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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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From Surviving to Thriving: Making the Case for SEL

Maurice Elias

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

David Ropeik's article in New York Times about how parents resist vaccinations for their children contains essential insights and lessons for those of us who advocate for "prevention"-oriented approaches in schools, such as SEL and character education, and even service learning.

He first points out that the architecture of our brain is such that we react emotionally before we react logically. Our very wiring has incoming stimuli heading to the amygdala, which is an essential seat of our fight and flight responses, before they head off to more thoughtful regions of the brain. The "tag" given to the information by the amygdala then becomes something that reason and logic must "overcome," and sometimes this is too tall an order.

Differing Perspectives

So when some of us look at the evidence for how social-emotional and character development approaches provide a reasonable and rational road to academic and life success, others look at time away from direct academic work as derailing the path to academic success. As Ropeik states, "Humans subconsciously weigh the risks and benefits of any choice -- or course of action -- and if taking a particular action seems to afford little or no benefit, the risk automatically seems bigger."

For advocates of an social-emotional learning/character development approach, the challenge is to recognize that all of the data presented thus far, however objectively compelling, has not been sufficient to convey benefit to outweigh risk. A strategy of continuing to put the data (both current and additional) forward in the same way might work, if there is a "tipping point" for when data become "compelling," but I suspect it would be wise to consider complementary strategies.

Presenting the Benefits

From the point of brain architecture, one key point of entry would seem to be focusing on the "risk" children face in the present and future if they are not social-emotional competent and do not possess a clear ethical compass. Calling attention to school dropout, failures in college and career outcomes, difficulties in job advancement, and emphasizing more stories versus stats are all things to consider.

Another approach is to focus on the benefit. Here, the task is a little more challenging, but it hinges on the difference between "passing" and being successful, on the absence of pathology and risk and the presence of health and assets. We are in an era where thriving should be the agenda, not merely surviving. This is embodied in an NCLB approach which seems designed to help academic stragglers catch up to the back of the pack, where they will be less visibly behind but still far from an enviable state. Moving all children forward is a more appropriate aspiration. Assessments also cannot be oriented toward the normal curve (which creates a zero-sum game versus mastery), but where all children can experience and be recognized for appropriate levels of success.

There is always a gap between theory and practice, between good ideas and their feasible instantiation. But those of us who want to advocate for SEL, character education, and related approaches having a central place in the mainstream of education must recognize that working in creative and innovative ways with the reality of the brain's decision-making architecture is a desirable course of action. More of the same is not likely to lead us to success.

Please share with us the status of social-emotional learning and character development at your school.

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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