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How Are Social-Emotional Learning and the Common Core Connected?

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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In September, 2013, the Education Advisory Council of the Character Education Partnership published a white paper titled, Integrating Common Core and Character Education: Why It Is Essential and How It Can Be Done. Kristie Fink and Karen Geller, acclaimed educators both, co-chaired the process and I asked them to comment on some of the key points:

Maurice Elias: In your view, what is the major shortcoming of the Common Core standards as they are presently being put forward?

Kristie Fink: The standards do not explicitly address the quality of the learning environment or the culture of respect, responsibility, and excellence that must be in place for optimal student learning. Every student needs to feel that the school has a deep commitment to preserving his or her safety, worth and dignity. The school community must have as a standard genuine, caring relationships between and among students, teachers, parents, and staff. The standards also lack a specific focus on teaching moral and performance character, and the social-emotional skills that help students develop the stamina and self-discipline to grapple with more rigorous curriculum to truly become college, career, and civic ready.

Elias: What does this look like in a school?

Fink: Someone visiting the school over time should see an orderly learning environment characterized by intrinsic motivation, not external incentives oriented toward student compliance. All members of the school community, including teachers, administrators, support staff, students, and parents as well, should be clear about the school's primary values and should be modeling them. Structures should be in place to ensure an ongoing emphasis on planning for, nurturing and assessing this school culture of respect, responsibility, and excellence within the entire school community. This expectation should extend throughout every aspect of school life, including adult and student behavior, discipline, academics, and extracurricular activities. The broader curriculum should be grounded in values.

Elias: What is the role of the school principal in this process?

Fink and Geller: Our view is that the role of the principal is essential but not sufficient. There are many school leaders and, in fact, one becomes a true leader by facilitating the development of a school culture and climate that provides inspiration and clear models of what excellence looks like. It's a place where every person in the school community can grow and develop. This is especially important because the Common Core is demanding on students and asks them to learn in ways that No Child Left Behind often did not - and to develop the stamina to dig into challenging work that includes increased cognitive rigor. To support the principal and to enhance Common Core implementation, we propose that each school create and maintain a Common Core Leadership Committee, with representatives from various school groups, including students and parents. This committee's responsibility is to continually assess the extent to which the school's expectations and procedures provide an ethical learning community that maximizes the character development and academic success of all its members.

Elias: Are there specific recommendations that you believe will increase the likelihood that Common Core implementation will actually increase academic achievement levels in expected and sustained ways when the states and U.S. Department of Education conduct their follow-up evaluation studies documenting the successes of the Common Core?

Fink and Geller: We believe that conversations about the Common Core must include a sustained focus on character education, social-emotional learning, and positive school climate. Sound educational theory and abundant empirical evidence indicate that the Common Core will be most successful when its implementation is accompanied by intentional and ongoing school-wide efforts to:

  1. Create a positive school culture and climate that includes high-quality teaching and learning, safety, caring relationships, supportive, and challenging learning environments, sense of community and inclusion for all students and subgroups, and distributed staff leadership
  2. Develop an ethical learning community based on clearly articulated and visibly lived norms of respect, responsibility, and excellence woven through all aspects of school life.
  3. Emphasize moral and performance character in all subject areas and include these dimensions on school report cards.
  4. Educate for democratic citizenship to increase student voice and participation in school life.
  5. Prioritize prevention by focusing on social-emotional and character development as well as developmentally targeted prevention efforts coordinated with universal interventions.

Elias: What do you see as the largest obstacles to the suggestions you and the Education Advisory Council made in the white paper, and how do you see getting around them?

Fink: Educators often feel overwhelmed with all they are asked to do, and in today's feverish testing climate focus mainly on that which will be tested. Also, character development can still be perceived as the work of the family and faith community, and not so much as the core work of the school or of overworked educators. Many schools, however, do see that character education, SEL and positive school climate are the unifying features of a school that works well, and that an investment in this constellation of best practices will pay back dividends over and over again. Pro-social education is the glue that holds everything together, and that helps young people develop their special qualities, talents, and gifts so that they can become the very best versions of themselves.

Schools should be places where students become college, career, and civic ready. They should also be places where student develop, achieve, and flourish physically, intellectually, academically, aesthetically, socially, emotionally, ethically, and spiritually. The Common Core takes a major step toward helping schools become such places by widening and sharpening our vision of what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century. To achieve the Common Core's full potential will require integrating the standards with educating for character. If the Common Core is taught in a context of core values and quality character education, it can inspire hearts and minds, transform human relationships, promote both excellence and ethics, and move the work of the world forward. It can enable all students to make a positive difference in that world and to create a happy and flourishing life for themselves.

Geller: In order for teachers to successfully implement the Common Core, school district leaders must create a shared vision to provide comprehensive professional development. Time is needed for leaders to facilitate systemic change processes through the development of multiple year plans to bring all staff on board.

Teachers must have time to work on rigorous Common Core lessons that include pro-social skills. Collaboration and the sharing of Common Core lessons that infuse character will then spread throughout the district. Through the intentional teaching of moral and performance character linked with the Common Core, students will gain the cognitive and pro-social skills that will enable them to master the complex challenges of 21st century skills thereby preparing them for college and careers.

Next Steps

In conclusion, I would say that Kristie Fink and Karen Geller, and their collaborators, have framed the Common Core debate in such a way that makes social-emotional and character development inseparable from students becoming "college, career, and civic ready."

Through your sharing and comments, I hope you will weigh in with your own perspectives. Everyone's voices need to be heard as local, state, and federal policy is made.

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

Scott Seider's picture
Scott Seider
Assistant Professor of Education from Boston University

I'll admit my first thought when I started to read this white paper and article was, "Why SHOULD the Common Core be expected to take on areas other than academics?" But then I started thinking that if the Common Core is really about college and career readiness, then we really are learning more and more about the "non-cognitive" skill-sets and mindsets that facilitate student success in both college and the workforce... Perhaps the authors of the Common Core really would do well to identify some of these skill-sets and mindsets for primary and secondary schools to focus on supporting their students in developing.

Cindy Patton's picture
Cindy Patton
Executive Director of Topeka City of Character

Check out Social Emotional Character Development Standards for the State of Kansas at the Kansas State Department of Education Website.

Kristie Fink's picture

I read through all of the Kansas Social-Emotional/Character Development Standards, and they are an exemplary, and amazing body of work! All schools could benefit from their thoughtful crafting. Imagine a school district that uses them as guide posts and integrates them into their academic and broader curriculum!

Tracy Jensen's picture
Tracy Jensen
3rd grade teacher from Salt Lake City, Utah

While academics are important and essential to be college and career ready, they will hold little value if an individual does not also display strong character traits as well in their careers. As a teacher I see integrating social-emotional skills and civic responsibility into content as a vital part to creating a learning environment where students are engaged in their learning and motivated to take on challenges. Thank you for having this conversation!

storybow's picture
Educational Stories for Children

Thanks for the tip Kevin! Great document!

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