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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Advocating for Social and Emotional Learning in New Education Legislation

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

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.

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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Comments (26)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Dr. Susan Stillman's picture

Thank you, Maurice, for laying out the need for coordinated programs so well and for the groundbreaking, ongoing, and now sustainable work you have done to get us to the point where SEL may become part of Federal Legislation!

Joshua Freedman's picture
Joshua Freedman
Leader of the global Emotional Intelligence Network

Thank you for this summary Mo,

The vision of "civil, caring, and respectful environments in which learning will flourish" is compelling. And moving from the fragmented to thoughtful approach is critical to this.

I noticed the link above to the bill went to a different bill, missing the final "3." The link for 4223 is: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h111-4223

- Josh

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Thanks, Joshua, for the heads up.

It now goes to the correct bill. : )

Devon Isherwood's picture

There is a "program" that addresses all of the fragmented pieces mentioned. It is Conscious Discipline by Dr. Becky Bailey. It is researched based. "Conscious Discipline(r) is a comprehensive classroom management program and a social-emotional curriculum. It is based on current brain research, child development information, and developmentally appropriate practices. Conscious Discipline(r) has been specifically designed to make changes in the lives of adults first. The adults, in turn, change the lives of children." It truly changes people's lives; adults, students, families, classrooms, schools... I believe it has the potential to change how we all interact there by changing the world. Pretty grandiose thinking??? Take a look at www.lovingguidance.com .

Jane A. Diamond's picture

I agree that social-emotional learning is key to becoming a caring, productive citizen. I have written a curriculum that I implemented in my kindergarten classroom for 10 years. It promotes academic, social-emotional and business skills as children raise money for their classroom, schools or for a service project. To learn more check out www.friendshipnotepaper.com. I am troubled by where education seems to be heading. Jane Diamond

casey hurley's picture

Of course I am in favor of emotional and social learning in our classrooms. What I am not in favor of is the language we use to argue for educating the "whole child," or a socially responsible child, or an emotionally intelligent child.

When we argue for teaching character education, service learning, peer mediation, bullying prevention, anger management, drug/alcohol prevention, violence prevention, ethical decision making, harassment prevention, positive behavior supports, our arguments compete with arguments for more and better teaching of academic knowledge and skills. I don't think we will win the argument, when these two ideas are perceived as competing. Our language needs to illustrate that these are not competing arguments.

Instead, we should argue for teaching the six virtues of the educated person (understanding, imagination, strong character, courage, humility and generosity) because virtue leads to knowledge and skills, but knowledge and skills don't lead to virtue.

We already teach understanding, strong character and generosity in public schools. Why can't we add imagination, courage and humility?

For more on this point of view, visit

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