, said the district recently declined to continue participating in the research. District officials, according to Augustine, cited concerns over state directives.

Until then, Palm Beach had been one of the study’s “shining star communities,” Augustine said. “Over the course of four years, it only became more invested in SEL and not less – and that’s because they saw it was making a difference among students.” The program Augustine and her colleagues studied focused on teaching elementary schoolers how to recognize their own and others’ emotions while also fostering strong student-adult relationships.

Augustine isn’t sure whether that work has continued, and district officials were not available for comment.

Does social and emotional learning help kids? Yes, but experts say schools must be careful

‘Scared to make connections’

Advocates say the need for educational experiences that support children’s mental health has never been greater.

The youth suicide epidemic that was already plaguing Florida and the rest of the country when SEL initiatives were first rolled out has only become more entrenched. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that nearly a quarter of teen girls in 2021 made a plan to kill themselves. Most experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Today’s young people are still grappling with the ripple effects of the pandemic’s isolation and instability.

Barbara Segal’s school, also in Broward County, is all too familiar with the suicide epidemic. Earlier this school year, one of her students killed themselves on campus. The school offered resources – social workers, emotional support pets – but they were fleeting. If students at the low-income school wanted to speak with a professional, they had to fill out paperwork.

“Teachers are scared to make connections with students,” said Segal, also a social studies teacher. Mindfulness exercises, once a popular activity on campus, are no more, replaced with occasional moments of silence that Segal says students think are a joke.

SEL critics say removing it from schools doesn’t mean students are being stripped of mental health support. DeSantis has approved tens of millions in funding for mental health and substance abuse treatment programs. Schools, he’s asserted, should focus on catching kids up on math and reading.

But the curricular fits and starts – and politicization of classroom learning – are taking a toll on that learning. In a recent survey by RAND and the Center on Reinventing Public Education, more than half of educators say politics has interfered with their ability to teach.

“It is not a pleasurable experience in the classroom at this moment,” Segal said. “Our kids need stability right now. Not … this utter chaos.”

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Contact Alia Wong at (202) 507-2256 or Follow her on Twitter at @aliaemily.

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