What is social-emotional learning?

By now, many Americans are aware of critical race theory, which makes race the focus of all aspects of American life. The philosophy categorizes individuals into groups of oppressors and victims, and is currently making its way through the political sphere, the military, and of course, education.

But less well known is its ideological cousin, social-emotional learning. The program seeks to indoctrinate kids into leftist ideology by reinforcing a series of critical race theory-based morals and values.

Jennifer McWilliams was working as a reading teacher at Frankton Elementary School in Indiana when she noticed that social-emotional learning was being taught as part of the curriculum at her school. When she voiced her concerns about the racist ideology, she was summarily fired.

McWilliams says there’s nothing good about social-emotional learning, and that it’s based in racist critical race theory.

“It is all negative,” she says, “When you understand the program fully, and you understand the framework and the ideology behind it, you will understand that it is not good. The entire social-emotional learning framework is based on the critical race theory ideology.”

Listen to the interview on “The Daily Signal Podcast” or read a lightly edited transcript below.

Doug Blair: Our guest today is Jennifer McWilliams, an Indiana teacher who was fired from her job after she criticized the use of social-emotional learning in her school’s curriculum, as well as the founder and CEO of Purple for Parents Indiana. Jennifer, welcome to the show.

Jennifer McWilliams: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Blair: Excellent. Well, we are very excited to have you as well. Before we get into some of the story behind your firing, let’s start by defining our terms. What exactly is social-emotional learning?

McWilliams: Social-emotional learning, it is a teaching method that has for the past five, six years transformed the education and system. And it comes from CASEL, which is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Basically, they sold it to the public education system as a way to teach children life skills that they are not receiving.

But through my two years of research and understanding of this program, it really is the key to what parents across this country are looking for right now. Social-emotional learning is the psychological manipulation of our children to adopt the critical race theory ideology.

Blair: You mentioned critical race theory, which is something that The Heritage Foundation and The Daily Signal have been very invested in fighting back against and to countering. What about social-emotional learning is so bad? Why should parents be concerned about this if it’s in their schools?

McWilliams: Sure. When the program comes into the schools—and it is in all 50 states, so this is relevant to everyone—it comes in through different programs. And so there’s a lot of names for the programs that they use, but they all follow a framework. And the framework that they use from CASEL is based on the critical race theory ideology.

So they influence children and they want to shift their perception of their values and beliefs and attitudes, worldview through the critical race theory viewpoint, so that ideology.

They use language that is very confusing to parents because it sounds nice. But when they understand that this SEL is coming into the school to influence the children in that way, then it makes sense. And it really is that critical race theory that they are looking for.

Blair: OK. So, to get to your story, you were fired from your school for criticizing the use of social-emotional learning in the curriculum. Specifically, there was a module called “Leader in Me.” Would you be able to walk us through the events leading up to … your contract being terminated?

McWilliams: When I started as a Title I reading instructor, I had stayed home with my children for quite a while. So I was just starting my career. And when I started at the school, I started noticing a lot of changes in the education system.

My school was in the third year in 2019 of this program and the focus of staff meetings and all of the things that we were doing within the school was focusing around this program called Leader in Me. So I started researching it because I really wasn’t sure why we were focused on what the children, what their morals and values and beliefs were as opposed to their academic success.

And when I started to research the program, I became very concerned. One of the things that really kicked off my research into this was when they had teachers and staff using this program to role-play social scenarios with children. And so I thought, I’m like, “Why are we doing this? We should be focused on academics.” And I spoke out against it.

I had started a program for people or parents to kind of get an idea of what was going on with the school so they could get involved. And I found a blog post. I did not write it, but I found one that was relevant to the program Leader in Me that was actually at my school. I posted it in my own personal time and that was on a Monday. And then on Friday of that same week, my school fired me for doing that.

Blair: One of the things that struck me when you were telling that story is they were having children model social scenarios, or something similar to that. What exactly does that mean?

McWilliams: So, I was at elementary school and so it was kindergarten through sixth grade. They would mix the children up, have them go to a different classroom. So you would have a classroom full of children that were not even your students. And you would have students from all of the grades in there.

And so social-emotional learning, like I said, it comes into the schools under the guise of they want to teach the life skills that children need. And so they teach these competencies—that’s what they call it—to the children through many, many ways.

But the way that I became introduced to it was that we would give the children a scenario, a social scenario, and we would give them a skill that they would have to apply to that scenario.

I will give you an example. At my school, the competencies were called “habits.” And just to be clear, other people at other schools may call them different things. It’s really a game of semantics. That’s why a lot of people across the country are so confused right now. But at my school they were called “habits.” And so I would give them a scenario and then I would say, “OK, now, you need to apply this habit.”

One of the habits that we had was seek first to understand before you were understood. And I always tell people that that does not sound like a bad skill as adults. When you understand what is comfortable for you, your morals, your values, that skill, we all use that skill at times. But they’re influencing these children to use that skill in all scenarios to be successful.

And at the same time in 2019, my school transitioned the restrooms to be inclusive. So the idea behind this whole program is to get children to compromise what they believe, what they’ve been told, and to start believing these new social norms.

