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Why is N.H. considering a ban on social emotional learning?

Social emotional learning is the latest target in the culture wars waged over what can be taught in schools

A social studies classroom at a New Hampshire high school.Vanessa Leroy

CONCORD, N.H. — In her first-grade classroom at Abbot-Downing School in Concord, Cordelia Dubois, 6, knows what to do when she gets mad.

Her first step is to pause and breathe. She takes three slow, deep breaths before moving onto the next step, which is to rewind and think about what happened and why it made her feel upset. Finally, she makes a good choice about what to do next.

She learned those techniques through a class called social emotional learning — an approach the New Hampshire Legislature is considering prohibiting through House Bill 1473.

“My mom told me there could be a new rule so kids couldn’t take social emotional learning or SEL classes anymore,” Cordelia told lawmakers, when she testified against the bill before the House Education Committee on Monday, making her the youngest person to ever come before the committee, according to committee Chair Rick Ladd.

“I did not like that because SEL classes help me stay calm and be happier,” Cordelia said, sitting next to her mom, Jillian Dubois, who also opposed the effort.

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Social emotional learning involves teaching students about behavioral management techniques, such as breathing exercises, so they can manage difficult or negative emotions and better focus on their studies. Children are also taught to identify their emotions and learn how to ground themselves to calm down.

During the hearing, John Iudice, an independent social worker and licensed alcohol and drug counselor, testified that the strategy is the best prevention for addiction and overdose, while counselors, teachers, and parents spoke about the mental health and academic benefits, emphasizing that social emotional learning advances other curricular goals, rather than taking time away from them. They said banning social emotional learning would be detrimental to student outcomes and mental health.

But some parents and lawmakers see social emotional learning as yet another area where teachers are overstepping the boundaries of their role, and intruding into territory that should be left to the family to navigate. They said teachers shouldn’t act as therapists and voiced concerns the programs involved data collection of sensitive information through surveys and assessments. One parent said she was worried a child’s emotional issues would be entered into a permanent record that could later be used against them, for instance, a concern school administrators rejected.

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“Most parents are concerned about the unregulated access teachers have,” said Linda Phillips, of Bristol, who said she is an adoptive parent and a foster parent. “They’re concerned about the promotion of ideological and political ends that are easily slipped into SEL practices, the displacement of academic rigor, the expectation of teachers to act as therapists with minimal training and [who are] unqualified.”

She raised other concerns regarding “gender identity issues” and the lack of boundaries in teaching, concerns that dovetail with some of the other issues central to debates in the culture wars waged over what can — and should — be taught in school.

New Hampshire is not the only state considering banning or limiting social emotional learning, according to the American Psychological Association, which found at least eight states have considered similar proposals, including North Dakota, Oklahoma, Maine, and Iowa.

A national February 2023 survey by the National Education Association, a teacher’s union, found that a third of schools that responded reported attempts to limit social emotional learning.

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Nationally, it’s driven by a concern that the program is part of a “woke agenda” to teach progressive ideas in schools, according to Jordan Posamentier, vice president of policy and advocacy at Committee for Children.

In New Hampshire, concerns that the program is an indoctrination tool were also raised by parents and lawmakers.

“It’s a tool. It’s indoctrination,” said Representative John Sellers, a Bristol Republican, and the bill’s prime sponsor. He also offered an amendment that wouldn’t ban social emotional learning outright, but would instead make it possible for parents to opt out of it and require parental consent for any data collection. Sellers said he consulted with New Hampshire Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut on the amendment.

“The Department provides technical assistance to legislators who reach out with questions related to education specific statutes,” the department said in a statement. The department did not respond to a question about whether it supported the effort as introduced or on the amendment offered by Sellers.

But Jessica Bickford, assistant superintendent for Pembroke’s school district, said the ban could violate federal and state laws requiring schools to provide education and services to students with disabilities. Others noted it would interfere with a suicide prevention law.

And Bickford said the amendment was redundant, since schools are already required to notify parents and allow them to opt out before surveys are completed, including the Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data. The survey is voluntary and answers are anonymous.

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Advocates opposing the ban pointed to troubling trends in mental health in New Hampshire, arguing social emotional learning is more important than ever.

Last year, 44 percent of New Hampshire high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless, and among girls it was closer to 60 percent, according to Patricia Tilley, the associate commissioner at the Department of Health and Human Services. And she pointed to another alarming statistic: Suicide is the leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 23 in the state.

She said the department opposed the bill and the amendment, which would halt a number of departmental programs.

While HB 1473 is backed by several House Republicans, the state’s top Republican, Governor Chris Sununu, has championed social emotional learning through a program called ChooSELove, a curriculum free to New Hampshire schools. ChooSELove was created by Scarlett Lewis, after her son Jesse was murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 to promote the core values of nurturing, healing, and love, values Lewis believed could have prevented the tragedy.

In a written statement after the hearing, Sununu criticized the ban. “This bill seeks to bury our heads in the sand and wish away the mental health challenges that many kids face,” he said. “Social-Emotional Learning provides students skills to navigate stressful situations in a healthy way, which helps to prevent tragedies — keeping all our kids safe.”

It’s up to the House Education Committee whether it votes on the bill as introduced or the more limited amended version.

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Amanda Gokee can be reached at amanda.gokee@globe.com. Follow her @amanda_gokee.