Roger Weissberg: Educating the Whole Child with SEL
Credit: Peter Hoey
Roger Weissberg, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has been one of the country’s leading advocates of social and emotional learning (SEL) in childhood education for more than a decade. Now, as president of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), he has seen educators embrace his ideas nationally and internationally.
Weissberg's books on the subject are widely acclaimed, and his organization leads a tremendously successful movement to give social and emotional learning an official place in every classroom. "We talk about five core competencies in social and emotional learning," says Weissberg, "self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making." And these days, when he talks about those core competencies, the world of education is listening.
When SEL is not emphasized, warns Weissberg, the price children, their parents, teachers, and society pay can be exorbitantly high. Indeed, when it is ignored, he explains, "at the most basic level, you have kids who don't know how to express their emotions, recognize feelings in others, and interact effectively with others."
Possessing those competencies lays the foundation for success in kids' interactions in school and throughout their lives. The positive effects of SEL, Weissberg says, have a huge impact on behavior in the classroom, feelings of connection and commitment to school, reduced misbehavior, reduced violent behavior, reduced drug use, and improved academic performance.
By meeting the social and emotional needs of children, the adults in their universe also benefit. "I think it heartens teachers who come to school each day," Weissberg says. Now that the validity of SEL is being embraced, he adds, "parents recognize the importance of this work," and principals and superintendents are more likely to champion it.
Weissberg believes his mission also includes, as he puts it, "influencing public policy that gives a greater emphasis to educating the whole child," and real progress is already being seen in that sphere.
In Illinois, the state legislature approved a measure to make SEL competencies part of the state's learning standards. In New York, which recently passed similar legislation, setting SEL guidelines will be the next step. "There are probably ten other states with an interest in learning more about the standards," Weissberg says. And interest in SEL, he adds, is now international: "Singapore has established SEL standards, and a colleague just did a collaborative presentation with UNICEF to nine Asian countries and their ministries of education."
The business world also is paying increased attention to SEL, even if it's given it a slightly different name. "Emotional intelligence caught on," Weissberg explains, "when Daniel Goleman wrote his book in 1995." (See Selling SEL: An Interview with Daniel Goleman.) That book, Emotional Intelligence, generated worldwide interest in the subject and caught the attention of savvy business leaders who quickly saw the impact it could have on running a company.
But his work, Weissberg underscores, is focused on children, schools, and families. "We're interested in promoting improved day-to-day practice between kids and teachers, and teachers and parents," he says. To do so, Weissberg adds, requires emphasizing "the research base for the work" and creating a policy and leadership environment that encourages it. "And those things are happening more and more."
How do you use the Web or other technology in your work?
CASEL has a Web site. We constantly aspire to be an information clearinghouse on social and emotional learning with the latest policy research and training efforts. And we have an electronic newsletter called CASEL Connections that we send out to about 10,000 people, but we want to greatly increase the list. We're also talking about creating a distance-learning sequence in SEL.
Which resources have inspired you and informed your work?
In the mid-1970s, I was in graduate school, being trained as a clinical child psychologist. My dissertation adviser was a guy named Emory Cowen, a leading scholar in school-based prevention and community psychology. He was on President Carter's Commission on Children's Mental Health and Mental Illness, and contributed to the prevention task force report, which came out in 1978. It emphasized the importance of promoting children's social and emotional competence.
And three major experiences have influenced a lot of what I've done:
First, in 1986, the William T. Grant Foundation funded a colleague and collaborator -- Maurice Elias, from Rutgers University (see Emotion in Education: An Interview with Maurice Elias) -- and me to invite any ten people we wanted in the world to help us think about school-based prevention and youth development. We created the William T. Grant Consortium for the School-Based Promotion of Social Competence. We met two or three times a year, and it caused us to reevaluate how we think about our work with schools.
Second, there's the entire CASEL experience. Because CASEL is a collaborative, since 1994, I've had a broad network of friends, collaborators, researchers, and practitioners who have helped us to advance this work in social and emotional learning.
Third, a lot of the work I have done with schools over the years, which I do in partnership, helps us continue to be real with our work and make sure the things that we're doing are scientifically rigorous. We can show in experiments that there are benefits, but we want to make sure that they can be applied and implemented well to make a difference.
Who are your role models?
My parents were my first role models. Emory Cowen, my adviser, was a very powerful role model. And I have a lot of colleagues who are role models. They combine being collaborators, friends, and role models -- a lot of the people who are connected with CASEL now: Tim Shriver, Mark Greenberg, Linda Lantieri, Maurice Elias, Mary Utne O'Brien, and David Osher. They are all people I work with, but I greatly admire them, and they've helped me develop. Another person who has mentored and supported me in recent years is Eric Gislason, interim chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
What advice would you give those who consider you a role model?
I have two quotations I really enjoy. Katharine Graham, of the Washington Post, said, "To love what you do and feel that it matters -- how could anything be more fun?" So I encourage people to do what they love. Second, a Bobby Kennedy quotation I really like: "Some men look at things the way they are and ask, 'Why?' I dream of things that are not and ask, 'Why not?'" It's appropriate, because I think the work we do with schools requires courage and transformation and seeing all the positives and the potential.
I always feel that situations can be improved, but to do that you have to think about working with others to accomplish it. I'm a very optimistic person, and a lot of people think of me as a problem solver who generates creative ideas to help improve situations. I think those who get into this line of work -- if you're optimistic, a problem solver, and a collaborator -- you can make a difference.
What fundamental beliefs have guided your work?
The easiest way to answer that is with CASEL's six core beliefs:
- We have a responsibility to help children become knowledgeable, responsible, healthy, caring, and contributing members of society.
- Rigorous science provides an essential foundation for effective educational policies and practices.
- Effective, integrated social-and-emotional-learning programming is the most promising educational reform to engage citizenship and promote academic success, healthy actions, and well-being of children.
- Cross-disciplinary collaboration produces the richest insights, the biggest impacts, and the best outcomes in work on behalf of children.
- We strive for excellence in all our work, we have high expectations for ourselves, and we encourage and expect the best from others.
- CASEL leadership staff and collaborators must model social and emotional competence and ethical behavior.
In addition, my commitment to kids and helping them feel empowered and be contributing members of society, the importance of science, believing that SEL is really important, collaboration, trying to do the best work, and modeling social and emotional intelligence -- it's a combination.
What is your mantra in the face of adversity?
Remain optimistic, keep generating alternative solutions and plans, work with others, and things usually turn out well.
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