How Do You Feel Today?

The Invasion of SEL Software in K-12 Education

The recent appeal for more mental health services has caused school districts to adopt software touting SEL (social-emotional learning) capabilities. Such programs as GoGuardian, Panorama, and Harmony SEL are now in thousands of schools across the nation. While the need for more mental health supports in schools is evident, the rapid adoption of technology has occurred without adequate scrutiny and parental awareness. Even teachers and district administrators blindly accept these companies’ claims to improve behavior and dramatically drop suicide rates. But such businesses base their product’s effectiveness on few research studies of little value.¹ The valid studies cited may be focusing on the SEL lessons delivered by humans without using the digital program.

One such program called PBIS Rewards touts the benefits of daily student “check-ins.” Students log into the program on their devices and click on an emoji reflecting their current emotional state. This information is then automatically sent to a central database that allows the teacher to track students’ emotions on their computer. The program makers tout the benefits by emphasizing how easy it is to collect and track such student data. Teachers and schools can set goals for students using this data and assign points to desired behaviors. The PBIS Rewards website states, “Students love to see their point totals grow, and to think about which rewards they’ll get with their points.” Parents are encouraged to download the associated app onto their phones to reinforce the program at home. The company assures schools that “Parents enjoy seeing their student’s progress, and are alerted when a referral is given.” ²

Within PBIS Rewards and other SEL software, teachers and administrators can use data collected online from students to create reports.³. Schools can refine these reports to gender and race. Let’s say a school compiles a database that shows their Black male students were angry 70% of the time. It is not difficult to imagine how schools could inadvertently use this information to reinforce pre-existing bias and racial stereotyping. Just because we have data doesn’t mean this leads to equity.⁴ It matters what people do with the data.⁵

The school also keeps this information about students throughout the year. If they do not delete it, there’s a potential for future teachers to develop a bias towards a student even before they meet them.⁶ Some will say knowledge is helpful, but are we not giving kids a chance to start over with a new school year? What if they had a parent who went to prison that year and they were depressed or angry because of it? Yet, a teacher merely sees that the particular student was angry 70% of the time. Now consider if the school shares this information with law enforcement?⁶ According to FERPA, school resource officers and other law enforcement cannot access student information without a specified exception, but districts can creatively interpret these limits.⁷

SEL tech providers will often claim their products promote mental health awareness and can be used to reduce the number of suicidal or dangerous students. Even before the pandemic, the Guardian reported that with such technology, “privacy experts — and students — said they are concerned that surveillance at school might actually be undermining students’ wellbeing.” ⁸

Over-reliance upon potentially invasive technology can erode students’ trust. Reliance on mental health digital applications during distance learning can also lead to several ethical concerns rarely brought up among staff untrained in mental health issues.⁹ Use of such programs such as GoGuardian to monitor students’ screens for concerning websites can lead to legal problems for unaware educators.¹⁰

This district website sends parents directly to the company’s site to encourage the download of the app.

In addition to requiring children to use these programs in school, ed-tech companies are now encouraging schools to have students and parents download apps. Such actions can create several privacy concerns. The student is downloading an app on their personal device; therefore, they will be using it outside of school networks and all their security. Thus personal information in these apps could be accessed by outside parties. While companies may claim that they have ensured their software is safe, online apps installed on phones are routinely not secure.¹¹ COPPA guidelines often are not abided by.¹² School districts have even been known to put direct links to these apps on their websites, encouraging parents and students to use apps with privacy issues.¹³

The integration of digital SEL programs with other software platforms like Clever adds another layer of privacy concerns. What if another student hacks into Clever or Google Classroom? What if the SEL screen on a teacher’s computer became visible? Teachers often will display their laptop screen to the class. What if they accidentally had a student’s SEL screen open and projected this? Technical issues occur all the time, and it is easy to see how such an incident could happen.

The potential privacy issues surrounding digital SEL programs abound. For example, a popular app called Thrively shares information with third party users (despite their company privacy statement).¹⁴ Many widely used applications in schools are too new for privacy specialists to know to what extent they violate individual privacy.¹⁵ Therefore, schools using these programs often act as experimental laboratories for the legal limits of data collection and usage. We must keep in mind that just because there are no reported incidences of privacy violations doesn’t mean they don’t occur.

Frequently, companies that produce such online programs will offer their product for free to districts. Let us be clear; no one merely gives away software with no compensation in return. Educational technology companies have routinely taken data as payment for the use of their products¹⁶ Sales of data to third party digital operators is big money. Information is the most expensive commodity there is today.¹⁷

Educational technology companies can trade influence for payment.¹⁸ The student usage of Google or Microsoft products can lead to parents purchasing such products for home use. As adults, former students will also be more likely to buy these brand name products. The free license for school districts ends up paying off in such cases. And it’s not only the big guys like Google that are making such an investment. Organizations like Harmony SEL have a whole line of products for home use geared towards parents. Harmony is also associated with a private university, an online charter school, a professional development company, and a company that sells fundraising training for schools. These programs all rely heavily upon funding by billionaire T. Denny Sanford.¹⁹ Of course, consumers of the Harmony SEL system are encouraged to use these other businesses and organizations’ products.

