Social-Emotional Learning vs. Classroom Culture 


A student accidentally drops her books in the hall.  

Another student stops and helps her pick them up.  

Then a teacher homes in on the two and gives the helper a little yellow card which can be redeemed for candy.  

This is what social-emotional learning (SEL) looks like in my school. 

Teachers instruct on proper behaviors and then reward students they see going above and beyond to achieve them.  

Here’s another example. 

A student at his lunch table is yelling and throwing food. Nearby another student is sitting quietly and reading a book.  

Then a teacher walks over and gives the quiet child a yellow card which can be used to enter a raffle for a special prize. He might win an Oculus VR game system or tickets to a baseball game.  

That’s social-emotion learning, too.  

Instead of just cracking down on the negative behaviors, we try to reward the positive ones.  

To be fair, it works to a degree.  

But most of the time, it doesn’t. 

The same kids end up with huge stacks of yellow cards and the rest get just one or two. Few students actually change their behavior. They just become virtue signalers whenever an adult is present.  

Moreover, there’s an incredible amount of pressure on teachers to not just instruct but to closely observe every student’s behavior and constantly give positive reinforcement to those doing what should be the norm.  

And that’s not even mentioning the frequent disruptions necessary to reward those children who can best navigate the system. 

But that’s only one way of addressing the problem of bad behavior.  

Especially now (most student’s first full year of in-person classes after the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic), students don’t seem to know how to interact.  

Snubs, insults and instigation seem to be their defaults ways of relating to each other. Some definitely need explicit boundaries and reinforcement.  

But it only goes so far in the halls, the cafeteria and during unstructured times.  

Inside the classroom is another beast altogether – as it always has been. 

Ever since I first started teaching more than two decades ago, it’s been necessary to work to achieve a classroom culture. 

The teacher has to expend significant time and energy with the students as a whole and each student individually to set up a mini-society where each member gets respect by giving respect. 

We try to set up the environment so everyone feels safe and involved, everyone is accepted for who they are, comfortable to be themselves and feels empowered to take the chances necessary to learn. 

It’s not easy, but it’s more about relationships than behaviorism. The reward isn’t something extrinsic – it’s participation in the classroom culture, itself.  

Both approaches attempt to do the same thing – create an environment in which learning is possible.

It reminds me of the famous quote by conductor Leopold Stokowski

“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” 

In the same way, you might say that learning in a group requires a canvass of positive behaviors or beneficial social interaction.  

This has always been the case, though today the concept has become elevated to buzzword status – SEL. 

It’s not so much a single program but a loose conglomeration of ideas that have been around forever. 

However, like so much about school these days, the work of teachers and students has become both monetized and demonized. 

For those on the far right, SEL is code for teaching kids how to think and feel.  

They fear leftwing teachers will instill the values of accepting LGBTQ people, different races and cultures.  Why that’s something to be avoided, I don’t know. Perhaps if you want your child to share your own bigotries, public school isn’t for you, no matter what you call the offending programs.  

However, for me the worst part is monetization.  

An army of corporate education consultants are looking for ways to give shallow professional development to teachers (at a cost to the district) and then run complicated programs from afar.  

This means: (1) testing students’ abilities in SEL, (2) holding teachers accountable for student behaviors, and (3) pretending educators are developmental psychologists.  

The problem with testing is multifaceted. First, it almost always comes down to more standardized assessments. Nothing is easier to measure but less accurate than multiple choice assessment created by psychometricians far removed from the reality of the classroom. Kids hate it, this wastes class time and makes the entire educational experience sterile and bland. 

Holding teachers responsible for the way 20 or more kids act at one time is ridiculous. Even parents with one or two children can’t control how they act – nor should that be the ultimate goal. School isn’t the military. It shouldn’t be about obedience. It should be about critical thinking and cognitive growth.

Finally, there is something incredibly unfair about expecting teachers who are already overloaded with jobs and responsibilities to suddenly become psychologists, too. Sure, we have some training in childhood psychology as part of our coursework to get our degrees, but we aren’t experts. We’re practitioners. We’re like auto-mechanics at your local garage. We can fix your car if something’s busted, but we can’t rewire the whole thing for greater efficiency. 

So when it comes to SEL, educators role should be focused and limited.  

We should be fully engaged in the creation of classroom culture.  

That is where we can have the greatest impact in the construction of our own interpersonal relationships with classes and students.  

