What’s In a Name? A New Study Finds Many Parents Prefer ‘Life Skills’ to ‘SEL’

By Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
Alabama Best Practices Center

Shakespeare wondered “What’s in a name” and mused that “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but findings from a new study about social and emotional learning suggest otherwise. The Fordham Institute surveyed over 2,000 parents and found strong support for social emotional learning in school – but maybe not for its name.

“…SEL terminology itself is nebulous, jargony, and off-putting to parents who want schools to focus on the three R’s or who worry that it might be code for liberal indoctrination,” the report’s authors wrote.

The report and executive summary are formatted in a very readable, web-friendly way, and should be recommended reading for educators and parents. But, if you decide to pass on reading the whole report, I’ve listed the five key findings below.

  1. There is broad support among parents for teaching SEL-related skills in schools, although the term “social and emotional learning” is relatively unpopular.
  2. Democratic parents favor schools allocating additional resources to SEL more than Republican parents do. They’re also more comfortable with the terminology.
  3. Across the political spectrum, parents regard families as the most important entities for cultivating SEL, yet there are partisan differences regarding how and where to emphasize SEL instruction.
  4. Republicans are somewhat more wary than Democrats that SEL might divert schools away from academics or conflict with their own values.
  5. Among those surveyed about SEL, differences by parents’ race, class, and religion were rarely as pronounced as differences by political affiliation.
Source: Fordham Institute

SEL Skills = Life Skills?

As for the terminology, rather than use social and emotional learning, the survey results point to the approval of the term “life skills.” And, come to think about it, what we’ve referred to as social and emotional skills in our work at ABPC constitute life skills: Tending to one’s mental and health well-being, learning self-regulation and control, and developing social skills that make us more effective as team members, collaborative learners, and active citizens.

Perhaps the key take-away is that – whether we call it SEL or Life Skills or something else – schools have always had a role in preparing the next generation for success in the adult world of college, careers, the workplace, and citizenship. In a functioning democracy, school systems supported by the public will always need to provide a well-balanced mix of academics and skills for living that support a strong, open and resilient society.

If we accept that as our mission, we can feel confident we are on the right course.

Click here to quickly review the report’s major findings. 

Read an Education Week story about the report.