SEL: A Bandaid on a Bullet Hole

Taking responsibility, valuing an education, recognizing character strengths, and fighting off victimitis. These are the taglines corresponding with the most recent lessons of the newly implemented SEL (social and emotional learning) program. After receiving a low ranking on our school report card due to low test scores, poor attendance, and behavioral issues, school officials started looking for new ways to engage students. This meant trial runs of a few new programs, including SEL. The administration recognizes that a significant percentage of the student population struggles with disruptive behaviors and issues handling their emotions. In response to this, they implemented the SEL program. However, these behaviors have been linked to mental disorders like depression and anxiety and can also be an indicator of trauma. Not only are teachers not equipped to treat those kinds of mental health issues, the SEL program in itself is not trauma-informed. Therefore, it will not help these students improve their behavior or their engagement in school. 

Right off the bat, the intentions of the program were made clear. In an email to the student body on January 23, 2020, assistant principal Chris Stahlheim opted for a ‘two birds, one stone’ approach, and announced the implementation of the A.LeC. (Active Learning Engagement in Classroom) room and SEL lessons in the same message. Further, directly after explaining that the lessons will be added throughout the year so that, “Students have more tools to use in social and emotional situations,” Stalheim stated that addressing those issues and maximizing learning opportunities is essential in improving the schools report card. This approach makes it seem like the goal of the new programs isn’t necessarily student health, it’s an improvement in school standing. If students feel like the administration’s efforts aren’t intended to support their actual mental health and well being, behavior and engagement will never improve.

Taking the attention off the report card and putting it back on the students is the only way to get a genuine result. Even if the intentions behind the SEL program were pure, the students who, on paper, may seem to need it the most, see it as a joke. One explanation for this is that these behaviors are caused by something much more complex than the SEL program is equipped to handle. According to the American Institute for Research, the majority of schools that have implemented these kinds of programs serve mass amounts of students with substantial trauma. As tough as it might be to hear, “Fighting off victimitis,” is probably not the right lesson for the members of our student body who are acting out. 

That’s not to single anyone out, as the programs wouldn’t be targeted towards all students if it wasn’t a schoolwide issue. Many students, including myself, contribute to the disengagement. Some people may disagree, but sometimes it isn’t a cognitive decision to be disengaged. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, mental health problems can affect students energy level, concentration, dependability, and optimism. Research also shows that depression can be associated with lower grade point averages and less participation in school. If disengagement in school can be linked to depression and other mental health issues, and we are seeing disengagement on a student body wide level, it can be inferred that more students are struggling than we know. 

Before students can “value an education,” they have to value their lives. The SEL program is designed to build and sustain emotional intelligence, not manifest stability and motivation. Our administration can see that we are struggling. Our community can see that we’re struggling. The world knows that students are struggling. It’s time to stop covering bullet holes with bandaids, and work together to find a solution that benefits us all.