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Why Canned Social-Emotional Skill Programs in Schools Can Harm Gifted Students More Than Help Them

By Kathleen Casper.

Full Title: Danger in a Can: Why Canned Social-Emotional Skill Programs in Schools Can Harm Gifted Students More

Educators are aware that the drive for achievement and standardized test success in the school system often does not provide enough individualized opportunities for important social-emotional skill building, so a market for “canned” social emotional skill building programs has sprouted up in the last couple decades.

This sounds like a great thing- our students need to learn social-emotional skills, and our teachers are so busy that programs that can be rolled out quickly and easily seem like a quick fix to the problem. However, in reviewing many of these programs (those referred to both as social-emotional skills programs or character building programs,) it is apparent that these programs do not meet the needs of our gifted students for several reasons, and most could be downright dangerous for our most at-risk gifted children.

The programs I reviewed have many of the following characteristics and flaws that may negatively impact children who are gifted:

Overly sequential

Sequential lesson plans where kids have to discuss topics that are presented to them. This is problematic for gifted students who can move through curriculum quickly. It may seem boring and based on a lower comprehension skill level, as they often are connected to grade level curriculum assignments and are based on scripted lessons.

Not based on real life experiences

Most are not related to actual events that gifted students are dealing with in real time. The tasks are based on a set of problems an author created- not what’s going on now in that child’s life or what may seem relevant or useful. Gifted students have innate desires for connecting to the world around them and they react strongly to fairness issues. However they also can see through made-up scenarios and may see them as a waste of time when there are more interesting real-world issues to tackle.

Not created for gifted children’s needs

The research that is linked on the websites of most of the curriculum programs I reviewed did not show evidence of the programs being created by professionals who are trained in gifted education. The research that is being used to legitimize the programs are also not based specifically on gifted students, and do not even mention gifted children.

Forced partnering

Many social parts of the program include partner activities with students who often have nothing in common being paired up and forced to work together. Gifted kids have enough trouble finding strong peer relationships without being forced to work on remedial level activities with partners who may be difficult to communicate and interact with. This may create frustration and anxiety in all of the students, as research has shown that all children struggle to communicate effectively with people who are beyond 10 points of their own intelligence quotient. And even if that is not an issue, one of the most predominate issues that gifted children have is not feeling like other children and stressing friendships. If a program truly has a team-building focus, the gifted children may benefit from the activities, however if it is merely pairing kids up to act out or discuss social situations it may not only be stressful for everyone involved, but it may also set the gifted child up for potential bullying (as gifted children are often targets of bullying.) This type of activity should be approached with caution and guided by trained professionals in order to do more good than harm.

Friendship issues

On a related topic, the units on friendship building in these programs do not seem to even crack the surface of what gifted kids need in order to make meaningful friendships. They, in essence, emphasize skills for being polite and aim to make students aware of the need to include others in their activities who aren’t really their friends or who may be different than they are. But gifted kids have even deeper needs and they often feel uncomfortable and put on the spot when they feel they are the left-out children that the other students are being told they should be nice to.


The activities in the lessons can be silly and even embarrassing for students who feel different than their peers already. Puppets and breathing activities and other scripted group scenarios that may make other students laugh may seem silly and not as humorous to students who are uncomfortable in the peer group or who have a much higher level of humor than their peers. On the other hand, the gifted child may see humor in situations that were meant to be serious, which may lead them (further) down the road of school discipline.

Based on school pride

These programs often include conformist type activities to promote school pride. Gifted kids often struggle with authoritarianism and can have behavioral issues due to mis-fitting educational experiences. If they feel teachers or the system isn’t understanding or working with their needs, they are going to struggle with school pride.

Parent requirements

Parent-school connections are often expected, such as letters that children take home to parents with activities for them to do together, or even conferences. Parents of gifted kids may be at odds with the school system due to their children being out of sync with the school’s curriculum or behavior expectations. Parents of gifted kids may need to advocate strongly for their children’s rights and may not feel particularly supported by the school. They also may be dealing with much more intense social emotional issues at home due to parenting gifted kids being so difficult. They may not want the school sending them condescending messages at a much lower level of need than what they are dealing with at home.

Assumed age level behaviors

These programs often based on assumptions of what age-appropriate behaviors should be. Gifted kids are asynchronous and may not respond in typical ways to their intense emotions and personal and social needs. A gifted kid who is working very hard on behavior issues (often based on frustration about being inappropriately supported academically or social-emotionally by the school system,) may feel the program is emphasizing traits they have and that are hard for them to control, as being less ok, without actually offering any true support for the root causes of the child’s stressors.

