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Advocating for Social and Emotional Learning in New Education Legislation

| Maurice Elias

Should the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) focus on school culture and climate and social, emotional, and character development (SECD) as part of pursuing academic excellence for all students? If you think yes, then read on to see how you might express this to your legislators in the House and Senate, as well as members of education committees in Congress.

There is ample research and practice evidence, as well as logic, that academic success depends on the culture and climate of the school, and that students' success in school and life depends a great deal on their social, emotional, and character development.

This knowledge is not new. Theodore Roosevelt said, "To educate someone in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society," and Martin Luther King, Jr. did state, "Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education."

The ESEA must include provisions that call for schools to systematically encourage students' SECD and create civil, caring, and respectful environments in which learning will flourish for even our most disadvantaged, left-behind youth, and to hold schools accountable for doing so.

Congressman Dale Kildee (D-MI) is sponsoring HR 4223, the Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Act and co-sponsors would help to insure its inclusion in the reauthorization of the ESEA, now under development in the Congress.

Current Programs to Build SECD are Fragmented

We need our legislators and educational policy makers to understand that the path to academic success travels through SECD. At this point in time, schools are using many different disconnected approaches to improve students' SECD and school climate and culture, not appreciating the need for coordinated, continuous, systematic, evidence-based approaches for ultimate success.

We need to be clear that all of these approaches are part of the SECD family and have more similarities than differences. Ultimately, we need to be able to integrate them into our schools coherently, to reduce barriers to student academic learning:

  • Social-Emotional Learning. Programs that focus on helping students develop social skills and emotional literacy, manage their emotions, and make sound decisions.
  • Character Education. Programs that focus on developing students' core virtues and values and their application to everyday life decisions.
  • Service Learning. Instructional plans designed to connect service in the community with academic coursework and skill development in the classroom via reflection.
  • Peer Mediation. Classroom and school programs that train students to guide fellow students in resolving conflicts peacefully.
  • Bullying Prevention. Includes commercial and other programs (including cyber-bullying) that address matters relating to bullies, their victims, bystanders, ways to nurture students' social skills, develop conflict resolution skills, and foster respect and responsibility.
  • Anger Management. Classroom and school-wide programs that help students examine the range of emotions that are part of one's character and behavior, and offer strategies that will help them understand and manage their anger.
  • Drug/Alcohol Prevention. School-wide and classroom programs, such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance program) and Just Say No, designed to teach students the dangers of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use and abuse by enhancing their refusal skills, decision-making skills, and skills for critical analysis of media messages.
  • Violence Prevention. Programs include specific courses on ways for students to avoid violence, develop skills for managing conflicts, learn positive social skills, and practice the importance of acceptance, respect, and empathy.
  • Ethical-Decision Making. Helps students develop skills and habits of applying standards of behavior by asking questions about decisions that they or others make, are about to make, or have made. Such skills are embedded in classroom and sports programs in most schools.
  • Harassment Prevention. Programs that protect students from harassment such as hazing, bullying, cyber-bullying, verbal abuse due to race, creed, gender, and sexual orientation; may include school-wide codes of conduct.
  • Positive Behavior Supports. School-wide programs that identify a set of positive and prohibited behaviors and institute systematic procedures for monitoring and reinforcing/discouraging these behaviors.

The revising of ESEA needs to look toward the integration of these approaches in systematic and coordinated ways. New Jersey has done pioneering work showing how educators can be trained to work together to integrate their SECD efforts toward improving school culture and climate.

Our educational policymakers need to know that bringing SECD, or SEL into our schools for academic improvement is proven, practical, and possible.

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Comments (26)

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I couldn’t agree with you

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I couldn’t agree with you more. I think many students today are lacking in proper social and character skills. Without these key elements they will never learn how to interact in the work place. We need to prepare our students for life. In the past parents had more time to spend with their children but in today’s economy many parents have to work long hours at multiple jobs which leaves very little time to spend teaching core values to their children. This essential task is now our responsibility as educators. I believe it should be mandatory for teachers to work on these skills or our students will not be prepared for the future.

I couldn’t agree with you

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I couldn’t agree with you more. I think many students today are lacking in proper social and character skills. Without these key elements they will never learn how to interact in the work place. We need to prepare our students for life. In the past parents had more time to spend with their children but in today’s economy many parents have to work long hours at multiple jobs which leaves very little time to spend teaching core values to their children. This essential task is now our responsibility as educators. I believe it should be mandatory for teachers to work on these skills or our students will not be prepared for the future.

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I couldn’t agree with you more. I think many students today are lacking in proper social and character skills. Without these key elements they will never learn how to interact in the work place. We need to prepare our students for life. In the past parents had more time to spend with their children but in today’s economy many parents have to work long hours at multiple jobs which leaves very little time to spend teaching core values to their children. This essential task is now our responsibility as educators. I believe it should be mandatory for teachers to work on these skills or our students will not be prepared for the future.

I just have to say that I am

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I just have to say that I am so encouraged by those of you who have commented; particularly about PBS and instrinsic motivation and understanding that bullies are kids who are not getting their needs met; not horrible, bad kids. I have been beating my head against a wall for years trying to help others see this.

