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The growing battle over school mental health and social-emotional learning


This is an urgent call to those of us who believe in trauma-informed and healing-centered schools that support the whole person. After reading the recent NBC article “Parents protesting 'critical race theory' identify another target: mental health programs,” I quickly put aside the blog I had been working on because I knew this was too important.

Concerns from colleagues about the rising backlash against increased priorities of mental health and social-emotional learning (SEL) have been bubbling up over the past few months. As the sometimes-naive optimist that I am, I hoped this would quickly fade because it seemed a ridiculous prospect, especially as we come back from the collective trauma of the pandemic -- a pandemic which led to an increase in mental health problems in youth across the country. Sadly, I was wrong.  If anything, it is gaining traction.

It is our responsibility to protect the progress we have made in increasing student mental health supports and reducing stigma amongst young people. Now that the false narrative of critical race theory being taught in schools is no longer grabbing the headlines, the new boogeyman of the conservative right is SEL and mental health supports. The same small but very vocal parent groups are now targeting school district efforts around youth mental health and emotional well-being.

PACEs Connection advocates all organizations, including schools, to integrated policies and practices based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences (PACEs). It is an anti-racist organization committed to the pursuit of social justice. We clearly advocate for “trauma-informed and resilience-building practices and policies in all families, organizations, systems and communities.” This opposition to increased mental health supports in schools is directly counter to our stated mission and goals and, in my opinion as the organization’s education consultant, morally wrong and dangerous. This movement definitely runs counter to PACEs Connection’s vision for a path to a just society.

A recent New York Times article clearly calls out education as the next wedge issue and notes that conservatives made gains in the recent local elections “by stoking white resentment and tapping into broader anger at the education system.” For a long time, conservatives have been successfully playing the game at the local level by going after school board elections, showing up loudly at school board meetings, pressuring their representatives to take up their issues, and generally dominating the narrative.

That same Times article makes it clear that the progressive tactic of not engaging in the debate, not wanting to give it oxygen, is a huge mistake. The silence leaves a vacuum in the national conversation, allowing a loud minority to steer the message.

This op-ed in the Washington Post calls progressives to action, to stop ceding school boards to the conservatives. Since the right has successfully used education to mobilize their base and will do so in 2022, we must use the same tactics. We must collectively engage in this conversation and fight back against this dangerous assault. The stakes are high. Our youth are the ones who will lose in the end; they are depending on us. As author and researcher Brené Brown says, it is time we muster the courage to be vulnerable and jump in the arena.

Small and very well-organized conservative parent groups are exercising their organizational might, claiming that SEL is a Trojan horse for critical race theory because it promotes equity and tolerance. They say that SEL promotes moral relativism, superseding parents' right to teach morality to their children.

Several states have become flashpoints in recent months. Wisconsin tried the legislative angle, attempting to outlaw SEL in schools. In Idaho, the state superintendent faced backlash from the state’s House Education Committee over her proposal to increase SEL programming, with some lawmakers comparing SEL to dystopian behavior control depicted in Aldous Huxley's “Brave New World.” In September, a vocal parent political action committee in Texas complained at a school board meeting about the role of school counselors and called on the district to leave mental health and parenting to the parents. A parent group in Indiana overwhelmed a school board meeting, demanding the firing of the district mental health coordinator. This is clearly gaining steam across the country.

The importance of school mental health is crystal clear and the evidence for the interconnectedness of social-emotional health and academic achievement is irrefutable. Research, evidence, and practice are behind our vision for a collective humanization of education environments that support the whole person. This should not be politically divisive, this is a human issue—but unfortunately, this is not the reality. We can no longer turn away from the fact that this has become highly political and if we don’t play, we will lose.

We need to educate ourselves. MHTTC has developed a school mental health resource guide and a free, online 3-part training series for educators called Classroom WISE that offers “evidence-based strategies and skills to engage and support students with mental health concerns in the classroom.”

We need to make our voices heard loud and clear; we will not accept going backwards. This means organizing parents, educators, and community champions to show up at the school board meetings to make sure we are just as loud as our opponents.

We need to organize at the local level, using our grassroots skills, running for the school board if we are able. Progressive parents successfully utilized this playbook in Wisconsin recently and won. We need to write op-eds, get on podcasts, get media interviews, and use social media.

We also need to amplify the youth voice; right now the adults are doing all the talking about issues that affect students’ well-being. Empower our youth to get loud and advocate for the support they need.

The time is now; our children’s lives depend on it. I will see you in the arena.

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Irrational racist sentiment is too often handed down generation to generation, regardless of race or religion, etcetera.

Though there are research results indicating infants demonstrate a preference for caregivers of their own race, any future racial biases and bigotries generally are environmentally acquired. Adult racist sentiments are often cemented by a misguided yet strong sense of entitlement, perhaps also acquired from one’s environment.

Therefore, one means of proactively preventing this social/societal problem may be by allowing young children to become accustomed to other races in a harmoniously positive manner. The early years are typically the best time to instill and even solidify positive social-interaction life skills/traits, like interracial harmonization, into a very young brain. Human infancy is the prime (if not the only) time to instill and even solidify positive social-interaction characteristics into a very young mind.

Thank you for this important piece. I originally became an educator in the hopes of promoting social justice, non-violent communication, peaceful conflict resolution, and more understanding and acceptance of differences. Currently, I am a school social worker who teaches SEL classes in two predominately White rural schools in communities that are largely right wing and I often have to struggle to teach these concepts in ways that don't offend parents. It is beyond sad that concepts such as "justice," "understanding," & "empathy" can be construed as controversial in any way...

I would love to read more about case studies of grassroots efforts that have led to increases in SEL programs! Loved reading about Wisconsin's win in the culture war against CRT. Thanks for including that!

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