Characteristics tourism

Studying characteristics one at a time is like being a “cultural tourist,” (where we celebrate diverse cultures each month in an isolated function rather than embracing the complex cultural issues we encounter in our multi-cultural world on a daily basis.) The programs ask kids to reflect on one isolated character trait, such as being kind, often without looking deeply at kindness and all the ways it plays into society (or the lack of it does,) and then at the end of the month we move on, as if we have fully solved the issue of needing to be kind and now we are done with it. In real life, the characteristics are all intertwined and have much more complicated implications.

Limited teacher training

Often training for teachers for these programs consists of a day or two of another educator or company salesperson showing them how to use the lesson plans (if it is required at all). Gifted children often have thought about the character traits being presented in the little twenty to sixty minute lessons for much longer amounts of time than the teacher training program offers teachers, and they have such deeper interactions with emotions and can see such complicated life patterns and behaviors around them and within themselves, that these lessons are simply pandering to their sense that teachers do not care or understand their needs.

Many of the program goals include something like, “teaching students to regulate their emotions.” Yet how can a teacher be effectively trained to help students do this with only a day or two at the most of training (with likely only a short time spent on that one goal in the training at all)? Especially, how can a teacher adequately teach gifted students about their complex emotional responses if they haven’t even done the minimal training for a gifted education teaching endorsement? And if they have the endorsement, how is a day or two of training going to adequately prepare them to help students who likely are not even easy for licensed counselors and psychologists to support?

Supporting gifted students more

After reviewing these canned programs, it is clear that the best way for us to sufficiently meet the needs of our gifted population is to be trained in their unique characteristics and needs and to truly understand what types of social emotional skills they may have and what they need to work on. It’s important to surround them with teachers and other students who understand them, and to work on social emotional skill building during activities throughout their days rather than in a canned program. Teaching skills in context is much more valuable than setting up situations, and gifted students (in fact, all students,) respond much more honestly to genuine issues than made up scenarios.

Gifted education endorsement programs are important for all educators to participate in, due to their focus on looking at the special needs of gifted students and finding ways to meet their needs in the classroom. And educators should not stop there, but can continue to develop more understanding and skill building of their own by participating in state and national conferences on gifted education, as well as keeping abreast of updated research and strategies regarding the development of gifted children and meeting the needs of gifted people in general by subscribing to association newsletters, websites, blogs and more.

It is worth noting that if something is touted as meeting the social emotional needs of an entire student population, it almost certainly will not be able to accomplish that goal due to the diversity of the all children, and children who are gifted cannot be put in a particular box either- gifted children have various interests and different social emotional issues even from each other. This is why there is no canned curriculum claiming to meet the needs of “all” gifted children.

There are rubrics and rating scales that can help educators and parents gauge where gifted children are in terms of social emotional development and needs, but for the most part it is best to get to know the children we work with. Using the research and strategies that we learn through our professional development on gifted education issues helps us to best provide them with learning environments rich with interesting materials and challenges that keep them engaged and willing to try new things. And by making things based on real life, gifted students will interact with the world around them and naturally develop the skills they need to succeed.

It is very important that as we proceed in working with diverse populations of children, that we don’t attempt to put them all into an easily labeled box and think we can solve all of their social emotional needs with a monthly or even daily curriculum that is made for “all students.” And that we scrutinize the programs that we are subjecting our children to, so we can support them best and most critically, do no harm.

Program review

I reviewed multiple programs and read the reviews that others wrote about the programs as well, such as (Top 23 evidence based Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Programs in the country).

Some programs had research links, which were also reviewed. Many other programs had similar issues, so to list them all would be repetitive.

One drawback to this review is that I did not watch multiple classes utilize each type of program, so as always, there could be benefits for any child that are not apparent in the research or reviews. However, my review did show that most of the programs contained most of the problem issues as listed above.

Here are some that I reviewed, and my notes on the program formats and research information:

The 4Rs Program (Reading, Writing, Respect & Resolution)

This program prepares teachers to teach weekly lessons based on the 4Rs curriculum:

“including (a) the building of secure and supportive relationships between children and teachers and among all school staff; (b) a pedagogy reflecting the values of inclusion, belonging, and the celebration of diversity; (c) the establishment of positive social norms that emphasize individuals’ contribution to and support of the classroom and school community while respecting each person’s ideas and autonomy; (d) the development and maintenance of clear and consistent rules with appropriate and predictable mechanisms for control and limit setting in classrooms and schools overall; and (e) a focus on the learning and practicing of key developmentally appropriate and relevant skills through a variety of instructional techniques. In short, the 4Rs Program aims to promote caring classroom communities marked by consistent and positive rules and norms, and safe and secure environments that convey respect for student diversity, ideas, and autonomy.”

