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Bringing Social, Emotional, and Character Development to Your School

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 an interview, Director of the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning, Ed Dunkelblau, shares his wisdom in helping folks get started with social, emotional, and character development (SECD) in their classrooms and schools:

Data shows that teachers can do the usual drilling techniques to improve student academic performance, which lead to highly inconsistent results, or they can improve SECD and have their students' academic scores increase by about 11 percent. Why do so many educators do the former instead of the latter?

Ed Dunkelblau: I think that there are a couple of reasons that educators are hesitant to change what they do. First and foremost is how they set their priorities. Under NCLB, districts have been under a great deal of pressure to raise tests scores. When pressured, we all revert to what is most familiar and comfortable and for most educators traditional drilling is what they learned and what they grew up with.

Second, there is a perception that they don't have time to do something more. Many educators see SECD as an additional teaching responsibility that they just don't have the time to do given their already stressed teaching schedule. They see it as something else on their plate.

In fact it isn't something else on the plate but it is actually the plate itself, that upon which all other learning is dependent. Finally, many educators don't see SECD as their job. The have defined their teaching as presenting academic material not as preparing the whole child for success at school, job, and relationships.

How do you inspire courage in the educators you work with?

Doing this work really does require courage. It means changing from the status quo and seeing a bigger picture for the tasks of education. What we do to inspire educators is we try to help them realize that: a) they are already doing some of what we hold to be vital, and, b) as they think through what is most important to their students -- and themselves -- they realize that social emotional skills and developing core values are primary in their future success.

We ask questions like, "What kind of people do you want your students to be 10 years from now?" Very often educators are asked to do important things but they aren't given sufficient time and training to do them effectively. We try to structure the programming so that there is adequate professional development and that the timeline for implementation is reasonable.

Getting administrative mandate and support from principals or superintendents is also a vital link in the chain of courageous education. The educators must experience a safe environment for doing these acts or else all is for naught.

Say a bit more about how you use humor to help out in this process.

In doing any kind of professional development it's important to engage the audience and to help them maintain attention and focus. Humor is a way that when used effectively serves both of these purposes. Humor has been shown to improve memory for content and to support and encourage creative thinking.

Additionally, humor can sometimes disarm defenses and provide an effective way to address anxiety and the concerns of the audience. When we work with district professional development we try to inject humor in various modes -- story telling, cartoons, quotes -- to enhance the participants educational experience.

We also encourage educators who are interested in bringing more humor to their teaching to become a part of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor where they can hone their skills and meet like-minded professionals.

What resources have you found most valuable as introductions to SECD, video or print?

We have used a variety of resources in supporting the sustainable implementation of SECD initiatives. These resources include a number of the videos to be useful. One in particular is the Barry Schwartz video on practical wisdom where he makes a compelling case for teaching acting and doing the "right thing."

We also use some print materials that summarize and support the learning done in workshops and meetings. The inexpensive Social Emotional and Character Development quick reference card has been a favorite of teachers and administrators. The UNESCO pamphlet on emotional intelligence and academics is very helpful and a great summary of SEL thinking, plus its downloadable at no cost. The and Web sites are a wealth of information that is immediately usable by educators.

What take away and what action steps would you want readers to derive from this interview?

If the readers are interested in bringing an SECD initiative to their setting, I hope that they address three areas. They must address not only the content of what SECD materials are to be taught but also the process of how they go about integrating the teaching into the fabric of the school and their pedagogy.

They must also be attuned to the social marketing of the initiative that is designed to gain buy-in from the entire community. Recognizing that by doing the SECD work, grades and test scores will go up is usually a good place to start the conversation.

Finally, they must recognize that SECD is not an add-on program, it is a integrative strategy for helping students develop the skills and perspectives that they need to be good students, have caring relationships, and participate in their communities as responsible citizens.

Please share your ideas on SECD with us!

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

Sarah Phillips's picture

I was not surprised to see the statistic that student achievement can increase 11% as a result of SESD, when students are emotionally safe and in a respectful environment more learning is going to be done. I have found it difficult to teach separate "character lessons" I teach kindergarten and every five minutes seems like an opportunity to discuss respect, kindness, and responsibility. This year our school has been focusing on a program called P.B.I.S (positive behavior intervention & support) What I like about this system is all the lessons and expectations are school created and focused so it is relevant. Instead of bringing outside scenarios in you teach based on the behaviors you see and want to change. Might be something interesting to look into.

Kevin Fitzgerald's picture

It is interesting to find that achievement is higher when SESD is a focal point in schools. By emphasizing the development of character, respect and responsibility it makes for a more productive learning environment for all. However, in addition to just telling students the expectations we have for them, it is imperitive that we model such behavior as well. It has been a point of emphasis in the high school I work at to do just that. Our school mascot is the Owls and we have developed slogans promoting character development, social awareness, and respect issues within the O.W.L.S acronym. We as a staff have tried to model this for students in addition to educating them on the expectations. The hope is that by creating a positive, caring, safe environment, student learning can be maximized.