I have conflicting thoughts

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I have conflicting thoughts on this subject. While I believe that nurturing social and emotional development is imperative in education, I worry somewhat about involving legislation. In regards to "This legislation would just ensure that all teachers are doing what they should be doing anyway", I wonder how teachers will be held accountable? Would teachers be reprimanded or possibly lose their jobs if their students do not make significant improvements in behavior each year? Just a thought.

I agree with Veronica about the "bully prevention" and "positive behavior supports". When bullies are villainized, rather than being understood and having their needs met, they rarely stop bullying, but often embrace the negative identity. Additionally, my experience with a prescribed school-wide bully prevention plan was disappointing. Most of the lessons were very generic and seemed forced.

As for positive behavior supports, while I believe there are times when they may be needed, the ultimate goal should be for students' choices (both academically and behaviorally) to be intrinsically motivated.

Maurice Elias comments on comments

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First of all, thanks to Josh Freedman for being alert and constructive as always. Those not aware of Josh's work with SEL should check out www.6Seconds.org . Second, we should all be clear that programs are not the answer and the ultimately, integrating SEL into ESEA is about transforming how teaching and schooling are conceptualized. The oddity is that the transformation will align both with students as active, engaged learners. There are many ways to go about this, some of which have been studied to a greater or lesser degree. But we know a lot about how to bring about a positive school culture and climate and it is built on caring relationships, respect, emotional literacy, good problem solving and related social-emotional skills, and schools that stand for something that students, staff, parents, and the community can rally around and believe in. We should not be afraid to assess school climate and I would advocate strongly for SEL/SECD being a systematic part of all student report cards from prek-12.

School counselor and creator of SchoolToolsTv.com

If not us, who?

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So many talk about social skills and character education like it's something nice to have but not essential to a student's future the way reading and math are. They say it's being taught and modeled by classroom teacher already. Really, how; by putting a poster on the wall that tells a child they can be anything they want to be? What if we treated a reading deficit the same way, by putting a poster on the wall with our grade-level expectations and every time a student made a mistake we point to the poster and then discipline them. Or why don't we just model good reading for our students and let them catch on. How about we start suspending students who can't add? These are not character flaws that go away, we're talking about life skills that must be taught the same way we teach reading and math and must be mastered for meaningful participation in society. This discussion is important in order to move social skills away from the periphery and into the main stream of what's being taught in our schools because it's not getting done anywhere else. Thank you Maurice and I hope you'll let us know how we can help.

I agree with Veronica. I

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I agree with Veronica. I think that this is a step in the right direction, but I am not a fan of the terms being used either. If all students are receiving the "character education" then we need a new term for bully prevention. I also think that overall these lessons are being taught already in classrooms across the nation. There is just no legislation on how to teach it yet. To get the students to be successful, teachers need to make sure the students feel safe and protected in their learning environment anyway. This legislation would just ensure that all teachers are doing what they should be doing anyway.

Together we have the answers.

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I agree with Veronica that it isn't "programs" themselves but people modeling respect and demonstrating the capacity to be empathetic that will prove most helpful in creating a learning atmosphere in which children can grow emotionally and intellectually. But there are some that could benefit from guidelines and suggestions such as Casey points out in the Six Virtues or Jane in Friendship Note Paper or Devon with the suggestion we look at Conscious Discipline.

What I truly have a problem with is the idea that we think we need federal law to award teachers the FREEDOM to teach by telling them what and how. What we really need is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to go back and address EQUALITY IN OPPORTUNITY as the original "Declaration of Policy" stated "by various means which contribute to meeting the special educational needs of educationally deprived children."

That is not a statement that it is an across the board accountability tool. "Educationally deprived children" have been identified and re-identified. They need to have their "educational needs" met....period. Our scarce resources must focus on them. But the country has yet to hear their voices. Who speaks to Congress for them?

As a kindergarten and 1st

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As a kindergarten and 1st grade teacher, I appreciate that the importance of the socio-emotional side of children is being acknowledged. It is important to create nurturing learning communities in each of our classrooms. Children who feel safe and included will thrive more than children who feel like they will be put down or demeaned for making mistakes or feel like an outcast because of low impulse control. My only reservation I have is with some of the terminology involved such as "bully prevention" and "positive behavior supports". I think that such terminology goes against supporting the social and emotional needs of all children. A bully is a child whose needs are not being meet and whose sense of empathy is not being fostered. Maybe he or she feels fear and insecurity and the anti-social behaviors he or she might exhibit manifest because of this.

Also, I wonder about the long term benefits of positive reinforcement and punishment. Adult driven reinforcement of pro-social or anti-social behaviors demeans the capacity of the child to observe the consequences of his or her actions and may actually decrease the frequency of pro-social behaviors.

Character education is also a buzz word that makes me cringe, no offense intended. Children develop “good” values by observing adults they love and my doing something productive, which is why I love that service learning was included in the list of approaches to support children. When children work together to solve a problem and help others the act itself will foster a sense of community and purpose.

Supporting the social-emotional aspects of children does not exist in a program but rather in an awareness of children, human interactions, and respect.

In general, I do think that this is a step in the right direction!

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Maurice Elias Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger