Is Social and Emotional Learning “Bad Therapy”?

Perhaps under certain conditions, but a new book overstates SEL’s culpability

A rock climber stares up at a mountain

Abigail Shrier’s wildly popular new book, Bad Therapy, is one of the latest takes on the causes of the mental health crisis occurring among youth. Shrier’s diagnosis is that society’s obsession over kids’ feelings undermines their development, hindering their ability to manage the vicissitudes of life. This problem, she says, is largely due to contemporary approaches to psychotherapy, parenting, and schooling.

One of the schooling practices she claims is particularly harmful is social and emotional learning, or SEL. SEL programs aim to teach students life skills like emotion and attention regulation, interpersonal conflict resolution, and responsible decision-making. It may be true that SEL is harmful under certain conditions, as all social programs can be. But Shrier vastly overstates the problem and ignores evidence that SEL is, on average, beneficial to kids’ well-being and achievement. Throwing out the baby with the bathwater could worsen the problems she rightfully bemoans.

I share Shrier’s concerns about the pervasiveness of “safetyism.” And I agree with similar views like those articulated by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American Mind, which argue that popular childrearing practices are making kids less resilient and run counter to the best practices of therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy.

For example, catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion common among those with clinical depression and anxiety, where one magnifies and ruminates about negative experiences. This is a self-reinforcing and self-defeating process that worsens a patient’s condition, so it’s a common focus of psychotherapists. Likewise, if we teach kids to be exquisitely attuned to every aspect of their negative experiences and to view them as threatening, unsafe, and harmful, we’re setting them up for a life of emotional frailty and pain.

But is SEL guilty of propagating such harm? The answer first requires a response to another question: SEL according to whom? There’s no regulatory body for determining what is and isn’t called SEL; anyone can slap an SEL label on what they do. As a result, some practices called SEL bear little relation to strategies demonstrated to be effective. This makes it hard for researchers like me, who believe in evidence-based approaches focused on concrete skill development, to make persuasive arguments in favor of SEL. It also makes it all too easy for critics like Shrier to point to practices called SEL that seem ineffective or harmful. I’ve argued that social and emotional learning advocates should be more honest about and attentive to the ways many SEL programs deviate from the goal of developing concrete competencies.

This range of focus and delivery among SEL programs is evident in the research. In a 2023 meta-analysis led by my Yale University colleague Christina Cipriano, we found that the effects of school-based SEL programs varied widely—and that this variation stemmed from factors such as program content and implementation quality rather than chance.

But like the many meta-analyses that preceded ours, we also found benefits for outcomes ranging from civic attitudes to social-emotional skills to achievement and more. Meta-analyses are often considered the highest form of evidence because they synthesize all the studies in a domain. Surprisingly, Shrier gives no attention to this sizeable body of research, which shows little evidence of the harms she claims. It’s not enough to observe a societal increase in mental illness and an increase in SEL and claim the latter fuels the former. Correlation is not causation.

One of the big tasks facing SEL researchers is understanding the conditions under which SEL works, fails, and, yes, even harms. But we’re not entirely in the dark on this question. For example, we know that explicit instruction focused on teaching, modeling, practicing, and discussing social-emotional content enhances program effectiveness. Instruction that uses practices that are SAFEsequenced and coordinated, active versus passive, focused on specific intra- and/or interpersonal skills, and explicitly targets those skills—has also been found to be linked to beneficial outcomes.

One of Shrier’s main concerns is how incessantly focusing on emotions can get in the way of accomplishing important tasks. If you want to climb a mountain, obsessing over your feelings will keep you at the bottom, she argues, citing a psychiatry professor. Some emotional suppression can therefore be a good thing. I agree.

A crucial part of developing mental toughness involves gradually exposing yourself to things that feel uncomfortable and challenge you. Humans are “antifragile” in that we become stronger through moderate exposure to challenges and stressors; healthy development depends upon it. But part of facing challenges involves learning about strategies to continue exposure. This is as relevant to math anxiety as it is to mountain climbing.

Evidence-based SEL strategies treat emotion awareness as a skill to help students become more effective in overcoming challenges and achieving goals. Awareness of the very natural and common fears and doubts that get in the way of facing a mountain can help you overcome them. Shrier seems less open to the value of this aspect of self-management and closed to schools playing any role in promoting it.

The most effective forms of SEL don’t treat emotion awareness as an end goal, nor do they simply aim to make kids feel good. Rather, they treat SEL as part of a multi-step process of learning to regulate emotions that get in the way of effectively engaging the world and accomplishing important life tasks. Regulating emotions is much less about shifting from negative to positive emotions than it is about shifting to emotions that are helpful.

The evidence for the beneficial effects of focused skills-based SEL is strong, consistent, and worthy of shaping school-based practice. But I often ask myself whether I would walk away from advocating for SEL if the evidence were to turn the other way such that it becomes more harmful than helpful. I’d like to think I would, because I try to commit to things that demonstrably help people rather than to programs, practices, or movements that feel good.

SEL opponents should ask themselves the same thing. If you were to learn that skills-based SEL is helpful for students’ well-being and academic success, would you be open to changing your mind? If so, it’s worth evaluating the evidence with an open mind. Just as Shrier acknowledges that there is such a thing as good therapy that genuinely helps people, there is such a thing as good SEL that builds skills to help students in school and beyond. Taking a sledgehammer to all social and emotional learning would get rid of that, too.

Michael Strambler, PhD is a psychologist and an Associate Professor in the Division of Prevention and Community Research in the Yale School of Medicine.

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