With good reason, educators have become increasingly concerned about student well-being. In our article introducing the “Unschooling Emotion” series, we suggested that current social-emotional learing (SEL) initiatives may not be the best way to approach fostering student well-being. One reason for this stems from how the goals of SEL are framed.[1] We ask: Is the aim to foster well-being, or is well-being simply a means to some other end?[2]

Let’s examine a typical advertisement appearing in EdWeek. Readers are encouraged to attend a webinar entitled, “A Trauma-Informed Approach To Accelerate Learning With Social-Emotional Learning.” The description reads, in part: “This session looks at driving learning acceleration through student programs focused on social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices.” The logic here is that social-emotional learning is valuable because it facilitates “learning acceleration”: increasing the pace of instruction, thus increasing student achievement.

This idea that SEL aims to boost achievement is not unique to this advertisement. It was central to the work that founded the most prominent SEL approaches. For example, a key figure in the development of contemporary SEL programs is James P. Comer, an African American child psychiatrist who was director of the Yale University Child Study Center’s School Development Program. In 1968, Comer ran an intervention program at two New Haven schools that served predominantly low-income African-American families.

From the outset of this work, standardized test scores were used to evaluate these interventions. Foreshadowing contemporary SEL programs, Comer and his team focused on aligning student attitudes and behaviors to the cultural expectations of school, and engaged families in meeting those expectations. The team then demonstrated the value of these interventions by showing that the standardized test scores of the students in the treatment schools steadily increased.[3]

Present SEL initiatives stray little from this initial focus. The effectiveness of SEL interventions is commonly examined in terms of how much it boosts student achievement and other positive school outcomes.[4]

An analysis of SEL goals

At the beginning of the new millennium, SEL became articulated in law. In 2004, Illinois became the first state to develop specific SEL standards for K-12 students, with most states following suit. As the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) operates out of the University of Illinois at Chicago, it is no accident that it was the first state to adopt SEL standards. As these standards were aligned with CASEL, and were a model for other states, we consider them to be representative of the most prominent approach to SEL in K-12 schools.[5] Below, we present the Illinois standards and explore the aims they assume. Stated philosophically, we believe SEL goals tend to be driven by “instrumental reason”: a focus on how a goal will be achieved absent evaluation of the goal’s meaning, purpose or whether the goal should be pursued.

Goal 1: Develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success.
1A: Identify and manage one’s emotions and behavior.
1B: Recognize personal qualities and external supports
1C: Demonstrate skills related to achieving personal and academic goals.

Goal 1 is written such that self-awareness and self-management are a means to an end, e.g., school success. But what if these are valuable attributes on their own terms?[6] Might it simply be the case that being self-aware contributes to one’s well-being? Isn’t that sufficient motivation to pursue the attribute? Would self-awareness be less valuable if we were unable to link it to academic achievement, future earnings, or professional recognition?

Goal 2: Use social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships.
2A: Recognize the feelings and perspectives of others.
2B: Recognize individual and group similarities and differences
2C: Use communication and social skills to interact effectively with others.
2D: Demonstrate an ability to prevent, manage, and resolve interpersonal conflicts in constructive ways.

With Goal 2, we see a similar pattern, but with a twist: social-awareness and interpersonal skills are given as means to secure positive relationships. Yet, it is hard to imagine a relationship being positive without the individuals in the relationship also exhibiting some measure of social awareness and effective communication. Aside from this failure of logic, isn’t it the case that social-awareness and learning to interact well with others are positive whether some empirical link can be made between them and positive relationships or some other outcome?

Finally, Goal 2D implies that the aim is to minimize visible conflict, while children are to project happiness and joy.[7] There is, however, an argument to be made for allowing bad feelings since glossing over them with structure and routine, or otherwise suppressing them, may cause students to experience shame.[8]

Goal 3: Demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, schools, and community contexts.
3A: Consider ethical, safety and social factors in making decisions.
3B: Apply decision-making skills to deal responsibly with daily academic and social situations.
3C: Contribute to the well-being of one’s school and community.

Interestingly, Goal 3 does not exhibit the same “instrumental reason” evident in the first two goals. Here, students are simply asked only to “consider” ethics, to exhibit “decision-making skills”, and to act responsibly. Goal 3C encourages students to contribute to the well-being of their school and community. It is implied, however, that Goals 3A and 3B are means by which one could contribute to school and community well-being. What is interesting is that only in Goal 3 is well-being presented as the aim, one supported by responsible actions and so on.

Education and the pursuit of evdemonia

With this brief overview, we hope to show that “instrumental reason” dominates SEL initiatives. For the most part, well-being is presented as a means to an end (e.g., increased academic performance) and not an end in itself.

But what if we reversed the formula? What if we considered well-being to be the aim, and then considered how learning academic content, learning to work with peers, or learning to control one’s emotions, contributed to individual and collective well-being?

What if we asked: how can education contribute to evdemonia — an ancient Greek concept that refers to living a life that is worthwhile, fulfilling, and elevating?[9] From the vantage point of evdemonia, we are asked to consider not only the best way to achieve well-being, but also to evaluate what it means to live a worthwhile, fulfilling and elevating life.

From this perspective, well-being goes beyond a simple initiative or a program: well-being arises from all that we think and do.

As Hargreaves and Shirley argue, well-being should be understood as “a social condition that involves inclusion, belonging, peacefulness, and human rights. Strong well-being programs and policies see and secure the connections between the psychological states of children and the eventual state of the world.”[10]

  1. Most SEL advocates argue that “mastery of social-emotional competencies is associated with greater well-being.” See, for example: Joseph A. Durlak et al., “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions,” Child Development 82, no. 1 (January 2011): 406. ↩︎

  2. We are certainly not the first to question the motives behind efforts to promote “happiness,” “positive thinking” and “wellness”. See, for example: Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (Henry Holt and Company, 2009); William Davies, The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being (Verso Books, 2015). ↩︎

  3. Meredith McBride, “The Character of Law: A Normative Critique of Social-Emotional Learning Laws,” Northwestern University Law Review 114, no. 1 (2019): 203–206. We critically evaluate claims that SEL initiative improve student achievement in a future article. ↩︎

  4. Maurice J. Elias, “What If the Doors of Every Schoolhouse Opened to Social-Emotional Learning Tomorrow: Reflections on How to Feasibly Scale Up High-Quality SEL,” Educational Psychologist 54, no. 3 (July 3, 2019): 233–45. ↩︎

  5. McBride, “The Character of Law: A Normative Critique of Social-Emotional Learning Laws,” 212. ↩︎

  6. We understand that this value may only hold within a highly individualistic culture, but save the discussion of culture and well-being for another time. We also acknowledge that the meanings of self-awareness and self-management vary across the literature and practice setting. The meanings attached to these concepts can be normative and ideological, a theme also taken up elsewhere. ↩︎

  7. Such emotional suppression can in fact be harmful. Emily A. Butler, Tiane L. Lee, and James J. Gross, “Emotion Regulation and Culture: Are the Social Consequences of Emotion Suppression Culture-Specific?,” Emotion 7, no. 1 (February 2007): 30–48. ↩︎

  8. Clio Stearns, “Responsive Classroom?: A Critique of a Social Emotional Learning Program,” Critical Studies in Education 57, no. 3 (September 1, 2016): 332. ↩︎

  9. Alex Pattakos, “The Greek Path to Well-Being,” Psychology Today, March 22, 2021, https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-meaningful-life/202103/the-greek-path-well-being. ↩︎

  10. Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley, Well-Being in Schools: Three Forces That Will Uplift Your Students in a Volatile World (ASCD, 2021), 5. ↩︎