Social-Emotional Learning May Be a Limited Solution for Reforming School...

EdSurge Podcast

Social-Emotional Learning May Be a Limited Solution for Reforming School Discipline

By Jenny Abamu     Apr 10, 2018

Social-Emotional Learning May Be a Limited Solution for Reforming School Discipline
Dr. Edward Fergus, Temple University

The United States Government Accountability Office recently released a report confirming decades of anecdotal research saying, among other things, that Black male students who account for 15.5 percent of all public school kids, represented about 39 percent of students suspended from school. That is an overrepresentation of about 23 percentage points. This report also found that students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined in public schools.

To change this trend, some educators are looking to implement social-emotional learning (SEL) practices such as restorative justice—where students repair the harm done with community service or discussions—and daily greetings, where teachers build relationships with students by addressing them each morning.

But researchers following school districts who have implemented such practices, note that SEL practices hold “limited promise” for changing trends in school discipline because notions inherent in much of the pedagogy don’t consider power, privilege and cultural differences.

To discuss his research on this topic, Edward Fergus, an assistant professor at Temple University, joined reporter Jenny Abamu on the EdSurge OnAir podcast.
Listen to the podcast for the full interview below or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher). Or read highlights from the conversation (which have been edited and condensed for clarity).

EdSurge: In your research, you and your colleague Anne Gregory worked with different school districts trying to implement social-emotional learning practices. What were your conclusions about the limitations of these practices, and what was some of the evidence that led you there?

Edward Fergus: What Anne and I argue here is this idea that in social-emotional learning, similar to other frameworks that exist within our educational space, we have to consider where it sits within the conversations on how we are fixing and addressing issues like discipline.

Often we consider social-emotional learning as a tool for, or framework for, approaching how we create the types of climate and culture that kids need for them to be successful. There has to be a great deal of intentionality. What do we understand about the sort of competencies that are bound to social-emotional learning as they sit alongside different racial, ethnic, linguistic and cultural groups that are existing within our school systems?

One of the concepts in social-emotional competencies is problem-solving. So if we think about the notion of how we're trying to build that competency of problem-solving, how do we treat the different ways in which kids are bringing their own personalized experiences into how they make sense of problem-solving?

I always remember an example that a colleague talked about at a conference. It was a decade ago, but it always sat with me. What kind of problem-solving skills do you think go into when a kid, let's say is in a store, and they see a wallet sitting on the floor? That must have fallen out of somebody's pocket. What are the types of knowledge base in experiences that, let's say, a black boy's bringing into seeing that wallet on the floor versus a white boy? How are they making sense of, ‘do I pick it up and turn it in? If I pick it up, do I think about how others are going to read me picking up a wallet that is not mine?’ What stood out for me was the sense-making that an individual's going to put into those decisions.

In that particular example, and I thought about it in terms of my own kids, I have a 14 and 18-year-old. One of the things I'm very conscious of letting them know is that the world is constantly reading in ways that are not going to fit the same way that I read you. I read you as my kid, so I see the good-heartedness that you all bring to the table all the time, but that's not necessarily how the rest of the world is going to interact with you or see you.

The Good Samaritan inside of you, that good humanity will say, ‘I want to pick it up, and I want to turn it in to lost and found.’ I'm helping my own kids understand that I want them to be mindful of how they actually engage in that because there may be a way in which the rest of the world is seeing you pick up that wallet in a very different manner than what you may have been intending.

So with social-emotional learning, Anne and I are arguing that there has to be a greater intentional conversation as to how do these competencies get layered into, or alongside, some of the racial, ethnic and cultural difference realities that are also existing across different populations.

In your research paper, you talk about SEL being focused too much on students and not enough on teachers. Can you talk a bit about that?

There's a presumption that lies within SEL work with kids that the adults who are invoking it have it themselves. So it reminds me of a saying in trauma-informed care talking about, ‘hurt people working with hurt kids.’ We have to be mindful of how we're also building that competency in those set of adults as well.

Rumors are swirling that the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, might want to roll back some of the Obama-era guidance on school discipline. What did you find in your analysis of federal policy? And what would be your response to DeVos's plans to possibly roll those guidelines back?

I'm a former social studies teacher, so for me, it's like everything is a circle. I'm like, ‘where have we seen this before?’ The reality is that in the big umbrella of all this workaround equity is civil rights. The manner in which our society has been able to function to be successful has been as a result of federal-level oversight or involvement in ensuring what we have identified as core civil rights that every individual should be privy to.

We're talking about the guidance package that was signed off on by Arne Duncan and Eric Holder. It was paramount in acknowledging that there is a disproportionate pattern of suspension and discipline occurring across the country. But this guidance document again is providing school districts ways in which they should look much more closely at their data. Pay much more closer attention to the nature of their policy, and what we had actually occurred since that time frame, is a great deal of policy movement.

There's a great deal of state education agencies, as well as state governments, that have moved in the direction of actually enacting new policy changes. For example, in Maryland, the new state legislature made a law that requires the state education department to cite school districts that are disproportionately suspending kids of color. And I highlight it because it's unique in the sense that in most states, they've done it at a level where it's a school district gets cited, but now they've gone even further and said, "No, a school itself could be cited within the school district."

You also have places like Illinois, Colorado and California that have moved in the direction of removing suspension as an option for kids in grades kindergarten through grade two. The premise is predominantly two things: One is, that their discipline should have a rehabilitative approach to it. And two, it should be developmentally appropriate.

That's in response to the fact that you have kindergartners getting suspended because they kicked the teacher in the shin. I get that it's hurtful at that moment in terms of the behavior that that kid is demonstrating, but that punishment approach, absent of any type of rehabilitative approach, is not developmentally appropriate for our kids. Particularly in that age bracket.

Many of these states have also moved in the direction of insisting that there be particular types of intervention approaches that are much more rehabilitative and that they have a developmental, behaviorist perspective bound to them.

What the current secretary of ed is approaching, from what I've read, the language that she's using is disconcerting because it gets back to recognizing that there are policymakers who are going to be bringing in their own luggage of belief. The federal government has always played and is an important tool for ensuring the civil rights of individuals, and that's not necessarily the perspective that may be driving the current administration in the department of education in terms of how they approach insuring acts of opportunity for all of our kids.

Fergus ends the interview with advice for school leaders. This article version only included highlights from our conversation; please tune into the podcast to listen to the full interview.

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