An article in EdWeek this week praises Social Emotional Learning (SEL).  SEL acknowledges that social and emotional factors influence learning. The article highlights a south side Chicago high school which was known for its violent atmosphere which has been transformed to a place “where students dream of college” because the focus shifted from zero tolerance to one where the emotional needs of the child are addressed. Some schools have adopted the Stephen Covey Leader In Me program as an SEL aid. This program take principles from Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, including “think win-win,” ”seek first to understand, then to be understood” and “synergize,” and applies them to the school system. Some schools are highly supportive of this model. Others have not seen the transformative effects of SEL with it. What do students learn from an atmosphere where their emotional well being becomes the focus rather than academics?

In the Chicago schools mentioned by EdWeek students seem to gather a sense of calm and self worth previously unfelt. With SEL, students are given opportunities to learn and practice core social skills (e.g., apologies, decision making, self-regulation). There is an  “emphasis on participation, and zero tolerance for exclusion.” In schools where this has not been the case, where these values and social norms are not practiced at home, such programs seem to have value.

But what happens when such programs are implemented in schools where the student population in general already has a decent degree of self control, recognition of proper behavior and courtesy. Is there an added benefit to SEL?

One such middle school has been using Covey for two years now and their experience has not been as overwhelmingly positive as the programs instituted in the Chicago schools. For a lot of students in this middle class neighborhood, following the rules, saying please and thank you, and striving to stand out academically if for no other reason than to please mom and dad, were the norm. There are also voluntary transfer students from St. Louis in this school, many of whom, though not all, have been in the school district since elementary school and have been in a school atmosphere which already promoted many of these values. Though the values may not be reinforced at home for these students, they have certainly been surrounded by them for the seven hours each day that they are in school.

The Leader in Me program required the teachers to come up with “leadership” opportunities for every single kid. In many cases this resulted in something like the Official Door Holder being a leader, the equivalent of the participation prize. Being a leader was being conflated with having a purpose. While every child should feel a sense of purpose in their life, not every child is a leader. Serving a function in the organization does not make you a leader. And we all know the problems of the old adage,  too many chiefs and not enough indians.

The win-win goal meant that every office referral had to be a win for both the school and the student. The time spent in the Vice Principal’s office was used to talk about what really caused the bad behavior and look for a more positive way to handle it in the future. At the end both the VP and the student had to write out their win from the experience.

Teachers were required to integrate one of the seven habits into every single lesson plan which soon became an excessive burden for the teaching staff. Lessons were distorted in order to be able to address one of the habits, like synergy.

Teachers noticed that students would prefer to go to the office rather than sit in class and get their work done. Because the office was focused on the visit being a “win-win” it was a more fun place to be than the classroom where the teacher was insisting they participate and do the work the other students were doing. There being little sense that the child had done something wrong, or realizing that their bad behavior could be blamed on some other factor, it should have been no surprise that student behavior did not change. In fact, for some students it got worse. They realized the adults would never actually punish bad behavior. Kids being kids, they pushed the blurry to non-existent boundaries of acceptable behavior. Teachers were reluctant to send the disruptive students to the office because it didn’t affect their behavior and the teacher now had to work with a student who was even further behind in the work because of their time out of the classroom. That resulted in disruptive students remaining in the class where their behavior could affect the learning of the other students.

Some parents have criticized the Covey program for its cult like feel. The Seven Habits has been criticized in general for being a repackaging of Covey’s Mormon faith. The program is also very expensive, costing between $40-65 for the initial three year roll out. In schools where parents are already teaching their own values at home, the expensive program was viewed as an unwanted intrusion into their socialization of their children.

SEL merely points out what teachers and parents have been saying about education for a long time. There is no one single answer for all students and all schools. While it may be beneficial in some schools, it is a waste of time or even an undesirable reprogramming of students in others. The danger of SEL is that the school system (or more likely the private corporations selling behavioral assessments to the schools) will be determining what is acceptable behavior and desirable values.

What has happened to the Leader In Me program in this one middle school? A new principal came in and, while  supportive of the program in general, realized its limitations. The teachers, in a recent school survey, asked that the requirement to include a habit in every single lesson plan be eliminated so they could work them in only where it made sense to the lesson. A student, who was already placed in an in school suspension and was still being disruptive and uncooperative, was sent to the principal’s office. After mouthing off to the teacher and principal and continuing to refuse to do the work, the student was kicked out of the school. The principal realized that a win-win doesn’t necessarily mean there are no negative consequences. The school must be able to win by not having to put up with disruptive disrespectful students. The student may ultimately get a win by realizing that there are boundaries of acceptable behavior and society will not accept everything you decide to dish out.





Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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