Students participating in story reading. Photo: Shutterstock

As depression, anxiety and suicide rates spike among kids, public schools are working feverishly to expand programs supporting their mental health. So why are well-heeled ‘grassroots’ groups trying to overturn that?

During the pandemic, Idaho students, teachers and families were hit hard by school closures, coronavirus breakouts, and a brewing mental health crisis. Suicide attempts among kids twelve and under were on the rise. And a 2021 report from the state’s hospital emergency departments suggested many youth in Idaho – like kids throughout the country – were struggling with thoughts of depression, self-harm and hopelessness.

Small wonder that Sherri Ybarra, the state’s Republican superintendent of public instruction, appeared frustrated last fall by protests about the state’s support for social-emotional learning (SEL) – an educational approach based on the idea that kids learn and do best when they feel safe, valued and connected. In October, a libertarian group called the Idaho Freedom Foundation assailed the education department’s SEL efforts as a stealth campaign  “to hide a vehicle for critical race theory from the public.” 

At a virtual symposium on school safety shortly afterward, Ybarra defended SEL forcefully, citing a student suicide days earlier and a school shooting incident last May, according to an account of the meeting on IdahoEdNews.org, a local news site.

“We will not tolerate being shamed or scared off of a program that prevents kids from dying.”

republican Sherri ybarra, Idaho Superintendent of public instruction

The attacks on Idaho schools’ use of SEL were “political posturing” by “those who have co-opted the term social-emotional learning,” Ybarra said, explaining that it was about “self-control, self-awareness, problem solving, strong interpersonal skills and responsible decision making.”

“Depression, alcohol, suicide – those things know no boundaries, and no demographic when it comes to affecting our kids,” she told symposium attendees, adding that she and the education department “will not tolerate being shamed or scared off of a program that prevents kids from dying.”

The Idaho Freedom Foundation did not respond to interview requests for this article. Its website says it considers “most of the legacy news media to be agenda-driven propagandists working to shift public opinion toward socialist ideas.”

Welcome to the newest frontline in the war over public education: battles about SEL programs designed to support student mental health. In states and districts across the country, school administrators and educators are scrambling to deal with a mental health crisis that has dramatically worsened during the pandemic – and are confronting protests against these efforts mounted by organizations espousing a conservative or libertarian agenda. 

In Johnson County, Indiana, the president of a group called Purple for Parents Indiana charged in late 2021 that teaching grade schoolers about emotions and acceptance of LGBTQ children prepares kids for sex trafficking, according to NBC, which also reported that the group is working with a state legislator to outlaw SEL programs in the state’s schools. Earlier this year in Brevard County, Florida, members of a national group called Moms for Liberty protested a plan by school officials to send teachers to a summer SEL program, calling it “continued racist training”; it has also lobbied lawmakers in Tennessee, New York, Wisconsin and Ohio. Some anti-SEL protestors have reportedly reviled, harassed and threatened school board members who disagree with them.

Tweet from the New Hampshire chapter of Moms for Liberty, which was chastised by New Hampshire’s governor for putting a bounty on teachers

And Asra Nomani, vice president for strategy and investigations at an organization called Parents Defending Education (PDE), has described SEL as a “Trojan horse” that slips race and other sensitive topics into the school program. 

Manufactured outrage, ties to Koch network

Conservative media has been quick to echo these themes. Last November, the magazine National Review published an article with this arresting headline: “Kindergarten Students in Connecticut Learn about Being Transgender in Line with ‘Social Justice Standards.’” The article reported that elementary school children in West Hartford were being forced to read books like “Jacob’s New Dress” and “When Aidan Became a Brother” as part of its social-emotional learning curriculum.

The article also charged that parents denied the option of having their children “opt out” of the curriculum turned to the self-described “grassroots organization” – Parents Defending Education – to complain.

Thomas Moore, superintendent of the West Hartford public school district, told MindSite News he was “stunned” by the article’s “inflammatory” account. The district uses SEL, he said, as a way to help students handle difficult emotions, navigate relationships, and find practical solutions to interpersonal problems. At previous school board meetings, he said, only three parents in a district with almost 10,000 students had raised concerns about the program, and he’d held respectful conversations with each of them.

