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Iowa bill seeks to ban social-emotional learning, but educators say it’s critical to kids’ development
Educators say social-emotional learning can help improve students’ mental health, decrease bullying and teach career readiness skills
Fourth-grade teacher Emily Stamp is helping students at Washington Elementary School in Mount Vernon to identify their feelings, and teaching strategies they can use to manage those feelings to be productive learners.
Stamp teaches them that “no feelings are bad” and helps them find the words to label their feelings so they can get back to academics. In her classroom, students can take breaks to recenter themselves by practicing breathing exercises or playing with play dough — “strategies we have to bring ourselves to get to a place where we can be productive and present,” Stamp said.
Learning like this — which happens in almost all Iowa classrooms — is the target of a new bill, House File 85, in the Iowa Legislature that would require the Iowa Department of Education to scrap its guidance on social-emotional learning, a framework adopted from the Center for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, which grew out of an idea from the Yale University’s Child Study Center and launched as a nationwide collaborative in 1994.
The bill would require parents to give consent before a student can take any surveys that include topics such as political or religious affiliations, sexual behavior, relationships with family members or mental health problems. Parents now can opt-out of these surveys.
According to the Iowa Department of Education, social and emotional learning “is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
The bill was introduced by Iowa Sen. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, who said social-emotional learning conflicts with many families’ religious and political beliefs.
In her newsletter, Salmon said social-emotional learning includes critical race theory, a theory that race is a social construct and racism is embedded in legal systems and policies. A new Iowa law that bans teaching “divisive concepts” such as critical race theory was signed last year.
Critical race theory doesn’t exist in K-12 systems, according to educators.
The bill is part of a larger effort by conservatives across the country to ban social-emotional learning. Last year, Florida’s education department rejected textbooks that contained what it said where prohibited topics including references to critical race theory and additions of social emotional learning in math textbooks and other “woke content,” according to a news release from Florida’s education department.
“If this is what some legislators want to focus on, my polite response to them is don’t ever come back to a school district again and complain about bullying, about the mental health of students, or that student’s don’t act as civil as they used to,” Mount Vernon Community School District Superintendent Greg Batenhorst said.
“We’re trying to do everything we can to help them grow socially, emotionally and academically. Taking away a school district’s ability to do that work with kids because it fits your political agenda is criminal to me,” he said.
At Washington Elementary in Mount Vernon, teachers are in their second year of piloting a curriculum called SEE-KS, which stands for Social Emotional Engagement — Knowledge and Skills, with the Grant Wood Area Education Agency and the state Department of Education.
Mount Vernon schools also implemented a social-emotional learning curriculum at the middle and high school this year called Leader in Me. The curriculum — used in many other Eastern Iowa schools — teaches students life skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.
Maggie Hartzler, director of clinical services at Tanager Place, which provides mental health treatment to children and families, said there is a misconception about what social-emotional learning is. Incorporating social-emotional learning is “so important for kids’ development, relationships and overall health,” Hartzler said. It helps students develop language to label and work through their feelings in a safe and healthy way.
An example Hartzler gave of what social emotional learning looks like in the classroom is a teacher reading a book to students and asking the question, “How do you think that character was feeling when that happened?”
In a presentation this week to the Linn-Mar Community School District, counselors talked about how social-emotional learning can help students with depression, anxiety, problems at home, thoughts of suicide and self-harm, bullying and other trauma.
Ninth-graders at Linn-Mar are taught lessons from a curriculum called Signs of Suicide. Students learn about warning signs and depression and are empowered to tell a trusted adult if they or their friends exhibit these symptoms.
Another program at Linn-Mar is 9th Grade Connections that started during the 2021-22 school year. High school freshman meet weekly with a teacher and a small group of other students to talk about life, mental health, academics and post-high school plans. The program seeks to increase positive relationships between staff and students.
Social-emotional learning also is a part of private school education. At Xavier High School in Cedar Rapids, it’s included in the school’s mission statement — “to develop the total person in a Catholic environment” — Principal Angela Olson said.
Olson said the definition of social-emotional learning is not as lawmakers define it in the proposed bill. It’s “making sure students have what they need to be able to function and function well,” she said.
College Community School District Superintendent Doug Wheeler said he’s also confused by the bill. “We’re doing what our community and businesses have asked us to do. We’re trying to be responsive to skills we’ve been told for years our students need to have,” he said.
During the 2021-22 school year, the Cedar Rapids Community School District implemented a social-emotional curriculum in all four high schools for the first time. The curriculum — called Habitudes Leadership — teaches students how to identify and manage their feelings. It also is designed to teach college and career readiness.
A social-emotional learning curriculum was already being used in Cedar Rapids elementary and middle schools.
During that same school year, Mount Vernon educators began professional learning on how to integrate social-emotional learning in to their classrooms more effectively.
“Whatever becomes of various pieces of legislation, we’ll do what schools always do,” Batenhorst said. “We’ll find a way to support kids, love them and work our tails off for them — even if people throw up roadblocks for us — because that’s what we have dedicated our lives to doing.”
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