Before we tackle the misinformation circulating about Social Emotional Learning (SEL), including the allegation that SEL is tied to gender identity and hence "harmful" for children's mental health, it is essential to understand what SEL is intended to teach children.
There are many ways in which SEL is defined within the education sector. Almost all the definitions have a common theme of students being able to manage and understand their emotions and others by developing self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, and empathy. One practical example of SEL is when students are asked to work with others to achieve collective team goals. When working with others to solve a common problem, inevitably differing opinions and thoughts on how to tackle the issue can pose a challenge. SEL teaches students essential life skills such as teamwork, empathy, interpersonal communication, appreciation of equality and diversity, and how to find common grounds. The overarching goal of social-emotional learning is to promote tolerance and harmony at the societal level while benefiting the individual by boosting their self-worth through self-compassion and understanding.
The above should clarify that SEL has a much broader scope than simply achieving a specific political correctness. However, the latter is often alleged to be an intended outcome of SEL, depending on the educational setting in which SEL is practiced. For example, after parents raised concerns that their children might be exposed to confusing information regarding their gender identity, the government in England, in 2020, issued guidance to schoolteachers in the UK, advising them 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 criticized 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 concluded that it’s unwise and hence ineffective to have a general rule on how far the SEL must be stretched before it’s considered harmful for the children’s mental health. The merits of the situation at hand should decide whether a particular issue must be covered in an SEL intervention initiative. For example, I agree that children in schools should be taught to respect the rights of others, including their right to identify themselves as a specific gender, but this must not be confused with information that might cause them to unnecessarily question their own gender identity. I would see higher merit in a more open debate at a secondary or higher secondary level. The students are more mature to engage in complex and sometimes controversial discussions.
Fear is a significant culprit in people rejecting new ideologies that they do not understand, which leads to misinformation 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 would not be fair to say that not enough work is being done to counter this presupposition, as many recent publications, political discussions, and education policies are focused on improving awareness regarding the benefits of SEL. In my opinion, it’s just a matter of time before more individuals become aware of and appreciate that SEL has a much broader scope than the political correctness that it is wrongly affiliated with.