Blair: You were critical of this module Leader in Me. Did you comply with the teaching of the module or did you refuse to comply with it? And why did you decide to do what you did?

McWilliams: No, I did my job and I did the lessons that they gave me. I did not feel in my position that I could refuse at that time, but I did speak out against it in my own personal time. So when they fired me for doing so, that was a violation of my First Amendment, which I now have a federal First Amendment case against my school.

When they fired me, I explained to them, because they came at me in terms of being an employee there, and I said, “I do everything I’m supposed to do here. But as an American and citizen that has a child at this school, I have every right to raise concerns about this program.”

Because the school should not be influencing these children in this way, no matter what family you come from. And so I really just wanted to get parents to understand what was going on within the school, but they did not, obviously, want me to do that.

Blair: Right. We actually do have some audio that you recorded of your encounter with the principal and the vice principal [when] they let you go. We will include a link to an excerpt of that conversation in the description for this podcast and the write-up for the podcast.

On that note, I have a two-part question. When they called you into the office, did you know you were being fired? And then, why did you decide to record audio of the encounter?

McWilliams: I did not know I was going to be fired that morning. Because I had started Purple for Parents Indiana, I knew there was some concern within the school about me doing that, but I was very careful and very respectful. I never shared anything that was confidential or anything. I just spoke out as a very concerned American citizen about what was happening in the public education system.

And they had pulled me in a couple times for conversations about my—it was just a Facebook group at the time. And they had pulled me in with some concerns about it.

The conversations that I had with them, I explained to them that, just like teachers fighting for the Red for Ed, which is the teachers union movement, outside in their own time, I had the right to also have my opinion. And they agreed with me at the time.

But I had had a couple of situations prior to that where there were some teachers that actually they had made up a couple things that I had done. There was an investigation within the school that they found out it was not true.

And so when I got the message on that Thursday night that I needed it to be in the office the next morning, something just told me I needed to be very careful about what was going on. So I thought the best thing to do was just have proof of the conversation and I recorded it.

Blair: When you were let go, did you find that there was much support from members of your school community? Did people come up to you and say, “I think this is wrong?” What was the response from the school community to your firing?

McWilliams: It was quite a firestorm. I had both, I would say it was about 50-50 as far as people in the community that stuck up for me and became very concerned about the program as well. There were people that didn’t agree with me.

But I think what the most concerning thing about it is that my school really used me as an example to basically bully other employees to not speak out. And not only that, I had parents, they would write to me, message me, call me, and they were in full support and of what I had done and were very concerned about what was going on in the school.

But they were also bullied into silence because they were afraid to speak out publicly because they send their children to school there every single day. And they were worried about there being some kind of consequence for their speaking out in support of me. So they really used me as an example to basically tell everybody, “Get in line.”

Blair: I want to go back to sort of the actual key argument of social-emotional learning. Some people might argue that social-emotional learning has some good aspects. As you mentioned before, there were certain things that they were teaching kids about, like being respectful and … learning and understanding. Are there any positive aspects to this teaching style or is it all negative?

McWilliams: It is all negative. I know that people, that’s a common argument that I hear, is, “Well, we may not like some of it, but a lot of it is good.” And what I like to tell people is, when you understand the program fully and you understand the framework and the ideology behind it, you will understand that it is not good. The entire social-emotional learning framework is based on the critical race theory ideology.

So everything that they do within the school, SEL, social-emotional learning … they want to teach the whole child and it is a culture shift within the school.

So everything they do with this program is to be integrated into all parts of the children’s day at school. That includes academics, that includes everything, the whole culture. And when you understand that all of those shifts are through the lens of a critical race theorist, you understand why we are seeing what is happening right now across this country.

… I’m really glad that people are picking up on the critical race theory concern within the education system. But if we don’t focus on the right thing, we are not going to be able to fix it. So CRT is the ideology, but social-emotional learning is the delivery system.

Blair: So what you’re saying is that critical race theory, the ideas and the philosophy behind it are being packaged up in this new sort of social-emotional learning box and being delivered to children?

McWilliams: Yes, that’s exactly what they have done.

Blair: Excellent. On a similar note to what we’ve heard about critical race theory, a lot of the dialogue surrounding critical race theory from the left is that critical race theory is just teaching real history or just fostering accurate dialogue about America’s past. How do you respond to that?

McWilliams: Critical race theorists believe in revisionist history. And that’s what we’re seeing infiltrating the schools right now. And this revisionist history is not based on facts and how it transformed our country. It is actually just based on perceptions that they choose.

And of course, because a critical race theorist believes that in all of our systems in the country and in every situation there is some form of oppression … they choose these stories, whether they be true or false for the context of whatever they’re using, they always choose the ones that expose some sort of perceived oppression.

So the entire social-emotional learning program and transformation of our education system these last five years is through the belief that America is systemically racist, and they do it through revisionist history. So when they say, “We’re just telling accurate history,” that’s really not what they’re doing. They’re choosing perceptions based on oppression to rewrite our history.