Source: Geek and Poke

Online educational software does sometimes disregard privacy laws regarding children. In 2020, New Mexico’s attorney general sued Google claiming the tech giant used its educational products to spy on the state’s children and families despite Google’s privacy statement ensuring schools and families that children’s data wouldn’t be tracked.²⁰ The lack of comprehensive and sufficient laws protecting children’s online information makes the ubiquitous use of educational technology all the more troubling.²¹ If schools are not aware of the potential violations, how can parents be? Even more concerning, The State Student Privacy Report Card states, “FERPA contains no specific protections against data breaches and hacking, nor does it require families be notified when inadvertent disclosures occur.” ²²

Educational technology providers can adhere to COPPA guidelines by claiming they require parental consent before children use their products.²³ But frequently, school districts will merely have parents sign a universal consent form covering all digital tools. Although they can, and should, require additional consent for specific applications, they often do not. Besides, if the parental consent form includes all necessary tools such as Google Suite, a student could be denied any devices until a parent signs the form. Such conditions place tremendous pressure on parents to consent.

Equally insidious are the tech marketing claims that feed into school accountability mandates. Makers of SEL software craft their messaging to reflect the mission statements and goals of school districts. For example, Panorama claims that their SEL tracking program can predict “college and career readiness.” Popular terms like “grit” and “growth mindset” are generously sprinkled throughout marketing literature. Other programs claim their products produce a rise in standardized test scores.²⁴ Some even have convinced school districts to do marketing for them, promoting their products for free.²⁵

Underlying many such behavioral programs is the reliance on extrinsic motivators. Yet, the use of rewards for learning is highly problematic.²⁶ Dan Pink found that extrinsic rewards such as gold stars and gift certificates were harmful in the school environment.²⁷ Teachers themselves are even speaking out against the damaging effects of such programs.²⁸

These concerns lead us to the larger question: who decides what feelings are acceptable? How does SEL technology discourage the expression of certain feelings? If we reward students for a “positive mind set,” does that mean we actively should try to stifle negative emotions? Evan Selinger, the author of Reengineering Humanity, warns that “technology, by taking over what were once fundamental functions…has begun to dissociate us from our own humanity.” ²⁹

School SEL programs with objectives to produce more positive feelings may have the unintended effect of telling the child that their emotional reactions are something they entirely create, not a reflection of their environment. Suppose a child is frustrated because they don’t understand the curriculum. In that case, the school may emphasize the child controlling their feelings rather than adapting the material to the student’s needs. Students rarely have the ability or courage to tell teachers why they are feeling what they are feeling. In a system where adults advise students that they alone are responsible for their feelings, a child can easily take the blame for adult behaviors. Districts can then use such data to explain away low standardized test scores, asserting that “students with higher social-emotional competencies tend to have higher scores on Smarter Balanced ELA and math assessments.” Therefore, it is easy to assume that student academic failure has little to do with the quality of instruction in the school but rather the student’s emotional competencies.

“Technology, by taking over what were once fundamental functions, has begun to dissociate us from our own humanity.” — Evan Selinger, author of Reengineering Humanity

In our modern western culture, society encourages parents to minimize negative emotions in their children.³⁰ Child psychologists stress children need to be allowed to express negative feelings. Not only does this tell the child that fear, anger, frustration, etc., are normal, but it also allows the child to practice dealing with negative feelings. It is not sufficient or helpful to encourage positive emotions but censor negative ones. Expression of negative feelings is necessary for mental health.³¹ (Take a look at the millions of adults stuffing their anger and sadness away with alcohol, food, and drugs.) Parental discouragement of negative feelings is one thing, though. It’s another to allow a school, and worse yet, a technology company to regulate a child’s emotion. One can only envision a dystopian future where we are not allowed to feel anything but happiness.

“And that,” put in the Director sententiously, “that is the secret of happiness and virtue — liking what you’ve got to do. All conditioning aims at that: making people like their unescapable social destiny.” — Brave New World

If we take Huxley’s writings seriously, the intention of societal enforced happiness is the control of the individual. One cannot help but think of this when reading about behavioral programs that reward “good” feelings with happy face emojis, stars, or even pizza parties.

