A day of pre-K at Boyd Elementary School. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

To read this story, please sign in with your email address and password.

You’ve read all your free stories this month. Subscribe now and unlock unlimited access to our stories, exclusive subscriber content, additional newsletters, invitations to special events, and more.



Teachers and stakeholders involved in meetings last year for the state Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission had a clear message: Student behaviors and classroom management challenges had gotten worse following the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response, the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE) initiated a program for “social emotional learning” (SEL) to help bridge the education-employment gap. With an unclear program messaging and parental pushback, the initiative faces challenges. 

Upon reviewing SEL, I found it to be an excellent framework for children to learn the necessary skills, traits, and characteristics to become successful in everyday interactions. It also serves as a valuable guide for parents in raising their children. The framework of SEL for Missouri,  Competencies of Relationship-building Education, focuses on three key groups:

  • Me: Fostering a healthy sense of self. Students develop a core integrity to act upon principles that form the basis of trustworthiness, dependability, and honesty.
  • We: Building relationship skills crucial for success in both employment and life. Students learn to consider how their behavior influences those around them, enabling them to establish healthy relationships.
  • Others: Instilling prosocial skills that have a positive impact on those around them and contribute to community improvement. Students build integrity and healthy relationships to treat others with kindness and respect.

Equipped with these skills, students would learn to manage their own thoughts and behaviors, regulating their emotions in a healthy manner. They also would gain teamwork, collaboration, and cooperation skills toward a common goal. Lastly, recognizing the diversity of cultures and opinions, students would learn:

  • Respect differences by being polite and courteous, even when in disagreement.
  • Kindness in expressing gratitude and appreciation.
  • Civility, both in verbal and non-verbal communication, demonstrating appropriate expressions and courtesy in behavior and speech, understanding that disagreement can be expressed without disrespect.
  • Dignity in recognizing that all humans share equal value, deserving of consideration and thoughtfulness.

‘Smartsville’ taught similar principles

The SEL framework reminded me of Smartsville, a classroom model my daughter took part in while in first and second grades. Created by Carolyn Stewart, she designed this practical hands-on experience that made a lasting impression on the students.

The Smartsville model taught students responsibility, respect, collaboration, conflict resolution, the significance of each role, and how they should work together cohesively. Students served terms and, in cases where positions required elections, they learned how to run for office (e.g., judge, sheriff, city manager). Students also earned a paycheck, saved and donated a portion, and could spend the rest at the Smartsville Store. Most importantly, students gained a better understanding of how local government functions and a sense of responsibility for the roles everyone plays in society. 

Even as a second-grader, the milkman was recognized as necessary because who would deliver the milk if absent? Although Mrs. Stewart was an amazing teacher, Smartsville allowed students to hold each other responsible as classroom community members. Without notice, the children were learning SEL principles. It was the day-to-day, repeating behaviors and choices that impacted the students. 

For years, my dear friend, Dr. Bruce Hedgepeth, has emphasized, “Repetition is the essence of education.” The consistency in recognizing the good and taking responsibility became the norm. Children will rise to the words, actions, and environment around them, and they have this fantastic way of becoming exactly who we and their peers tell them they are.  

These principles are invaluable for individuals of all ages, not just those entering or leaving the school system. 

Surprising pushback to state standards

DESE polled stakeholders regarding SEL and surprisingly encountered pushback from concerned parents and community members. Parents expressed confusion about the goals, while others argued that it infringed on parental rights, asserting that these teachings should occur at home. Additionally, there were concerns about the potential infusion of political or ideological agendas into SEL. 

Consequently, 42% of responders were from St. Louis and St. Charles counties, whereas Jackson County (Kansas City area) had only 1.8% responders. Greene County had 8.9% responders and Christian County represented 5.14%. DESE put the brakes on the program for K-12 and instead made the SEL framework available on its website for interested school boards, leaving its adoption as an option for districts

Missouri State Board of Education Vice President Carol Hallquist and President Charlie Shields listen to feedback about the proposed social-emotional-learning standards at an October 2023 meeting. (Photo by Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent)

When the DESE board began discussing parental concerns, Carol Hallquist, vice president of the board, frankly stated how the school is, in fact, almost raising the child.

“Yes,” she said. “I read a couple hundred of the parent comments. Yes, this (SEL standards) is the job of the parent, but it’s also the job of the parent to feed our children, and we’re doing this. It’s the job of the parent to ensure their children have warm clothes to wear, but we have clothing closets in our school. It’s the job of the parent to provide health for our children, but we have a school nurse who handles a lot of these situations. It (SEL standards) is a noble start, but it’s only a piece and part of classroom behavior. Teachers are leaving the profession because of classroom behavior. We have kindergarteners who know more swear words than I do. That’s the kind of behavior teachers are up against. We want teachers to concentrate on teaching instead of this. But the teacher cannot concentrate on teaching until they have a classroom under control.”

Another board member stated, “The classrooms are like the wild, wild west.” 

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce, DESE, and companies across the state acknowledge “we have a problem.” The question then becomes: how do we address this?

First, we must ask, “Is DESE overstepping its boundaries by implementing SEL standards, and is it infringing parental rights?” No, if the program can stick to teaching the principles of kindness, respect, affirmation, empathy, compassion, unity, and a hard work ethic. Infringement begins when political agendas and ideologies are a part of any child’s classroom learning. 

I also agree with the board member stating that the school already provides food, clothing, and health needs to children who do not receive these at home. Teaching basic, positive human behaviors can become a part of the daily rhetoric, incorporating it into practical lessons. Introducing SEL at a young age and reinforcing these principles over time will undoubtedly yield numerous advantages and establish a lasting standard in the professional world. These principles should be instilled from a child’s first day of school and persist until they complete their education. 

SEL model will reap results over time

A school district incorporating SEL in their classroom model will reap results over time, establishing foundational classroom behaviors that align with employment requirements. The consistency will impact elementary-age children as they mature into employment age. 

How do we address the immediate needs of students at or near the employable age? Creating a model for middle and high schoolers now becomes the challenge. Students who have yet to engage in repetitive learning of the SEL principles, plus whose home environments do not reflect SEL traits, become the object for opportunity. These students need practical experiences demonstrating how these qualities can improve their livelihood and reward for engagement in SEL. 

Applying these principles in a classroom setting or establishing a school-wide model with defined roles and responsibilities and engaging students in authentic experiences will have a greater impact than simply lecturing. Allowing students a tangible experience rather than just theoretical knowledge could prevent parental pushback. This is not just about learning human basics like kindness. This is about teaching students to dream beyond their present situation, gain a new perspective on working together, and how we all play an essential role in improving our world, community, school, and home. Perhaps the Chamber of Commerce could partner with DESE in creating a model that rewards students for engagement similarly to the  A+ program that rewards students for academics.

Let’s clarify confusion by changing SEL from social-emotional learning to success in employment and life. A succession plan initiated in kindergarten, imparting essential life skills, ensures that students, upon graduation, possess the knowledge required for successful employment, offering a pathway to a fulfilling life. 

Julie Higgins

Julie G. Higgins is a Springfield entrepreneur and a partner in Higgins Business Consulting. Her mantra is: “Teach with your life.” Follow her on Twitter: @julieGhiggins or email her at: juliehigg@yahoo.com More by Julie Higgins