There had been zero controversy” about the SEL program,  Moore said. The National Review piece, he added, seemed like an attempt by forces outside the district to gin up local outrage. 

Thomas Moore, West Hartford Public Schools Superintendent

 In fact, the district is making “a significant investment” to bolster its capacity to address some of the psychological consequences of the pandemic and extended school closures, such as hiring a trauma specialist, said Moore. “We see the social and emotional needs of kids as one of the biggest factors in whether they can be successful,” he said.

He added that the books under attack were not mandatory reading, but available to teachers if questions came up about gender identity. And the lack of an opt-out option? “There is not an opt-out when we’re talking about kindness to other kids,” he said.

“There had been zero controversy” about the SEL program,  Moore said. The National Review piece, he added, seemed like an attempt by forces outside the district to gin up local outrage. 

Teaching kids to self-regulate

Teachers have always found ways to manage their classrooms and support development of emotional skills and others beyond strictly academic disciplines.  

Since the mid-1990s, however, a significant body of research affirming the approach has emerged. SEL refers both to a broad philosophy and to a dizzying array of specific programs, training and toolkits adopted in recent years by school districts across the country, based on scientific evidence that show kids learn best when they feel supported and valued in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.

“We want kids to come out of here who can self-regulate, who can identify their emotions and meet their academic potential,” Matthew Portell, principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary  School in Nashville, Tennessee, told a MindSite News reporter last year. The school has been using the approach for six years.

Social-emotional learning is based on findings from neuroscience about how the human brain adapts to different social circumstances: Children tend to withdraw and shut down or else react with fear when teachers or classmates are sarcastic, threatening or hostile; conversely, strong, positive relationships with educators and peers help them learn. For students, working things out in play, getting support, enjoying close relationships with teachers and having one-on-one time with them can make the difference between failing and thriving.

A 2009 analysis of 213 studies of school-based programs found that, compared to controls, SEL participants “demonstrated significantly improved” interpersonal skills and more positive attitudes about themselves, had fewer behavioral problems, and reported less emotional distress.  Academic performance also showed improvement, although only a small minority of the studies measured this outcome. Some of the studies collected follow-up data at six months or longer after the program and found that the positive benefits were somewhat reduced.

The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 – authored by then-Senator Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and former Education Secretary during the George W. Bush administration – provided impetus to the SEL movement by making it easier for school districts to invest in the approach.

Making Connections with Greetings at the Door/ pre-pandemic Edutopia series “How Students Learn” on social-emotional learning. Credit/Edutopia

Ironically, the attacks on SEL are taking place as public health experts have raised the alarm about a national mental health crisis among youth. In early 2021, trips to the emergency department for suspected suicide attempts rose 51% among teen girls and 4% among boys in the United States. Hospitals nationwide reported a 45% increase in self-injury and suicide cases among children last year compared to the year before. 

Numbers like these prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy  of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry to declare the country’s youth mental crisis a “state of emergency” and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to issue an urgent advisory in December calling for concerted action to improve kids’ mental health. Among other things, Murthy specifically recommended that school systems create “positive, safe and affirming school environments,” hire more counselors, support staff mental health, and expand “social-and-emotional learning programs and other evidence-based approaches that promote healthy development.”

Reports from some media suggest that parents are rising up en masse to protest school mental health counselors and social-emotional learning. But a closer look suggests that other, more powerful forces are driving the scattered protests, and they are anything but grassroots. 

‘Woke indoctrination’ in schools

Along with the National Review, the American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and City Journal, a publication of the conservative Manhattan Institute, have also sounded the alarm against social-emotional learning. Fox News has reported on a new “grassroots” parents’ movement rising up to protest social-emotional learning and “woke indoctrination in schools.”  

One of the groups leading the charge against SEL is Parents Defending Education, which describes itself as “working to reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas.” The group announced its “public launch today” in a twitter thread in March of 2021 and declared its goal was to “build a grassroots army.” Eight days earlier, PDE represented itself as a “grassroots nonprofit” in a motion to intervene in a New York City case involving race and admissions to magnet schools. The filing was first reported in deutsch29, a blog by Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana teacher and author. 