The 4Rs curriculum is grade-specific: Each grade has its own teaching guide, books, and age-appropriate activities

“The 4Rs Program has two primary components: (a) a comprehensive seven-unit, 21–35 lesson, literacy-based curriculum in conflict resolution and social–emotional learning (provided to teachers in a standardized, grade-specific teaching guide); and (b) 25 hours of training followed by ongoing coaching of teachers to support them in teaching the 4Rs curriculum with a minimum of 12 contacts in one school year.” (article)

The 4Rs includes a parent component, 4Rs Family Connections, which consists of activities children do with their parents at home. Each activity sheet includes a summary of the book used in the unit, a related activity for the adult and child to do together, and suggestions for further activities related to the book.

I reviewed the study they referred to as proof of the program’s success (Brown, J.L., & Jones, S.M., (2010). Improving Classroom Quality: Teacher Influences and Experimental Impacts of the 4Rs Program. Journal of Educational Psychology. Vol. 102, No. 1, 153–167.)

It stated that “the schools can be described as racially and ethnically diverse, composed primarily of students who receive a free school lunch, and characterized by attendance rates over 89% and one-year stability rates that range from 86% to 95%. Further, children in these schools are highly representative of children in all public elementary schools in this large northeastern metropolitan city according to these dimensions.” Yet, NY has specific gifted education schools/classes that were not mentioned at all in this study. The category “special education” was mentioned, but gifted is not often grouped in this category and is often mentioned specifically if the research specifically looked at this subgroup.

The study actually ended up focusing on one thing that is often left out of the reviews of social-emotional programs- the emotional health and skills of the teachers who are doing the actual teaching of the social-emotional skills units. “Their self-perceived emotional abilities are related to supportive teacher behaviors and student–teacher interactions in the instructional and organizational domains. It appears that our assessment of teachers’ perceived emotional abilities may be indexing other underlying aspects of teacher functioning that translate not into emotionally supportive behaviors and interactions per se but rather into a greater ability to manage their emotions in a manner that enables them to more effectively organize their classroom, engage with students, and maximize high-quality, productive learning time.” (article)

It makes sense that if a teacher is already modeling self-control and positive behaviors, the students may already have an advantage over other students in classes with less positive educators. Again, it all comes down to how well the teacher is able to connect with the students. And gifted students really do need teachers who see them in a positive light and can guide them as role models. In order to do that, it is important that the teachers understand gifted characteristics and needs and truly can handle with grace, and even appreciate, the potential gifted characteristics that are usually considered inappropriate in a classroom setting, and be able to guide the students in the right direction towards self-management. It is questionable whether these weekly units of discussion around grade level books is the root cause of student social emotional improvement, when really it seems to be the teacher attitudes and predispositions that may have the most impact. Perhaps the social-emotional skills training the teachers were receiving helped them to better focus on their own behaviors, and the fact that they were willing to participate in the study at all may have also been because of their positive attitudes.

The authors themselves even admit this: “the nature of the intervention itself, and the design of the evaluation, does not enable us to disentangle which specific components of the intervention were related to classroom quality. Although it is likely a combination of teacher training, ongoing coaching, and teacher implementation of the curriculum, the relative benefits of these components remains unknown.” (p. 165).


According to the review at, The MindUp program provides separate sets of lessons for three levels: prekindergarten through second grade; third through fifth grade; and sixth through eighth grade. Beginning after the third lesson, MindUp establishes core practices of deep breathing and attentive listening, which are then practiced several times a day throughout the school year.

Initial training for the MindUp program typically lasts one full day (seven hours), and regional and collaborative workshops last two to two and one-half days. Training is not required, and MindUp offers a train-the-trainer system to support sustainability.

In addition, there are 15 structured lessons at each level that span four units. Each lesson provides an explanation of how the content and objective of the lesson is supported by brain research. The lessons also include a “getting ready” activity, a MindUp warm-up, and detailed instructions to the teacher on how to engage students and support their exploration and reflection on the topic.

This mostly seems like a relaxation and self-centering program, not a true comprehensive social-emotional skills program. The benefits seem to be in helping kids reflect and calm themselves with relaxation and centering techniques.

From their website: “MindUP™ is a research-based training program for educators and children. This program is composed of 15 lessons based in neuroscience. Students learn to self-regulate behavior and mindfully engage in focused concentration required for academic success. MindUP™ lessons align with all state standards including Common Core and support improved academic performance while enhancing perspective taking, empathy and kindness as well as fostering complex problem solving skills.”

