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A Call to All Social-Emotional Learning Leaders

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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It's time for the leaders of the social-emotional learning (SEL) and character education fields to jump in the sandbox together and create a set of common guidelines for implementation in schools. This is a variation of the "Manhattan Project" called for years ago by Tim Shriver, a founder of CASEL.

He believed at that time that such a project would involve creating a common curriculum for all to share. Similar concerns about the proliferation of approaches, often competing, were articulated last month at the Character Education Partnership's annual Forum in Washington, D. C.

We are currently overwhelmed by a torrent of babble that is leading to schools filled with too many programs lacking coordination, connection, and continuity.

I'm making a call to all SEL and character education and related leaders and program implementers to work together to create a set of guidelines that might then be approached in a variety of ways.

Perhaps one of the outcomes would be to create a set of statements similar to the following:

  • Principles we agree that all schools must follow, and here is why
  • Principles that most of us agree schools should follow, and here is why. Here is the dissenting view, and the reasoning behind it
  • Recommendations for which we are about evenly split, accompanied by the pros and cons.

Why do we need this and who should be involved? Believe it or not, the rationale is as old as civilized life itself. There is no consensual terminology used to refer to the broad area of character education and social-emotional learning, and (this is the enduring lesson) policy and practice are affected by language and communication.

The Terminology

The Biblical parable of the Tower of Babel is instructive here. Early civilizations wanted to build a tower to the sky so that they could confront God directly. At that time, there was only one shared language. When God saw that they were cooperating and that their efforts might eventuate in their success, God created languages and gave all of the groups their own distinct tongues. Needless to say, the Tower was never completed in the conflict and confusion that followed, even though their common goal had not changed.

That said, just consider how many terms are in current use in our field: character education, SEL, SEAL (social, emotional, and academic learning), moral education, emotional intelligence, emotional literacy, life skills, civic and service education, positive behavior supports, mindset, positive youth development, whole child education, school culture and climate, and this list is not complete. While all of these terms are not equally well known in all countries, many are in active use in the United States.

The landscape is further complicated by many approaches to violence prevention, bullying prevention, bystander intervention, substance abuse prevention, depression prevention, suicide prevention, and so on. Every one of these terms has its impassioned advocates and devotees, and each one would be more than happy to defend their nuance against all comers, supported by theory, data, and history that they could cite with integrity.

Next Steps

It is beyond reasonable expectation to expect those who make educational policy at national, state, provincial, or local levels to address even a few of these variations. The issue is not that there are many names and "brands" -- although that is not insignificant. The issue is getting back to the common denominator in all of these efforts: improving the well-being of all children.

At this juncture, we need to act on Shriver's initial instinct and have extraordinary effort to put forward clear commonalities, overlaps, and common tenets, and not focus on relatively minor differences. The current situation is a clear example of lack of synergy, when synergy is exactly what is needed. Even those who have moved to a position whereby they no longer care about terminology still must confront the reality that the field needs a coherent way to communicate about its theory, research, and practice to those who make policy and allocate resources.

So, we need to end the torrent of babble. We need a consensual term and a set of guidelines for educators, schools, policymakers, and parents. Then, we can have the synergy our children need and deserve. What are we waiting for?

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Maurice J. Elias

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

Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Kevin Crosby's picture
Kevin Crosby
Educator and School Counselor / Trinidad School District #1

I would recommend this article:

I think what we are talking about is clear, "common core" standards for SEL. What we need is a clear interface between such standards and the ASCA National Model. What we need are more educational leaders that understand the role of SEL in relation to academic achievement, and who advocate for time and resources to address SEL standards and programming. Thanks for beating the drum.

Kevin Crosby's picture
Kevin Crosby
Educator and School Counselor / Trinidad School District #1

CASEL's framework:

I agree with Renee and would add that it is important to distinguish standards, core competencies, and programming.

Different populations have different needs, and though competencies or standards can be defined, there must be flexibility in programming.

This is true for common core academic standards, as well.

My main point is that far too many schools pay lipservice to SEL, but have no programming, or at least no comprehensive and effective programming.

It needs to be a priority before effective programming becomes a reality.