Parents Defending Education says it “trains parents how to put schools and officials on the spot, gain media attention…and make sure the school knows there will be consequences for indoctrination and radicalism in the classroom.”

statement from parents defending education

In a press release from Parents Defending Education featured on Fox News, the organization declared that it “trains parents how to put schools and officials on the spot, gain media attention, get involved with school boards and other oversight bodies, and make sure the school knows there will be consequences for indoctrination and radicalism in the classroom.” Its website includes a U.S. “IndoctriNation map,” highlighting locations of recent education battles.

According to the Center for Media and Democracy, Nicole Neily, PDE’s founder and president, is a long-time operative in organizations with ties to the Koch family, the wealthy clan that has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to right-wing and libertarian groups, including those promoting school privatization efforts.

In 2017, Neily founded and served as president of Speech First, an organization working to  combat “toxic censorship culture on college campuses.” In practice, this meant filing complaints and lawsuits against universities that seek to enforce speech codes and other campus policies designed to promote diversity. According to Speech First’s 2018 tax returns, Neily earned $161,667 that year as president and the organization received $1.2 million in “contributions and grants” from undisclosed donors. 

In a 2018 investigation, The Nation magazine reported that Neily declined to say whether the Kochs were directly involved with Speech First, although she acknowledged the lack of student participation in its creation. Contacted by email for this article, she declined to be interviewed or to disclose the sources of PDE’s funding. 

Maurice Cunningham, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts who studies the political influence of anonymous “dark money,” says groups with ideological agendas often try to conflate issues and scare the public, using funds from deep-pocketed, anonymous donors. “They seize on something, they take it out of context, they drive a message that everything is a horror show,” said Cunningham. 

Since PDE is a new organization, tax returns are not yet available for scrutiny. But Cunningham, the UMass political science professor, said its high-powered rollout is a hallmark of “astroturf” groups that present as “grassroots” or “consumer-based” when they’re actually well-funded efforts to advance corporate or anti-government agendas. 

Parents Defending Education ‘burst upon the scene with so much capacity that it clearly is a corporate style of operation.’

Maurice Cunningham, UMass political science professor

“They burst upon the scene with so much capacity that it clearly is a corporate style of operation,” Cunningham said. “They all have access immediately to The Daily Caller, Breitbart, and Fox News.” He contrasted this “top-down” strategy to authentic grassroots operations of “folks banding together to reach out to their neighbors to try and organize together to improve their lives.” 

Peter Greene, a retired teacher in western Pennsylvania who writes a blog called Curmudgucation, says using the term “grassroots” is a strategic calculation. “Particularly in education, we’re seeing lots of groups popping up claiming to be representing families,” he said. “That makes them seem more invested.”

The Center for Renewing America, a conservative organization founded and run by former Trump administration official Russell Vought, has posited a link between SEL and critical race theory, or CRT, in a “glossary of CRT-related terms.” 

The entry for SEL acknowledges that “people with strong social-emotional skills are better able to cope with everyday challenges and benefit academically, professionally, and socially.” But it also asserts that “concepts of social justice and CRT are often being infused into SEL” and that the programs are “perverted by Critical Social Justice advocates to do more harm than good.”

Vought, a self-described “Christian nationalist,” served as Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget. In that capacity, he sent a memo in July 2020 to federal agencies calling for a ban on “any training on ‘critical race theory,’ ‘white privilege,’ or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

Cunningham links the current uproar to a long-standing effort to inflame fears, especially among white conservatives, about public education’s pernicious influence on children. Tapping into these suspicions has been an effective electoral strategy, he said. “‘Watch out for the indoctrination coming from schools’ has been a right-wing tactic over the last century,” he said. “If you fan the flames, then you can get not only the parents stirred up but the conservative base.” 

Moms for Liberty’s Republican Party link

The increased use and success of SEL has made it more of a political target, said James Vetter, a member of the leadership team of Social Emotional Learning Alliance for the United States, which supports state and local initiatives. A 2017 survey estimated that school systems spend around $640 million annually on SEL-related training and programs, almost half in elementary schools and the rest in middle schools and high schools.

