Hillsborough educators now are calling ‘social-emotional learning’ something else

The district must thread the needle between supporting emotional health and running afoul of conservative critics.
Student mental health services have been a priority in recent years, in part to prevent violence on campus. These resource cards were made available in the last school year at Hillsborough's middle and high schools.
Student mental health services have been a priority in recent years, in part to prevent violence on campus. These resource cards were made available in the last school year at Hillsborough's middle and high schools. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]
Published June 7|Updated June 8

Hillsborough County Public School educators take time in the school day to help children understand their emotions. They engage in organized programs to encourage empathy and combat bullying. They conduct surveys to find out how well-supported children feel at school.

All of these activities, known in the trade as social-emotional learning, will continue, officials say.

They will just be called something else.

A redlined version of the student code of conduct, which the School Board approved unanimously Tuesday, now uses terms such as “resiliency, character, and life skills education” wherever “social-emotional learning” was previously found.

Despite the wording change, the district said it will continue programs that are guided by the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, Emotional Learning. (Notably, in one paragraph of the student code of conduct, the last three words in the organization’s name were stricken.)

Hillsborough is not alone in wordsmithing its documents to correct what is seen in some circles as offending language. The Palm Beach County district, on its website, now refers to character lessons as “skills for learning and life.”

Such changes have happened as some of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top advisers have singled out various educational concepts, such as critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion, for suspicion and rejection. Last year, the Florida Department of Education initially rejected dozens of math textbooks in part because they contained elements of social-emotional learning.

Social-emotional learning, which was developed in the early 1990s and gained popularity as a response to school violence, is a broad range of practices that help students manage their emotions and relationships so they will be more open to instruction and less likely to engage in conflict. It might take the form of separate videos or exercises, or it might be folded into a language arts or social studies lesson.

“SEL (social-emotional learning) is a huge component of the success of our students in general; and especially students in our marginalized communities, who sometimes have experienced trauma,” said School Board member Jessica Vaughn. “If kids don’t feel comfortable and safe, they’re not going to be in a position to learn.”

Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn
Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn [ Hillsborough County School District ]

State leaders prioritized social and mental health issues in response to the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. Hillsborough was among many districts that entered partnerships with outside organizations, including Frameworks of Tampa Bay, 7 Mindsets and Panorama Education, to assist with this work.

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But recently, in their drive to rid the schools of what DeSantis calls “woke ideology,” state education leaders have turned against social-emotional learning. Critics include Christopher Rufo, a conservative activist whom DeSantis appointed to the board of the recently refocused New College.

Rufo’s concern, echoed by other conservative writers, is that social-emotional learning lessons sometimes contain liberal themes of white guilt and gender deconstruction. Critics have argued that, in conducting these lessons, teachers are placed in the position of acting as untrained mental health counselors.

In a document posted to the Hillsborough school board agenda, staff said the wording change was warranted by a “state directive.”

Chief of Staff Michael McAuley said this week that he was not aware of a directive.

Michael McAuley, chief of staff atr Hillsborough County Schools, Tuesday, November 17, 2020.
Michael McAuley, chief of staff atr Hillsborough County Schools, Tuesday, November 17, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

But there was a Feb. 27 memo from Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz to all superintendents and charter school operators that took issue with a social-emotional learning product that is not used in Hillsborough. Diaz described the product as “divisive and discriminatory,” going on to say it “has no place in Florida’s classrooms.”

Diaz’s letter cautioned district leaders to comb through their social-emotional learning materials and make sure none of them violated state law. While he did not cite any specific laws, it is now illegal in Florida to teach that a person is privileged or oppressed because of gender or ethnicity.

“We submitted all programs and materials to the state,” McAuley said. “There has been no negative feedback from the Department of Education.”

As he understood the situation, he said, “We simply changed the language to be in better alignment with state board (of education) language around mental health and wellness.”

There was almost no discussion of the matter at Tuesday’s meeting. Although Vaughn flagged the item, she said staff answered her questions earlier in the day. She assured the audience that “this is a living document. This is what we have now, but we can make changes and amendments to it as needed.”

Earlier, a speaker in the audience, Debbie Hunt, referred to the wording change while discussing a program called Second Step that teaches life skills to middle school students. Hunt said Second Step’s website clearly identifies the organization as a social-emotional learning provider.

The Second Step agenda item, which passed without discussion, opens with a description that is largely about what the organization is not: “Second Step programs do not teach about gender, sexuality, or critical race theory.”

McAuley said that, to the best of his knowledge, nothing has changed nor will change in any of the district’s ongoing programs and relationships, including the yearly survey by Panorama. The amended code of conduct talks of teaching “self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness as a part of everyday core instruction.”

McAuley said that “these will continue to be our accepted and desired values.”