Blair: So as a teacher, there are going to be circumstances where maybe you interact with a parent that disagrees with how you are teaching or doing things. Obviously, this is sort of the human experience where people disagree with each other. How would you explain your opposition to social-emotional learning, critical race theory, all of these ideas to someone—maybe a parent who is in favor of it—in order to get them on your side, if you could sit down with them?

McWilliams: I would tell them that I believe that it is their right to teach their children morals, values, attitudes, beliefs, and that it is not the job of a government institution to do that. They’re pushing these children into a groupthink box, and that is not what America is about.

And I have said to people that have disagreed with me that they have every right to believe what they believe in their personal life and that I would absolutely stand next to them and fight for their right to teach their children the way that they want, whatever ideology they believe and want to teach them.

But when the children go to school, they’re there for academics. We have transitioned the purpose of education from academics to a very radical ideology. And so they don’t have to believe in my beliefs and morals and values. And I don’t have to believe in [their beliefs]. But we should all stand together and fight for the innocence of these children and allow parents or caregivers to teach their children the way that they want.

Blair: Shifting gears a little bit, we mentioned at the top that you are the CEO and founder of Purple for Parents Indiana. Would you be able to tell us a little bit more about that organization and what it is that you guys do?

McWilliams: I will. I actually, I will tell you, I just a couple weeks ago stepped down. So what I built with Purple for Parents Indiana, it is the biggest parental rights group in Indiana. There are members, active members in all 92 counties. And for the last two years, I’ve worked extremely hard to bring this awareness to our state. I actually think that as far as the critical race theory narrative goes in our country, Indiana really is at the forefront of bringing the actual delivery system, SEL, to to the front.

So I decided a couple weeks ago, I’ve had a couple opportunities that I would like to help the rest of the country do that, so I actually stepped down from Purple for Parents, but it is still going strong. And they are just fighting for parental rights within the school system and to expose what’s actually happening.

I have my own, it’s jennifermcwilliamsconsulting.com, if anybody’s interested. But I would like to take what I’ve done here and the knowledge that I have, which is two years I’ve mostly dedicated my life to understanding this, and educate other states or school districts or groups, anybody who wants to understand the delivery system of CRT because we cannot stop this if we don’t understand it.

Blair: Absolutely. What are some of the successes that you can point to from Purple for Parents? You mentioned that you have members in each of the districts in Indiana, but are there some, like, concrete successes you can point to where we can say, “Purple for Parents did that”?

McWilliams: Well, Purple for Parents Indiana has used a lot of the information and spread this knowledge. They’re really in the fight for these parental rights. And they have had influence with the parental rights that was just put out from Todd Rokita here in Indiana, which is a whole packet for parents to know specifically what the rights are with the education system and for their children. And they’re having a huge impact right now with legislators and policymakers in our state.

And so we are hoping that when this next legislative session comes up, that there will be a lot of influence and voice there. The teachers union is such a powerful movement and they are fully in support of this SEL ideology. So we’ve just worked really hard for this last year to make sure that we have a counter voice strong enough to impact.

Blair: One of the things I’m very curious about, The Heritage Foundation and The Daily Signal have talked with people from very similar organizations, one that comes to mind is Ian Prior’s Fight for Schools in Loudoun County, Virginia. Do you find yourself working with other organizations across the country or are you more locally based in the state of Indiana?

McWilliams: No. We have worked with other organizations and I have also worked with, personally, other organizations across the country. We have received a lot of praise for the awareness that we have brought, including Loudoun County and all the way out to California.

So I think it’s encouraging to see all of these parental groups support each other and share information and tell each other what works, what doesn’t. And I think 2022 is going to be an extremely interesting year for all of this because there is a massive movement happening right now.

Blair: As we wrap-up this interview, I’d like to get your opinion on, if parents are maybe finding concerning materials in their child’s curriculum, how would you advise them to deal with it?

McWilliams: You have to take it to, obviously, the teacher and the administrators. And I have found that a lot of them, especially with SEL, because it does use such innocuous language, some of them really don’t understand what they are influencing. So it may help if they are willing to have a conversation about it to explain how this works, how the framework works. And of course, I’m happy to help people do that.

But then you have to get to the school boards. You have to speak to the school boards and you have to be represented there consistently. And I think for a long time, we’re all guilty of kind of dropping the ball on doing that, but you have to hold them accountable. And then, of course, the legislators need to understand it, so they need [to be] educated on this because the language sounds nice, it’s very confusing to people.

Blair: That’s all great information. And if our listeners are interested in learning more about social-emotional learning, critical race theory, Purple for Parents, where do you recommend that they go?

McWilliams: So, of course, Purple for Parents Indiana, there is a Facebook group. And then, like I said, because I had just stepped down a couple weeks ago, I have Jennifer McWilliams, that’s jennifermcwilliamsconsulting.com. And I just started that, so I’m starting to get some information on there for everybody, but I am starting to schedule things where I can travel across the nation to help people understand how this works and what they need to do about it.

Blair: Excellent. That was Jennifer McWilliams, an Indiana teacher who was fired from her job after she criticized the use of social-emotional learning in her school’s curriculum, as well as the founder and CEO of Purple for Parents Indiana. Jennifer, thank you so much for your time and I wish you the best in your endeavors.

McWilliams: Thank you so much for having me.

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