Matthew Nusbaum's picture

In the elementary school I work at, we focus on positive behavior support (PBS). Though this program, we work on bringing SESD skills to our students. We go though our rules and procedures for all areas of the school at the beginning of the year. Being in our third year of our PBS program, we have seen a decrease in our referrals and suspensions and an increase in our state test scores.

Meganmarie Dennis's picture

I checked out this blog because I feel that many students at our school could use extra social, emotional, and character development. This year our 6th grade team started using the Essential 55 from Ron Clark and we have noticed improvement but I would love to look into more programs to bring our students further. Our counselor comes into the classroom once a month. Is this something that he could impliment?

T. Scoles's picture

Social, Emotional, and Character Development reflects what many schools and teachers already believe is essential for student achievement, yet the lack of programs that focus on SECD in school is a clear signal that leads to communication breakdown. It is simply not effective to tell someone to "not fight," "respect each other," or "be positive" when the occasion arises, teachers must provide proof of the benefits and that the advice works. Teachers can do this when properly trained, or have programs that support this.

I noticed another post about a school adopting the Positive Behavior Incentive & Support program. The program allows teachers and students to focus on rewarding positive behavior which really does help the climate of the school. When students feel safe and appreciated, classroom management improves as a whole. The possible threat is to not reward extrinsically all the time. When my school adopted this program, I focused too much on the reward aspect and created an environment where my students said things like, "I held the door for you, can I get a treat?" It seemed to backfire because I did not use the program to it's full potential.

I agree completely with Dunkelblau's thoughts on why educators are hesitant. NCLB does put pressure on scores, when the score becomes the bottom-line; teachers focus on teaching whatever standards are necessary for students to raise them. Why teach character development when the test is looming? But educators must. By ignoring this aspect of a students' life, the message is "It's just not that important...let someone else do it." Who better than the people who are in the students' lives for eight hours everyday?

I teach in a highly impoverished area and many meetings are centered around, "But the students just don't care." Students do care, and when programs like SECD are in place, students will be able to see all of their needs met.

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Cheri Lian's picture
Cheri Lian
Creator of Genna & Russ, The Generous Kids

SECD is crucial for the future of our world...and we MUST start to instill these virtues at an early age.

Generous Kids, Inc. was created to teach social and emotional development. We are dedicated to encouraging the spirit of giving, caring and sharing in young children, 3-7 year olds. Our mission is to provide parents, caregivers, and teachers the tools to aid in the development of these values. Research reveals that teachers, parents, and caregivers are all grappling with how best to instill in America's youth not merely information but also character traits known to promote success and happiness in life.

The main characters are Genna and Russ (and they are the generous kids,
they are little goats)! "Meet Genna and Russ, the Generous Kids" is the
first in a series of books that introduces Genna and Russ who teach
character education to children 3-7 years of age through literacy and
rhyme . There is a "Kids Caring Connection" at the end of the story that
promotes adult/child dialogue to help reinforce the message, for example, "Who did Genna and Russ help? How can you help someone tomorrow?" The book includes a CD with 6 songs. Some of the titles are "Giving makes your heart smile" and "It's cool to care". Genna and Russ plush animals are also available.

The feedback we are receiving from parents and teachers currently using
our products is inspiring.

If you visit our website,, you will meet
Genna and Russ and hear their theme song, The Generous Kids.

Cheri Lian
Generous Kids, Inc.

Ericka Yanasak's picture

My current profession is teaching a Kindergarten-1st grade Autism program. One of the main focuses of our program is to help students on the Autism spectrum successfully integrate into the general education setting with minimal support. The most beneficial method of teaching we have found working with these students is direct instruction in the area of social skills. Children with Autism show delays in the areas of social-emotional, communication, and behavior (restrictive or repetitive patterns). Improving my students' abilities to interact appropriately, engage in social situations, and participate in classroom discussions has been a very challenging but rewarding experience. The general education teachers in my school have really embraced my students and have worked very hard to include my students into their classrooms. As an educational team we are continuously exploring new methods of instruction of social skills in both the general and special education setting. I think that incorporating SECD into the classrooms could really benefit all students (special and general education) and help shape the students into productive, learning members of society. I completely agree with your statement about how SECD "isn't something else on the plate but it is actually the plate itself, that upon which all other learning is dependent". I think this speaks very clearly to the need for social skills instruction and deeper development into the ways in which we can help students feel respected and safe within their learning environment.

Ken Fetke's picture

I agree totally Kevin. I work in a center base facility for EI and CI students. I see some of the staff acting totally unprofessional. Teachers are role models for their students and when they act in an unprofessional way it is giving the students the wrong signals. When staff are at school and in the community they must be positive role models at all times when they are out in the public.

Jenny Wiley's picture

'Activating Social, Emotional and Academic Learning' is a free on October 7, 2010 iat the Synapse Institute at 3375 Edison Way, Menlo Park, CA from 8:30-5. The EQ Conference will feature eduction and business experts from around the world on October 8 and 9, 2010 with a more intense focus on education on 10/7. Please see

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