Moms for Liberty leader Tiffany Justice in the War Room program of former Trump top aide Steve Bannon

After decades of relative quiet over these initiatives, 2021 saw the launch of both PDE, No Left Turn for Education and Moms for Liberty. Protests against SEL around the country soon followed. Moms for Liberty” is a far-right group whose co-founder and original co-director Bridget Ziegler is the wife of Christian Ziegler, an executive board member of the Florida Republican Party.

Ziegler credits the group for bringing new voters to the GOP: “I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic. But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.” Moms for Liberty leaders – two of whom recently appeared on Steve Bannon’s War Room – report the group now has 80,000 followers and 165 chapters in 34 states, figures that MindSite News was unable to independently verify.

Meanwhile, No Left Turn for Education has blasted SEL as “another vehicle for anti-white racism in the schools.”

Such criticisms dismay parents who appreciate SEL’s approach. Carol Ness is a Berkeley, California, mother whose 12-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter attended public elementary school before the pandemic. Because the schools prioritized discussion of children’s feelings and challenges, Ness was flabbergasted when she heard that SEL was being portrayed as an underhanded way to sneak discussion of critical race theory and gender issues into classrooms. 

“It’s just to get them to stop hitting each other and being assholes!” she wrote in a text.

Kids bonding in a classroom. Photo: Shutterstock

Ness said she loved the school’s approach, especially the way teachers made it a point to greet and check in with each kid individually at the start of the day. The school also adopted a popular framework called Toolbox that teaches kids 12 methods to help them manage their emotions and is designed to foster “resilience, self-mastery, and empathy for others.”  

The dozen methods include the Breathing Tool (“I calm myself and check-in”), the Garbage Can Tool (“I let the little things go”), the Apology & Forgiveness Tool (“I admit my mistakes and work to forgive yours”), the Listening Tool (“I listen with my ears, eyes and heart”), and the Patience Tool (“I am strong enough to wait”). As a reminder, said Ness, the teachers and principal wore these maxims in the form of a laminated card on a lanyard around their necks. 

Her daughter attended the school when she was 5 for less than a year, said Ness, but she still “routinely refers to the breathing tool and the garbage can tool.”

Many states have adopted SEL frameworks, leaving implementation up to local education officials. In many cases, the concepts are incorporated as guidelines for how the school functions and how the kids are expected to treat one another. 

“He learned the importance of making an effort to repair a friendship when you’ve done something to hurt someone, even if you didn’t mean to.”

jill mccain, boston parent whose son’s school used sel

A few years ago, in the Boston suburb of Cambridge, Jill McCain’s son accidentally pushed a kindergarten classmate off a slide in the school playground. The district had adopted SEL and its guidelines for handling behavioral issues included a “restorative justice approach,” said McCain. To comply, her son composed a letter of apology to his friend, drawing a picture on it since he couldn’t yet write. 

As a parent, McCain felt that the incident and its resolution offered her son a real-world lesson in taking responsibility for his actions. “I think he learned the importance of making an effort to repair a friendship when you’ve done something to hurt someone, even if you didn’t mean to,” she said. 

Not all criticism of SEL has been driven by players with political agendas. Indeed, while exposing the tactics of groups like Parents Defending Education, academic and independent watchdogs make clear that they are not defending all SEL initiatives or seeking to exempt them from the oversight expected when taxpayer funds are involved. 

Certainly some SEL resources “may end up getting implemented by teachers who are not properly trained, or created by someone who’s not qualified to create it,” said Peter Greene, the retired teacher and blogger. But addressing such shortcomings is a far cry from doing away with SEL, he said.

Maurice Cunningham, the UMass political science professor, was also succinct when it came to the attacks on SEL over race and gender. “Programs are subject to legitimate critique,” he said. “That’s not what this is.”

David Tuller

David Tuller, DrPH, is a senior fellow in public health and journalism at UC Berkeley’s Center for Global Public Health, part of the School of Public Health. He received a masters degree in public health...