Perspectives on Early Childhood Psychology and Education

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In this paper, we seek to critically address the enactment and impact of social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum and implementation in early childhood and elementary (PK-5th) classrooms. Specifically, we argue that SEL, as frequently operationalized, is a dehumanizing process that seeks to assimilate non-dominant children into dominant ways of being while concurrently seeking to enforce compliance and normalize children to oppressive structures. SEL is often seen as a “nice” form of classroom management, perfect for a field dominated by “nice” white women who see their work as apolitical and neutral rather than political and rooted in the maintenance of white supremacy (Galman et al., 2010). As such, it makes sense that PK-5 contexts, deeply rooted in a “Just be Kind” sense of morality as opposed to one rooted in justice and student empowerment (Turner, 2019), turn to SEL programs as “fixers” of student behavior. But SEL programs are often anything but “nice.” Despite presenting as humanizing and kind, the focus on compliance makes it inherently dehumanizing.