The founder was Goldie Hawn. This could be considered a bad thing- yes, she is known well for being an entertainer, not a psychologist (which she is not…), but it also could be a good thing, as she has proven time and time again throughout her comments in the public to be a very talented individual with gifted characteristics. Perhaps she knows something personally that helps guide her in her decisions to back this sort of program.

However, the studies about this program were minimal and the first one I read, (Schonert-Reichl, K.A. & Lawlor, M.S. (2010). The Effects of a Mindfulness-Based Education Program on Pre- and Early Adolescents’ Well-Being and Social and Emotional Competence. Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. ) started with this line: “We report the results of a quasi-experimental study evaluating the effectiveness of the Mindfulness Education (ME) program.” QUASI? Well, that set the stage for more skepticism for sure.

It doesn’t help that the research was “supported by grants from the Hawn Foundation and the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) at the University of British Columbia.” ( ) It was not an unbiased study, nor was it a random sample by any means.

This specific comment in the article also made me wonder about causes and effects related to the need for social-emotional skill practice: “Epidemiological reports of prevalence rates of disorder, for instance, indicate that mental health problems are on the rise with approximately one in five children and adolescents experiencing problems severe enough to warrant their need for mental health services (Romano et al. 2001; U.S. Public Health Service 2000).” Is it truly that our students have a need for mental health services, or is it due to our antiquated education system that we are driving our students in this direction?

The study was done with “Participants… from 4th to 7th grade regular public education classrooms in 12 elementary schools located in a large urban school district in a Western Canadian city.” The key word, “regular” shows that they did not bother to study the effects on gifted students, and the fact that they only did this study with 12 total schools (with only 6 of them actually using this program,) I continue to be skeptical.

However, the research on mindfulness shows that these types of activities help adults focus and improve resilience. So, it is not doubtful that this type of program has benefits for many people. But does this effectively help our gifted students with their issues? There is no proof to the matter, and it certainly has its drawbacks as well. Even the findings of the study did not seem conclusive in the area of improving general self-concept. “our analyses revealed benefits (improvements) in general self-concept for preadolescents who were exposed to the ME program, no improvements in general self-concept emerged for the early adolescents.”

There may be some benefits of this type of program, but it does not seem to effectively impact students across the board, and gifted students (as a subgroup) certainly have not been evaluated in this study at all.

Second Step

Second Step provides instruction in social and emotional learning with units on skills for learning, empathy, emotion management, friendship skills, and problem solving. The program contains separate sets of lessons for use in prekindergarten through eighth grade implemented in 22 to 28 weeks each year.

From their website: “Supported by music and videos, take-home activities, and stories kids relate to, the developmentally appropriate Second Step lessons have helped teachers instill social-emotional skills in their students for over 20 years. Best of all, the student lessons are easy to teach, right out of the box!”

The first day contains a script and main lesson. The second day includes a story and discussion. The third and fourth days involve practice activities in small and large groups. On the fifth day students read a book connected to the overall unit theme, and teachers send home a “Home Link” activity that gives students an opportunity to practice new skills with their caregivers.

Again, this program includes language referring to “developmentally appropriate” lessons and this program is based on the assumption that it will work for all students. Gifted children have different development rates from other students, and it is hard to say what is appropriate for them in a general manner as this program description states. A program based on “developmentally appropriate levels” may require gifted children to participate with higher or lower grade levels in order to obtain the necessary skills they are currently working on. It is also assumed that students will be able to relate to the activities, yet there is no evidence of gifted children being a part of any of their studies. This also assumes parents will participate in home-based lessons, and that the students are going to enjoy pre-created lessons that may or may not be based on real life situations.


L. Kathleen Casper, Esq., is the SENG Board Secretary and the vice president and conference chair for WAETAG. She is a Florida and Washington State educator and the former K-12 Highly Capable Program Facilitator for the Tacoma School District in Tacoma, Washington. She currently works as a part time family law attorney with a practice focusing on children and families and is a gifted education consultant for OneWorld Gifted Consulting. She is a home school advocate and tutor, a freelance writer of articles in national and international magazines, a speaker on gifted education and parenting issues, and also a SENG Model Parent Group facilitator. She recently worked for several years at Ridgecrest Center for Gifted Studies in Largo, Florida. She enjoyed participating in gifted programs as a child and has four gifted children of her own. She is passionate about children’s issues and an advocate for those in the foster care system. Ms. Casper has received many awards for her teaching including the 2012 KCTS Golden Apple Award, Washington State Civics Educator of the Year finalist, and two Florida Governor’s Awards. She is active in her community as a volunteer in legal, governmental and educational organizations, and is a national and international trainer for administrators, parents and teachers on issues including keeping gifted children engaged and supported at home and in the classroom.

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Thank you very much for this really interesting post! Very useful! I will share it with friends.

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