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Uproar over critical race theory should not threaten mental health in schools

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U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently issued an advisory, “Protecting Youth Mental Health,” which paints a stark picture. Symptoms of depression and anxiety in youths have doubled during the pandemic, with 25 percent of youths experiencing depressive symptoms and 20 percent experiencing anxiety symptoms. Suicide attempts were up 51 percent for adolescent girls and 4 percent higher for adolescent boys compared with the same period in early 2019. 

Children’s mental health is at a crisis point. That is why it is both puzzling and concerning that the current controversy surrounding critical race theory and its contested role in the classroom is leading some to cast suspicion on, of all things, mental health programs in schools. In particular, there has been opposition to programs known as social-emotional learning, mischaracterizing them as “Trojan horses” being used to introduce critical race theory ideology into the classroom. A recent article in Education Week documented this new trend.  

Simply put, social-emotional learning is not critical race theory, nor does it emerge from that context. It is the responsibility of mental health professionals, educators and parents to steer the conversation to protect the progress we have made on improving mental health in schools.  

Social-emotional learning is an educational process. As defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it “focuses on improving students’ ability to recognize and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.”

It is not a single program or specific teaching strategy. Rather, it is a process — and this process involves many components of education including instruction, the learning environment, supports for learning and teaching and school management. It can be implemented to varying degrees, using different models and in different ways across states and school districts. 

An extensive body of research shows that these programs contribute to healthy human development in a variety of ways. A meta-analysis of 213 school-based, universal social and emotional learning programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students found that compared with nonparticipants, participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, as well as academic performance that reflected an 11 percent gain in achievement. One large study of the largest school system in the country, New York City Public Schools, found that a social-emotional learning implementation was associated with improvements across several domains, including depression, attention skills, as well as math and reading achievement for the highest-risk children. It is no accident that the School Superintendents Association is heavily invested in the practice 

Critical race theory is not this. Critical race theory is an intellectual framework and academic field of study, generally taught at the university level, examining systemic and institutional racism in jurisprudence, laws and legal institutions. The two are not in any way connected educationally. 

Included in the surgeon general’s advisory is a call to support the mental health of children and youths and expand the early childhood education workforce. Yet, in many school districts including in my home state of Texas, mental health resources are increasingly facing the threat of elimination. This is the opposite direction we need to go.  

The surgeon general’s advisory makes it clear that children’s mental health is suffering, and this holds doubly true while the COVID-19 pandemic still rages. Backed by extensive empirical research, we know that school-based social-emotional learning programs offer emotional support that fosters well-being for all students. 

If we ignore the opportunities to strengthen the social and emotional wellness of our children in schools, we are failing them. In this overheated climate, it is all the more important that we not lose sight of what truly matters: showing up for our youths in a time of crisis. Their development, mental health and the future of our nation depends on it.  

Octavio N. Martinez Jr. is the executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health and senior associate vice president for diversity and community engagement at The University of Texas at Austin. 

Tags COVID-19 Critical race theory Education K-12 education Mental health Octavio N. Martinez Jr. Pandemic Racism School Social Emotional Learning Vivek Murthy

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