Renee Jain's picture
Renee Jain
Founder of - Anxiety Relief Programs for Children

I like the premise of a common language, common principles, common goals, and unified branding in some part. I like the idea of voices coming together to create strength and coherence in our messaging. CASEL has created a great platform for this type of effort.

That said, we are still in the early stages of gauging the efficacy of programs, efforts, and ideas. Before converging (in a sense), I think it's important to make sure we avoid "groupthink" mentality which could crush some of the innovation the current diversity of programming produces.

Common core standards were developed after decades of teaching various subjects in various ways. We don't have that kind of experience under our belts in the SEL space as of yet. I think many of SEL leaders are changemakers and visionaries--let's not cut these visions short by creating too many standards too early. Let's see what works... let's build off of the ideas of one another, let's come together, yet still let our individual resourcefulness and creativity produce great programs for kids.

I guess I'm suggesting moderation in this idea at this point.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

We've been doing SEL work for nearly 30 years at Antioch and one thing we've learned is that we can't be too in love with any specific language. We try to help schools understand the underlying ideas and then we turn them loose to adapt and change our model so that it works for their individual contexts over time. I can't help but think that this is one of the reasons why we're still around and why teachers still say that Critical Skills is the most powerful training- not SEL training, assessment training, instructional training, etc.- they've ever had- whether they were trained 27 years ago or last summer.

So I guess I wonder if it's possible to come to agreement on something like this without boxing out our capacities to be nimble and responsive to changing cultural needs?

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Thought provoking comments! I think we have to look at the end game and consider when we might feel that we would be able to better solidify the SEL/CE/etc. field. My sense is that we will not get to the point of widespread acceptance without some systematic attempt at convergence, or at least consensual communication. I do agree that we do not want to be limiting. But in some ways, it's like other debates in the public domain now. If there is no standard for what can and cannot be under the banner of SEL/CE/Etc.. then we put all of our work at greater risk than we do by doing what I am suggesting. Again, one approach is to have a series of agreements about how many elements of SEL/CE/etc . different works embody and then individuals can align themselves as they choose. I do trust that those who come together to attempt to resolve the issue will do so in good faith to the most important constituency- children.

Liz Warner's picture
Liz Warner
United Way of Northern New Jersey /New Jersey Culture & Climate Coalition

In New Jersey we have formed a coalition of organizations (NJ Culture and Climate Coalition) from throughout the state who are working with schools to address SEL / SECD and culture and climate - the impetus for forming the group came directly from the schools. While out working in schools throughout New Jersey on SECD/SEL and culture and climate we heard over and over again how bombarded and confused the schools are by the inundation of assemblies, workshops, programs and resources available to them to address culture and climate - all using different terminology and a plethora of different acronyms. In the hopes of not 'jumbling up' their school house any further -- and in fact, in even greater hopes of helping them 'un-jumble' it -- the NJ CCC was formed a little over a year ago. We are a very well-represented, robust group and feel the biggest potential 'win' (in addition to not confusing the schools) is the advocacy impact we could have with a cohesive, consistent message regarding the importance of culture and climate - what it is, why it is important, what does it look like. We have made considerable progress and have recently approved a a single definition of culture and climate as well as guidelines for schools including suggested actions on what a healthy school culture and climate should look like. It is great seeing us all working together around a win-win -- we really believe our unified voice will be stronger and will have much greater impact in the long-run.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Mike, I totally agree. That's why we designed the Critical Skills Program to be simultaneous to content, not a separate thing. We, like you, believe that SEL has to happen alongside academic learning so that it becomes part of how kids learn to function in the world. (It's funny- we also use the backpack language, but we talk about Critical Skills being a "big backpack" for all the stuff teachers are supposed to be doing like SEL, differentiation, inclusion, formative assessment, etc).

Mike Sissel's picture
Mike Sissel
Passionate change agent

Hi Laura. Thanks for your comment. Where can I learn more about your Critical Skills Program?


Patrick Abraham's picture

It is still amazing that there continues to be a lack of funding at the federal and state level for funding for SEL when we know through research that has been replicated over and over and real-life practice in schools- when teachers are given explicit opportunities to connect and develop relationships with their students in a grassroots and systematic way- the academic achievement and social-emotional status both show significant gains. Kudos to all our SEL leaders out there continuing to advocate for this in our schools.


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