Instead of relying on software to monitor and shape children’s behaviors, teachers should be focusing on improving relationships built on trust. Even if a school uses software to identify a child’s feelings, no change will occur because of mere identification. The difference is in the steps schools take to address student anger, frustration, apathy, and the conditions that create them. Over and over again, the one thing that improves student mental health is teachers’ and counselors’ support. Without such beneficial relationships, destructive behavior occurs. Research consistently finds that poor relationships between teachers and pupils can cause bad behavior.³²

When SEL software is adopted, and there are limited counselors and social workers, the teacher decides the meaning of a student’s emotions and mental health. What does depression look like, and how many days of “sad” is symptomatic of a mental health issue? Teachers are not trained mental health providers. But the reliance on and assumed efficacy of such programs may give teachers the false feeling that they can rely on their perspective without contacting a counselor. Broad adoption of such software could be a money-saving measure to cash-strapped districts pressured to deal with a rising level of child mental health issues. The annual cost of a software license is far less than the salaries of certified school counselors and social workers.

We must first insist upon the humanity from which all good teaching emanates. Only within this framework can we create environments in which children can develop and flourish.

Parents and teachers need to be aware of SEL software, its use, and its purpose. The simple addition of a list of licensed applications on a district website is not enough to ensure parental awareness. Often SEL technology is adopted without parent review and feedback. While districts allow parents to review and opt their child out of sex education programs, SEL programs do not have such a requirement in place. This lack of clarity has led to parents (and teachers) voicing their concerns over SEL curriculums and lessons.³³ ³⁴ Rapid adoption without critical voices could lead to school encroachment into families’ values and norms. Whether or not one agrees with the beliefs of individual families, as a society, we need to be aware of how specific policies may negatively impact the civil liberties of individivials.³⁵

Technology is changing at a rapid pace never previously experienced. If we are to harness its benefits, we must first take stock of its harmful impact on our institutions. Quick adoption of SEL programs needs reassessment given the risks associated with their misuse. We must first insist upon the humanity from which all good teaching emanates. Only within this framework can we create environments where children can develop and flourish.

