Perspectives on Early Childhood Psychology and Education

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As social-emotional learning (SEL) has become a more acknowledged and central part of early schooling in the last two decades, many schools and educators, particularly those in progressive spaces, have adopted SEL programs to supplement or substitute other systems of classroom management. While research demonstrates that children’s social, emotional, and cultural practices and experiences are central to inclusive, humanizing, and culturally relevant learning, SEL programs are often implemented to more closely resemble behaviorist systems of classroom management. This article presents findings from a progressive first-grade classroom of Latinx children from immigrant families led by a white teacher. Examples from ethnographic observations of the classroom illustrate the ways that the teacher used an SEL program alongside a discourse of “readiness to learn” to manage and control children’s behavior. These classroom experiences proved to be closely connected to the ideas about learning that children in Mr. Walsh’s class shared in video-cued interviews, namely that students need to be calm, quiet, focused, and “ready” in order to learn. The article considers the ways that larger systems of whiteness, individualism, and control weaving through SEL programming and progressive schooling create, foster, and perpetuate discourses of control and “readiness” that ultimately prevent children from meaningfully contributing and engaging in the type of deep learning that results from focused, structured agency and relationships of mutual trust and respect.