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Is Social and Emotional Learning Encouraging Educators to Pathologize Childhood?

Each spring and fall, I host a series of symposia to dig deeper into popular but fuzzy topics in education (which ensures a long list of potential topics . . .).  Anyway, this spring, we've delved into social and emotional learning (SEL). In helping to frame the most recent of our SEL conversations, Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the Fordham Institute and keen observer of American schooling, offered a powerful caution, arguing that SEL can push us to view children as trauma victims and teachers as therapists. I thought it was a provocative take and well worth sharing more widely. Robert kindly consented to my doing so. Here's what he had to say:

There was a book published in the U.K. about 10 years ago that created quite a stir. But I don't think it got much notice or traction on this side of the Atlantic. It was titled The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education. The author, Kathryn Ecclestone, raised concerns about schooling that "embed[s] populist therapeutic assumptions," and which assumes that "emotional well-being, emotional literacy, and emotional competence are some of the most important outcomes of the education system." Therapeutic culture in education, she argued, stemmed from the concept of a "diminished self"—the idea that we're all damaged, vulnerable, emotionally fragile, and suffering from low self-esteem.

I first heard of the book from a teacher and blogger in the U.K., David Didau, who wrote that "our preoccupation with therapy . . . teaches us that we're damaged and that we need professional help to undo this damage. It leads us to label certain families—particularly working class families—as unable to deal with children's emotions and invites schools to intrude ever further into children's lives."

A year or two after Didau wrote that blog post, I started receiving solicitations for a particular kind of professional development session I'd never heard of before, promoting "trauma-informed teaching." Sometimes it was trauma-sensitive, or trauma-aware, or some such. In nearly every case, the same data point was cited: that half of all students in the United States have experienced serious childhood trauma. And every time the same question was raised: "How can we best support these students and their families?"

The source of this data point appears to be the National Survey of Children's Health. Its 2011-2012 survey tallied nine "adverse childhood events" or ACEs, including socioeconomic hardship, divorce or parental separation, living with someone who has an alcohol or drug problem, being the victim of or witness to neighborhood violence, having a parent in jail, or being treated or judged unfairly due to race/ethnicity. According to the Survey, nearly half (47.9 percent) of U.S. children ages 0-17 have experienced one or more ACEs. When it's two or more, it drops to 22 percent.

I don't want to minimize the seriousness of any of these incidents, but surely the death of a parent is not the same as a divorce, for example. And using the word "trauma" to apply to a range of events, from the unfortunate to devastating, and putting the worst possible statistical gloss on it—half of all children have been traumatized—says something, I think, about the current moment and mindset in education. I don't want to overstate it, but I am concerned that we are at least somewhat at risk of pathologizing childhood, and encouraging a therapeutic view of classroom teaching, one that is creeping closer to a branch of social work.

Neither do I want to sound jaded, but to those of us who spent a lot of time as classroom teachers, SEL doesn't feel particularly new or revelatory. When I began teaching in 2002, we were focused on "teaching the whole child," for example. And while it's good to hear the Aspen Institute in particular is taking care to call it SEAD (Social, Emotional and Academic Development), it's the mindset more than any implementation challenges that concern me. If you view half your class—and in impoverished areas the vast majority of your class—as trauma victims, as struggling or vulnerable, it's almost inevitable that low or reduced expectations will take root. It would be surprising, even hard-hearted, if they did not.

I just finished writing a book about the Success Academy in New York City, which will be published later this year. I'm not Eva Moskowitz's cheerleader, but once I was in the room when she was pressed about some of these issues by a potential board member. She responded in a way that struck me, expressing fewer concerns about the effects of race and poverty than that her teachers might apply a different set of standards to kids because they might be poor. "There are a lot of sensibilities around the fragileness of children," Moskowitz said. "And I think to myself, 'You're a white girl from Long Island, you're the fragile one. The kids have actually been through a lot. Don't impose your issues on the kids.'"

I'll leave it there and merely ask: Are we imposing our issues on the kids?

I'm a huge fan of schools that are doing much more to address the social and emotional realities of students and teachers (correcting for some bizarre excesses of the No Child Left Behind era), but we'd do well to wonder if and when such efforts may do more harm than good. Are we at risk of pathologizing childhood by viewing even normal childhood bumps and bruises as trauma? This is a big question deserving of serious consideration, and I'm deeply obliged to Robert for raising it.

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