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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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On Location at ASCD: SEL Is Alive and Well

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

I am writing this at the end of the annual conference of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), in New Orleans, where 10,000 attendees chose from over 400 sessions. But the big news, as far as I am concerned, is that social and emotional learning (SEL) is alive and well, represented by presentations from all over the United States and internationally.

Keynote speakers repeatedly emphasized the need to build caring relationships in classrooms and schools as a prerequisite to lasting gains in academic achievement. Specialists in turning low-performing schools around gave example after example of the need to engage children by focusing on something other than the skills in which they are most deficient.

The terms "social-emotional learning" and "social-emotional development" came up often in conference-program titles and in program content. Much of the time, SEL was linked to character education, service, and academics. In general, many people resonated positively to New Jersey's decision to use the term "social-emotional and character development" (SECD) as unifying, common language. (Check out the Web site TeachSECD.com, now under development.)

SEL in Alignment

I presented at a session titled "Academic Performance, School Climate, and Social-Emotional Factors: The Research-Practice-Policy Connection" as part of a team from the ASCD, the association's New Jersey affiliate (NJASCD), and Rutgers University's Developing Safe and Civil Schools (DSACS) Project, of which I am principal investigator. The purpose of our presentation was to illustrate how national, state, and local levels of addressing and implementing SEL can and should be in alignment.

ASCD project director Molly McCloskey spoke about the association's Whole Child initiative -- one that is a viable and positive alternative to the punitive and academically overfocused approach of No Child Left Behind -- and its emphasis on creating conditions in which all children will be healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged in school.

Mariann Helfant, chair of the NJASCD's Executive Council, talked about how the association has embraced the Whole Child initiative as its focus, making it a consistent thread in its conference and professional-development activities and creating a presence for sharing accomplishments in SECD in its newsletter and on its Web site. The New Jersey association also supports the DSACS Project by embracing the term "social-emotional and character development" and encouraging other professional organizations in the state, such as the New Jersey Education Association, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and the New Jersey School Boards Association, to do the same thing.

Also, the NJASCD encourages visitors to its Web site to check out the PowerPoint presentation from a keynote speech at a recent annual conference about the Whole Child initiative and DSACS. Finally, at the level of implementation, DSACS works with schools to examine what they are already doing that is related to SECD and provides training and consultative services statewide. These services include helping schools better organize what they are doing to be aligned with best practices, with a structure for making these efforts sufficiently coordinated and continuous to have a powerful impact on students' lives.

As in School, So as in Life

DSACS is drawing on a growing research literature showing that success in school and life is strongly related to students' engagement and commitment to school and their seeing the school as a place for positive recognition, a place where their voices and contributions are valued, and a place they can attend and point to with pride.

Of course, parallel sentiments on the part of educators are essential if students are to successfully connect to their schools. There is a strong case to be made for systematic SECD skill development and identification of these skills with acquiring essential life habits, such as responsibility, respect, and integrity. Still, these instructional efforts, even from evidence-based programs, face an uphill struggle in schools in which the majority of students are not engaged.

Presentation attendees, who came from many other states as well as some neighboring countries, shared their own experiences in implementing SECD and the need to address the organization of SECD efforts and examine the ongoing school climate.

The take-away message about SEL is, be sure to align your SEL and SECD work at as many levels as possible. The more disconnected your efforts are, the less impact they will have. Here are some specific suggestions for doing so at various levels:

  • School: Align with building-level goals, grade-level goals, and local curriculum standards. SECD is not only about content; it's also about process and can be integrated into classroom management, school climate, codes of student conduct, and advisory periods. Above all, show how SECD efforts in your building complement each other.
  • School District: Align with district goals and standards and board-approved mandates and, in creative ways, show how SECD can help reach district goals.
  • State and National: Align with curriculum standards and show the connections with wider policies such as the ASCD's Whole Child initiative. By showing the connections of what you are doing with those operating elsewhere and in many other places, you can embolden your colleagues to take some steps forward for SECD.

Please share your thoughts.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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