  1. García Mathewson , Tara, and Sarah Butrymowicz. Ed Tech Companies Promise Results, but Their Claims Are Often Based on Shoddy Research. The Hechinger Report, 20 May 2020
  2. PBIS Rewards also has a teacher behavior reward system. The PBIS rewards website states that principals can give reward points just like they do for students. Teachers can get rewards points for Bath and Body Works baskets, a dress-down pass, or even a gift card for groceries. (Not making enough money teaching to buy dinner? If you earn enough points, you can too can buy food for your family!) Ironically, principals can even give teachers points for “buying into” the PBIS system. No mention of how such systems can negatively contribute to our teacher attrition problem. Source: “Introducing the SEL Check-In Feature with PBIS Rewards.” PBIS Rewards, Motivating Systems, LLC., 4 Sept. 2020
  3. For example, a school district in Nevada used data collected through the Panorama application to create reports of behavioral trends based on gender and race. Source: Davidson, Laura. How Washoe County School District Uses SEL Data to Advance Equity and Excellence, Panorama Education, October 2020
  4. Bump, Philip. Cops Tend to See Black Kids as Less Innocent Than White Kids. The Atlantic, 27 Nov. 2014
  5. Skibba, Ramin. The Disturbing Resilience of Scientific Racism. Smithsonian Magazine, 20 May 2019
  6. An EFF report found few school privacy policies address deletion of data after periods of inactivity, which would allow applications to retain information even after students graduate. Source: Alim, F., Cardoza, N., Gebhart, G., Gullo, K., & Kalia, A. Spying on Students: School-Issued Devices and Student Privacy. Electronic Frontier Foundation, 13 April 2017
  7. Education, Privacy, Disability Rights, and Civil Rights Groups Send Letter to Florida Governor About Discriminatory Student Database. Future of Privacy Forum, 14 Dec. 2020
  8. It is estimated that as many as a third of America’s school districts may already be using technology that monitors students’ emails and documents for phrases that might flag suicidal thoughts. Source: Beckett, Lois. Clear Backpacks, Monitored Emails: Life for US Students under Constant Surveillance. The Guardian, 2 Dec. 2019
  9. D., Florell, et al. “Legal and Ethical Considerations for Remote School Psychological Services.” National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), Accessed 12 February 2021.
  10. Buchanan, Shelley. “The Abuses and Misuses of GoGuardian in Schools.” Medium, Teachers on Fire Magazine, 23 Jan. 2021
  11. COPPA requires that websites and online services directed to children obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from anyone younger than 13; however, many popular apps do not comply. A University of Texas at Dallas study of 100 mobile apps for kids found that 72 violated a federal law aimed at protecting children’s online privacy. Source: University of Texas at Dallas. Tool to protect children’s online privacy: Tracking instrument nabs apps that violate federal law with 99% accuracy. Science Daily, 23 June 2020.
  12. ibid.
  13. For example, Second Step, a program used in many school districts has a link to a children’s app that collects personally identifiable information which is sold to third parties.
  14. “Common Sense Privacy Evaluation for Thrively.” The Common Sense Privacy Program, Common Sense Media. Accessed 12 February 2021.
  15. Tate, Emily. Is School Surveillance Going Too Far? Privacy Leaders Urge a Slow Down. EdSurge News, 10 June 2019
  16. Educator Toolkit for Teacher and Student Privacy: A Practical Guide for Protecting Person al Data. Parent Coalition for Student Privacy & Badass Teachers Association. October 2018.
  17. Jossen , Sam. The World’s Most Valuable Resource Is No Longer Oil, but Data. The Economist , 6 May 2017.
  18. Klein, Alyson. What Does Big Tech Want From Schools? (Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Money). Education Week, 29 Dec. 2020.
  19. T. Denny Sanford also has heavily funded and lent his name to a number of other organizations. Although recently, in late 2020, Sanford Health decided to drop the founders name from their title after reported child pornography investigations of their benefactor. National University (home of the college associated with the Harmony SEL program) also adopted the name of the philanthropist, yet recently reconsidered the change.
  20. Singer, N. and Wakabayashi, D. New Mexico Sues Google Over Children's Privacy Violations. New York Times, 20 February 2020
  21. The State Student Privacy Report Card: Grading the States on Protecting Student Data Privacy. Parent Coalition for Student Privacy & The Network for Public Education, January 2019.
  22. ibid.
  23. COPPA protects children under the age of 13 who use commercial websites, online games, and mobile apps. While schools must ensure the services their students use treat the data they collect responsibly, COPPA ultimately places the responsibility on the online service operator. At the same time, COPPA generally does not apply when a school has hired a website operator to collect information from students for educational purposes for use by the school. In those instances, the school (not an individual teacher) can provide consent on behalf of the students when required, as long as the data is used only for educational purposes.
  24. Such correlation assumes that standardized assessments such as the SBAC are accurate measurements of student’s academic abilities. There are multiple reasons why this is not the case. To blame a student’s success on their emotional state is harmful, considering the tests themselves have serious flaws. If a school decides to use data collected about SEL competencies and sort according to socio-economic status, it would be too easy to assume that poor SEL skills rather than ineffective schools or poverty causes low test scores. It would not be difficult to imagine how this flawed logic could then be used to substantiate a claim that low social-emotional skills cause poverty instead of any societal attributes.
  25. Current WCSD Superintendent Kristen McNeill stated in 2017, “I can’t think of better data to help our 64,000 students on their path to graduation.” Source: Serving 5 Million Students, Panorama Education Raises $16M to Expand Reach of Social-Emotional Learning and Increase College Readiness in Schools, Panorama Education, 26 June 2018
  26. Kohn , Alfie. The Risks of Rewards. Eric Digest , 17 Nov. 2014
  27. Truby, Dana. “Motivation: The Secret Behind Student Success.” Scholastic, Accessed 12 January 2021.
  28. “To monitor students like items on a conveyer belt does more for District PR machine than how to assist real students with real complex emotional and social issues.” Source: Rubin, Lynda. “Action Item 16 Contracts with Motivating Systems LLC and Kickboard, Inc.” Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools , 20 Jan. 2021.
  29. Furness, Dylan. “Technology Makes Our Lives Easier, but is it at the Cost of Our Humanity?” Digital Trends, Digital Trends, 28 Apr. 2018.
  30. Denham, S. A. “Emotional Competence During Childhood and Adolescence.” Handbook of Emotional Development, edited by Vanessa LoBue, Vanessa, et al, 2019, pp. 493–541.
  31. Rodriguez, Tori. Negative Emotions Are Key to Well-Being. Scientific American, 1 May 2013.
  32. Cadima J, Leal T, Burchinal M. “The Quality of Teacher-Student Interactions: Associations with First Graders’ Academic and Behavioral Outcomes. Journal of School Psychology. 2010;48:457–82.
  33. Callahan, Joe. Marion School Board Shelves Sanford Harmony Curriculum Over Gender Norm Themes. Ocala Star-Banner, 24 Oct. 2020.
  34. Bailey, Nancy. “Social-Emotional Learning: The Dark Side.” Nancy Bailey’s Education Website, 6 Nov. 2020.
  35. “Problems with Social-Emotional Learning in K-12 Education: New Study.” Pioneer Institute , 10 Dec. 2020.

Age of Awareness

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Shelley Buchanan, M.A.

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Former educator, school librarian, and school technology coordinator. Learning will set you free.

Age of Awareness

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