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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Emotion in Education: An Interview with Maurice Elias

The director of Rutgers University's Social and Emotional Learning Lab talks about why SEL should be an integral part of academic life.

Social emotional learning started out as I think, a little hobby that some people had. It was an idea that we thought would be a good thing to help kids feel better about themselves and maybe prevent some problems. But as we started to study the impact of this, we began to realize that this is a very serious part of education. That not one single classroom can function without a good inter-personal set of relationships between the kids, with each other and between the teacher and the kids, the teacher and the principal. The whole thing is inter-personal. So what we thought was sort of marginal and maybe a little off to the side, now we start to realize, this is the foundation of what all learning is about.

And then we started to reflect on teachers we've had when we were younger. And we all had teachers when we were younger. Some were good teachers, some were not so good. But you know, we all remember teachers who affected us in a profound way. And it turns out that what we learned from those teachers, has stayed with us longer than anything else, even when we've taken the standardized tests and passed tests and I took the Regents in New York and you do all that stuff. The only thing that matters is whether there was a caring context for what you learned, because that stays with you.

My own view is that we're starting to realize, social and emotional development is an absolutely essential part of academic success and success in life. Unapologetically, we have to make an integral part of everything that happens in schools. When that happens, I think we're gonna have schools that are more productive and I think we're gonna even transform kids to be the kinds of kids that I think we talk about when we say, "Oh we want our kids to become better citizens. We want our kids to be more caring." We need to give them opportunities to do that in the schools. And then they will actually turn around and do that in their lives.

So I am very excited about where we're at right now, but we're at a crossroads. The crossroads is that it's not something that only happens in classrooms. It's not something that only happens in programs. It's something that has to be a basic part of the way every single educator that steps into the building sees their job. Teachers, principals, psychologists, social workers, counselors, every school staff member, if you ask them, "What are you doing here?" Their first answer should be, "I'm here to promote the social and emotional and academic development of children. That's my job. That's what I'm here for." And we're going to do this in a collaborative way and that's how we have a chance to be successful. But we're not there yet and that's the big challenge that I see.

I'm involved in a project in New Jersey called developing safe and civil schools. And the State Department of Education of New Jersey, has mandated our project to try to bring social and emotional learning to all 2400 New Jersey schools. And we have over 600 districts and we're gonna do this. And the reason we're gonna do it, is because we don't have to start from scratch. It's already there. You talk to teachers and you ask them why they came into this field and they'll tell you, we wanted to affect children and make them into better people. We just have to provide the opportunities. And I think we'll find that when we build from the bottom up, when we take what's already in place, tweak it, nurture it and most of all, interconnect it, we are gonna be successful.

The analogy that I like to use is that of a quilt. There are many programs in place that we're giving our children and I see them as pieces of a quilt. They're all beautiful individually but they don't make anybody warm until you stitch them together. Two pieces, three pieces, four pieces, stitched together coherently, cohesively. And we don't know, nobody knows really how many pieces of a quilt it takes to make a child warm. But I do know that it doesn’t take covering the absolute, entire body of the child. We just have to keep stitching those pieces together and we are gonna find ourselves being successful. We're going to reach the tipping point. And our kids and our schools are going to find that they are in the business of promoting social, emotional and academic learning as a totality, as a unity and not in pieces. And I think we can do this. And I'm very optimistic about this. This is a field that is as well supported by research as any other endeavor in education. It's as well supported by research as most of what we know about psychotherapy and other kinds of interventions. We are talking about a field that makes sense in our hearts. It makes sense in our minds. It makes sense in our data and we can do it. So I think this is something that really can join us all together, across disciplines and not just leave no child behind, but dedicate ourselves to moving every child forward as far as their potential can take them. That's an exciting and fun thing to do.

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Video Credits

Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Orlando Video Productions

Maurice Elias is a psychology professor at Rutgers University and director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab and the Developing Safe and Civil Schools Initiative. He is a regular blogger on Edutopia.

This interview was recorded on December 10, 2007, at the CASEL Forum, an event in New York City that brought together seventy-five global leaders in education and related fields to raise awareness about social and emotional learning (SEL) and introduce important scientific findings related to SEL.

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