Mental Health, Social Emotional Learning, and Impacts Policy can Have on Both

Staci Zolkoski, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Special Education, University of Texas at Tyler

Christopher Thomas, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Texas at Tyler

Currently, children and adolescents are in a mental health state of emergency. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-34 and is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States (National Alliance on Mental Health; NAMI, 2022). Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found, one in six adolescents (ages 12-17) experience a mental health disorder each year, with 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses beginning by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 24 (SAMHSA, 2021). Those with mental illness also have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and high school students are more than twice as likely to drop out when compared to their peers (NAMI, 2022).

Although the statistics above are extremely alarming, there is hope. Providing a safe and supportive environment and integrating social emotional learning (SEL) in the schools can support students’ well-being. SEL is the process of acquiring and applying five core social emotional competencies, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (CASEL, 2022). The benefits of SEL are well-researched and include improved academic outcomes, classroom behaviors, and attitudes students have about themselves and others. SEL has also shown to reduce emotional distress and conduct problems (Taylor et al., 2017). Educators also benefit from SEL and protect themselves from burnout by developing positive relationships with their students (Oliveira et al., 2021).
However, despite documented benefits, legislative efforts are being taken across the United States to limit access to or alter perceptions of educational initiatives designed to support students’ social and emotional growth. For instance, The Office of the Indiana Attorney General (2022) recently published a “Bill of Rights” outlining parents right regarding educational curriculum. This document suggests that SEL programming is often used to expose students to controversial topics and activities designed with the explicit purpose of harming their self-worth. Similarly, a bill was recently introduced in the Oklahoma legislature that would bar school systems from using SEL-related content during classroom instruction (Strozewski, 2022).

We currently risk countless students being denied access to evidence-based programming if steps are not taken to alter the problematic misconceptions which have contributed to legislative efforts to block SEL. As noted in the literature, those responsible for shaping educational policy rarely engage with the content published within academic outlets. This, unfortunately, results in public policy being shaped by naïve conceptions developed from personal experience and information shared in traditional media outlets (Howell et al., 2008). Thus, we believe taking steps to improve how educational research findings are communicated outside of academia is the first step in ensuring access to SEL. Although this suggestion is not entirely novel, current events suggest we must double our efforts to translate our understanding of the benefits of SEL practices into a format accessible to and easily digestible by the general public if we hope to have educational policy shaped by our understanding of best practices.

Attorney General of Indiana (2021). Parents’ bill of rights.

Butterworth, P., & Leach, L. S. (2018). Early onset of distress disorders and high-school dropout: Prospective evidence from a national cohort of Australian adolescents. American Journal of Epidemiology, 187(6), 1192-1198.

CASEL. (2022). What does the research say?

Howell, W., West, M. R., & Peterson, P. E. (2008). Education policy, academic research, and public opinion. When research matters: How scholarship influences education policy, 135-154.

McGraw Hill. (2021). Social and emotional learning report.

National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2022). Mental health by the numbers.

Oliveira, S., Roberto, M. S., Veiga-Simão, A. M., & Marques-Pinto, A. (2021). A meta-analysis of the impact of social and emotional learning interventions on teachers’ burnout symptoms. Educational Psychology Review, 33(4), 1779-1808.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2021). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 national survey on drug use and health.

Strozewski, Z (2022, January 21). Social emotional learning because the latest battleground in school curriculums. Newsweek.

Taylor, R. D., Oberle, E., Durlak, J. A., & Weissberg, R. (2017). Promoting positive youth development through school-based social and emotional learning interventions: A meta-analysis of follow-up effects. Child Development, 88(4), 1156–1171.