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Why Many SEL Programs Fail

by Rick on February 1, 2019

“Although ‘Social-Emotional-Learning may be intended to empower students, many elementary students in these programs learn to equate leadership with obedience. Research by Madora Soutter  (Unintended Lessons of SEL Programs January 21, 2019) reveals that many SEL programs do not achieve their espoused goals of educating students to be self-directed, collaborative learners and leaders.

SEL seems to be suffering the same poor results that most reform efforts have suffered for decades. How can that be?

PS1, where everyone is uncovering the genius in every child

The reason is that young people’s behavior is governed by culture, not programs. Culture is the delivery system for education, because whatever the curriculum is, children’s brains are constructing their own world-view from the context in which the curriculum is delivered. They are minute-by-minute making a mental map of how the world works and how they can make it work. School culture shapes their brains. The context determines what they make of the content.

The culture of most schools hasn’t changed since Mark Twain said: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” At the core of this culture is a set of myths deeply embedded, not only in our schools but in our society. Myths like:

To bring out the best in children and to prepare them to be successful and happy in the world today, they need to be educated in a culture with a different set of myths:

    • “Success is failing again and again without losing enthusiasm.” (Churchill)
    • Life is a series of moments that you create.
    • Academic achievement is only one of the important challenges you face.
    • By the time a child enters kindergarten, they have been doing research on the world for 43,000 hours. Their main field of research is social science.
    • Academic challenges can be fun if the whole brain is engaged.
    • Struggling with academics, or anything else, is one way to get smart. Struggling with social relationships is an even better way–and kids know it.
    • There are 7.5 billion different kinds of brains in the world, everyone has gifts, everyone has shortcomings, and no one is average.
    • Children create themselves. They do this by making decisions. Adults can only create the conditions that add to the learning from internally motivated decisions. Leadership is defining your self to the situation.
    • Education is leading. Education is leading each child’s character out into the world to contribute creatively and gracefully to it. Character is the imprint that the gods put on your soul at birth. The outcomes are as diverse and numerous as there are people. Each of us has a genius, the voice of that character. Our genius is leading us in our lifelong project of self-actualization.
    • If you DO try to get through the eye of the needle, you will indeed be putting your progress toward self-actualization on hold.
    • AND, most of all for effective social-emotional development, conflict is not something to avoid, but a basic fact of life. Happiness and success require embracing conflict and engaging in the lifelong process of getting good at making conflict creative.

The development of character is not simply doing the right thing nor is it “doing your own thing” and being “a character.” We develop our character as we actively engage in conflict with other characters.

I am not asserting that these myths are “true.” I am saying that when we act as if they are true, we optimize our own development and that of our children at the same time.

I know that Madora knows what she is talking about, because she began her career as a teacher at Children’s Day School in San Francisco. I am thrilled that her research is advancing the effort to change the culture of schooling so that American schools will someday become educational.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill Espinosa February 4, 2019 at 9:36 am

I love the ziggurat shape in which you have stacked the questionable myths about learning. I’ve read that one of the purposes of the ancient ziggurat form was to keep the common people from spying on what the “priests” were up to. “Plus ca change…… “

Marilyn Price-Mitchell February 4, 2019 at 1:27 pm

Thanks for this article and for sharing Madora’s research study. I just read her article with great interest. Sounds like much more needs to be learned from the student’s themselves.

Ryan Burke February 5, 2019 at 12:21 pm

Great read.

Mark Herman February 5, 2019 at 4:48 pm


Lyn Chivvis February 12, 2019 at 10:45 am

Rick, I always loved reading your blogs, and I especially love the Churchill quote about failing.
Plus when a baby drops everything on the floor, that little person is totally engaged in primary research, so I always picked the object back up and gave it back to the baby, who, of course, dropped it again. Research on gravity, as well as research on grandma…
So I love the 43,000 hours of research the kindergartner has already done before the first day of school…

Peter July 2, 2019 at 2:58 pm

Hi, Rick;
That figure, 43,000 hours of research “0 to entering JK”, how is it arrived at?
(To me, 43,000 divided by 365 days divided by 24 hours equals almost 5 years … maybe a more realistic figure might be 4,300 with some sleep allowed for.)
Have a good day,

Rick July 3, 2019 at 5:40 am

Peter, thanks for checking. 365x42x5=43,800. (you dropped a zero) I included sleep, because, indeed the brain is working the problem 24 hours a day./ Sleep is a very important part of consolidating what they learned during the day and making it operational the next day. Thanks for checking and asking.

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