Creating Discourse Communities to Promote Critical Conversations About Social Emotional Learning

Emma Minke McMain, MA, Washington State University

While an abundance of research supports SEL’s effectiveness in promoting positive outcomes like interpersonal skills and academic achievement (Durlak et al., 2011; Osher et al., 2016), seldom do researchers question what counts as a “positive outcome,” for whom it is positive, or how such a notion is shaped by cultural beliefs and assumptions. What would it mean, for instance, to question the common-sense idea that “happiness,” “calmness,” or “comfort” are always desirable end-goals (Stearns, 2019)? What if the behaviors viewed as “disruptive,” the emotions labeled as “unproductive,” or the skills referred to in terms of their deficit are often valid, nuanced, and even adaptive responses to an unjust society (Kaler-Jones, 2020; Stearns, 2019)? When SEL becomes whitewashed, focused more on changing people’s social-emotional responses to oppression than on changing those oppressive conditions themselves (Camangian and Cariaga, 2021; Simmons, 2019), we are more likely to foster the continuation of unjust systems than we are to foster transformative (e.g., feminist, decolonial, and anti-racist) change.

These are just some of the topics and questions I will explore alongside elementary-school teachers in my upcoming dissertation, a qualitative and collaborative approach to professional development on SEL. Together, 6-8 teachers and I will form a “discourse community” for discussing critical readings on SEL and how they relate to our own experiences/identities as teachers and as humans. Following Stearns’ (2019) book, Critiquing Social and Emotional Learning: Psychodynamic and Cultural Perspectives, we will consider what it means to label emotions as “positive” or “negative,” how children’s lively bodies are welcomed into (and perhaps excluded from) SEL practices, and what it might mean to nurture and experience social-emotional aspects of personhood outside of pre-determined SEL curricula.

By opening critical conversations, this work responds to Simmons’ invitation for educators to “start a practice of reflecting on their identity, positionality, power, and privilege” (2021, para. 23) and aligns with Kaler-Jones’ declaration that “SEL devoid of culturally-affirming practices and understandings is not SEL at all” (2020, para. 5). Through the shared space of a discourse community, teachers may become more aware of their own discursive practices and emotional investments in cultural norms (Boler, 1999; Glazier, 2003). My research questions include, How will this discourse community shape teachers’ meaning-making and emotional engagement with topics of SEL and social justice? What self-reflective connections will teachers draw between their identities and the texts? What affective-discursive practices (i.e., recognizable patterns of embodied response with discursive action; Wetherell, 2015) will appear in conversations?

We are all social and emotional learners as we explore these complex questions about SEL, which adds a “meta” spin to the dissertation: why not explore SEL in both topic and method, conversation and practice, process and goal? I want to help educators recognize ourselves in our educational practices and our educational practices in ourselves. While the purpose is not to generalize themes and perspectives to every teacher, I aim to inspire future research that builds from, acts on, and even challenges or complicates the themes that emerge through these social and emotional discussions.


Boler, M. (1999). Feeling power: Emotions and education. Routledge.

Camangian, P., & Cariaga, S. (2021). Social and emotional learning is hegemonic miseducation: Students deserve humanization instead. Race, Ethnicity, and Education, 1-21.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The
impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school- based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.

Glazier, J. A. (2003). Moving closer to speaking the unspeakable: White teachers talking about
race. Teacher Education Quarterly, 30(1), 73-94.

Kaler-Jones, C. (2020, May 7). When SEL is used as another form of policing. Medium.

Osher, D., Kidron, Y., Brackett, M., Dymnicki, A., Jones, S., & Weissberg, R. P. (2016).
Advancing the science and practice of social and emotional learning: Looking back and moving forward. Review of Research in Education, 40(1), 644-681.

Simmons, D. (2019, April 1). Why we can’t afford whitewashed social-emotional
learning. Education Update, 61(4). afford-whitewashed-social-emotional-learning

Simmons, D. (2021, March 1). Why SEL alone isn’t enough. ASCD.

Stearns, C. (2019). Critiquing social and emotional learning: Psychodynamic and cultural perspectives. Lexington Books.