Our Kids Deserve Better: What is SEL?

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By Contributing Author Jack Bernard. This Op-Ed piece was originally written for Respectful Ways.
Sections of this article appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 5, 2023







“Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Emotional Intelligence are a must in the 21st Century. Regardless of our political affiliations, let us prioritize the well-being and future of our children. Investing in social-emotional learning is a win for everyone involved, ensuring that our kids have the tools they need to thrive academically, emotionally, and socially. Our children deserve nothing less.”

– Otha Thornton, President, 53rd National Parent Teacher Association (PTA)


I have been a local county member of both political parties. When people ask me why, I say- “there’s no blue or red way to pave a road.” Further, the parties must cooperate to get things done on the local, state and national levels. Otherwise, we end up with paralysis, as can be seen in the US House of Representatives Speaker circus. 

A decorated and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel, Otha Thornton served as White House Communications Agency Director in both the Bush (W) and Obama administrations. Plus, he has an extensive background in education. And he is 100% correct. 

We should not politicize “Social Emotional Learning” (SEL). There is no Republican or Democratic way to improve the mental health of our children.

We must stop harming our children to score political points. 

Per the nonpartisan Committee for Children (a non-profit) – “Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.” SEL is simply an essential tool to help our kids cope with the extraordinary stresses of modern life and succeed in fulfilling their aspirations.  

Respectful WaysAs the Committee for Children indicates, when done correctly in our schools, school SEL programs are a clear win/win. Everyone benefits- including our kids, our schools and our broader society. Bullying goes down, less physical aggression occurs, and our kids are happier. And because of these factors, so are their relieved parents. 

In an interview, Pam McNall, CEO of the SEL program Respectful Ways, indicated that there are studies showing just how effective SEL is in helping our youth. Specifically, there are three key measures that help prove SEL’s effectiveness:  

  • Higher GPAs  
  • Attendance improvement  
  • Less Referrals for detention and suspension  

Everyone I know wants student improvement in these areas. It does not matter to which party you belong or your political leanings, left or right. 

Another respected source which describes SEL is NCSSLE, the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. Per that organization, the US Department of Education’s “Safe Supportive Schools Model” defines SEL as addressing three key topics: engagement, safety and environment.   

Engagement includes: cultural and linguistic competence, interpersonal relationships, and participation in school activities.

Safety encompasses both emotional and physical safety. Specifically, bullying… including cyber bullying… is addressed, as well as substance abuse. Also, emergency preparedness is included, an increasingly important topic due to multiple firearm incidents around the nation.

Environment encompasses the physical, mental and instructional environment.  

Otha Thornton told me “I firmly believe that our kids deserve better.” He is correct. All rational Americans believe that our precious children should be both safe and happy. That is the obvious purpose of SEL and we should all endorse that aim and advocate for adding SEL to our schools. 

by Contributing Author Jack Bernard


Respectful Ways offers trauma-informed social-emotional learning curriculum for four age groups: PreK-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12. Students engage with interactive, digital modules covering compassion, perseverance, respect and responsibility.


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