When it comes to the way students interact outside of the class, teachers should be part of the planning process but the main responsibility of conducting it should be with administrators.  

And, finally, we mustn’t ignore the responsibility of parents and guardians.  

Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%.  

We must free parents from overwork and professional pressures so they can do more to teach their children how to interact with others.  

It takes a village to raise a child – a village that knows how to communicate with each other and respect each member’s role. 


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12 thoughts on “Social-Emotional Learning vs. Classroom Culture 

  1. This is one of the great ones, Steven. This is my favorite part: “They fear leftwing teachers will instill the values of accepting LGBTQ people, different races and cultures. Why that’s something to be avoided, I don’t know. Perhaps if you want your child to share your own bigotries, public school isn’t for you, no matter what you call the offending programs.” Definitely sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I completely agree. I’m a public high school classroom teacher with 15 years experience in an urban district- 10 years at the same high school. I am not a psychologist. I try to build good relationships with my students and a positive classroom culture, but I don’t expect to change the home culture that kids have grown up with. This whole SEL focus has gone overboard. At some point we as a society have to teach kids to persevere. Toughen up! We are so focused on SEL that teachers aren’t able to teach content. I have students saying that they couldn’t do assignments because they were “depressed” or “axnxious.” How far does that get you after high school?


    • I do think parents need to take more responsibility, but we need to help them do it. We allow much less parental leave than other countries and adults often have to work ridiculous hours just to make ends meet. So I don’t think the answer is just telling students to toughen up. I truly believe in Maslow before Bloom. However, this shouldn’t mean turning behavior into a chance to win snacks and prizes. It’s more complicated.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. PBIS is the most horrible mass “psychological” experiment imposed on children. My son’s K year (2009) was ground zero at his public school. PBIS “worked” K-2, but after the kids were smart enough to figure out the scheme and the cheap toys weren’t cutting it anymore, behavior actually started getting worse. By the time he (and his cohorts) reached MS (CC was in full swing and testing/data became king), the hallways were like a scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. School admin at the MS level decided to add in Growth Mindset, Grit and “Empathy Training seminars(?) along with “questionnaires” from outside institutions (yes, we parents signed permission slips for education on drug usage and smoking but the questions went way over the top…they used the same questionnaire for grades 6-12 and that didn’t go too well!). Not much learning or teaching was going on with all the disruptions and fighting and “programs”. Child #2 was pulled from public school and we paid for him to attend a private HS with an emphasis on teaching the “whole child” and mutual respect for all. The “deforms” in public education need to go. I’m appalled that my taxpayer $$$ support such poor quality “programs” being implemented in public schools…..wonder why people support vouchers and/or Charter schools?


    • I agree about PBIS. I just don’t understand why we continue to implement this nonsense. Perhaps no one has a better, simple answer to the problem, and PBIS is at least something.


  4. Love this post. I so agree that SEL is embedded in the classroom culture and doesn’t require some separate curriculum which of course costs money. As a retired teacher and currently a BOE member in the district where I taught, I expressed my opposition to the 20 lesson curriculum being proposed by our elementary principals. They are wonderful principals but I think it’s just easier to say we’re all on the same page and we are providing resources for our teachers who are so overworked. Oh, and I hate the idea that students need to be rewarded with cards for good behavior. Counterproductive…. big fan of Alfie Kohn’s book “Punished By Rewards”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy, I’m a huge fan of Alfie Kohn. I’ve seen him speak three times and have a signed book! I was teaching in the 90s and hadn’t heard of him yet – got into his stuff when my own children were in school and my friends and I started a choice school within our district because we were disgusted with the other options (very academic starting young out here in Bill Gatesland, CA). Have you ever read Positive Discipline in the Classroom? I don’t know that we need “SEL Curriculum.” From what I’m hearing, it sounds like overkill and possibly problematic.

      Positive DIscipline is a once-a-week class meeting for solving student interpersonal problems. It starts by teaching problem-solving techniques, discussing why punishment does not ultimately “work,” etc. I used it from my first year teaching 5th grade in a rough low-income neighborhood. It eliminated tattling and helped kids learn that they need to work together to solve all those annoying little things, like, “He’s looking at me!” LOL. We had amazing, deep conversations when things “got real,” too. We didn’t spend time on silly “I’m okay, you’re okay” garbage, but we did make one positive statement each at the beginning of each meeting – generally a compliment or thank you to a fellow student. This type of thing I would support. Most of the “growth mindset” curriculum and other things I’ve seen are garbage.


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