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Advocating for Social and Emotional Learning in New Education Legislation

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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Should the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) focus on school culture and climate and social, emotional, and character development (SECD) as part of pursuing academic excellence for all students? If you think yes, then read on to see how you might express this to your legislators in the House and Senate, as well as members of education committees in Congress.

There is ample research and practice evidence, as well as logic, that academic success depends on the culture and climate of the school, and that students' success in school and life depends a great deal on their social, emotional, and character development.

This knowledge is not new. Theodore Roosevelt said, "To educate someone in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society," and Martin Luther King, Jr. did state, "Intelligence plus character -- that is the goal of true education."

The ESEA must include provisions that call for schools to systematically encourage students' SECD and create civil, caring, and respectful environments in which learning will flourish for even our most disadvantaged, left-behind youth, and to hold schools accountable for doing so.

Congressman Dale Kildee (D-MI) is sponsoring HR 4223, the Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Act and co-sponsors would help to insure its inclusion in the reauthorization of the ESEA, now under development in the Congress.

Current Programs to Build SECD are Fragmented

We need our legislators and educational policy makers to understand that the path to academic success travels through SECD. At this point in time, schools are using many different disconnected approaches to improve students' SECD and school climate and culture, not appreciating the need for coordinated, continuous, systematic, evidence-based approaches for ultimate success.

We need to be clear that all of these approaches are part of the SECD family and have more similarities than differences. Ultimately, we need to be able to integrate them into our schools coherently, to reduce barriers to student academic learning:

  • Social-Emotional Learning. Programs that focus on helping students develop social skills and emotional literacy, manage their emotions, and make sound decisions.
  • Character Education. Programs that focus on developing students' core virtues and values and their application to everyday life decisions.
  • Service Learning. Instructional plans designed to connect service in the community with academic coursework and skill development in the classroom via reflection.
  • Peer Mediation. Classroom and school programs that train students to guide fellow students in resolving conflicts peacefully.
  • Bullying Prevention. Includes commercial and other programs (including cyber-bullying) that address matters relating to bullies, their victims, bystanders, ways to nurture students' social skills, develop conflict resolution skills, and foster respect and responsibility.
  • Anger Management. Classroom and school-wide programs that help students examine the range of emotions that are part of one's character and behavior, and offer strategies that will help them understand and manage their anger.
  • Drug/Alcohol Prevention. School-wide and classroom programs, such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance program) and Just Say No, designed to teach students the dangers of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use and abuse by enhancing their refusal skills, decision-making skills, and skills for critical analysis of media messages.
  • Violence Prevention. Programs include specific courses on ways for students to avoid violence, develop skills for managing conflicts, learn positive social skills, and practice the importance of acceptance, respect, and empathy.
  • Ethical-Decision Making. Helps students develop skills and habits of applying standards of behavior by asking questions about decisions that they or others make, are about to make, or have made. Such skills are embedded in classroom and sports programs in most schools.
  • Harassment Prevention. Programs that protect students from harassment such as hazing, bullying, cyber-bullying, verbal abuse due to race, creed, gender, and sexual orientation; may include school-wide codes of conduct.
  • Positive Behavior Supports. School-wide programs that identify a set of positive and prohibited behaviors and institute systematic procedures for monitoring and reinforcing/discouraging these behaviors.

The revising of ESEA needs to look toward the integration of these approaches in systematic and coordinated ways. New Jersey has done pioneering work showing how educators can be trained to work together to integrate their SECD efforts toward improving school culture and climate.

Our educational policymakers need to know that bringing SECD, or SEL into our schools for academic improvement is proven, practical, and possible.

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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 (

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Tracee Mason's picture

There is an old saying "it takes a community to raise a child". This is very true. The heart of every community is its school. Schools represent much more than were students learn to read and write. It also represents were student are first assimilated into social culture. It is here were social norms and rules are first being established in the lives of children. So it is here, in the school, were we must feel a responsibility to students social and character development. There are so many negative external influences in the everyday life of our students, it is important for students to receive positive meaningful view of what is socially acceptable. Our students will someday be the care takers of our community, community where we all must live. It is our moral obligation to educate student socially, morally as well as intellectually.

K. Santora's picture

I couldn't agree more, Mr. Elias. I spent years teaching in a self-contained classroom for students with emotional disabilities and have "seen it all" but the one thing that still haunts me, is the common thread between every student who walked into my classroom. It was always the same, a completely dysfunctional home life. I was often asked if most of my students were of one race or another but the truth is, they were from every walk of life, every social class and every culture. They lacked remorse, a conscience, self-esteem, stability and most of all, security. I had a principal who told me I can't "fix" them all, and I'm sure I can't but the need to address the social and emotional dilemmas these students face everyday, affects us all. Thank you for shedding light on a subject not viewed upon, fondly.

KellyC's picture

I have some of the same thoughts as Nicole. How will teachers be held accountable for the teaching of social skills? And how can the content of such curriculum possibly be tailored to every personal need?

Jayme Weakland's picture

I agree with Rusty. Students need to do more than just learn from a teachers example or looking at a poster on the wall. In my school there is so much stress put on standardized tests scores and benchmark assessments. While these are important ways to judge how successful student learning, there is more that students need to learn. What way are educators critically evaluating how students are learning these skills? How are we as educators making sure that students are leaving school with the necessary skills to be productive in society? I think this is an issue that is just as important to student success and should also be looked at critically.

B. Santschi's picture

I am from Ohio. we have had D.A.R.E for years and even though we have stepped the founding up, drugs and suicide is still growing. My opinion this is a way to feel good about passing another piece of legislation that will create no new change. Parents if they care enough can instill these values, kids don't want to here this from us or administrators. Lastly this is a dead goat our states and federal governments as well as our districts are financially broke. Lastly character education is creepy from the government, As a Christian I might have problems with what the government believes is good character.

D. Meyer's picture

The reason many of us educators went into the profession was to help mold the youth of our society. After several years of teaching, a more intense focus on testing, and an increase in content standards; we sometimes lose focus on why we started teaching in the first place. I don't think we all need the legislation, but for those teachers that show up, lecture for an entire class, and go home, something has to be done. I agree though with B. Santschi that good character isn't an absolute and could be defined and interpreted in many different ways.

Joshua Freedman's picture
Joshua Freedman
Leader of the global Emotional Intelligence Network

I'm intrigued reading the comments, and particularly excited by the recognition of the profound difference between "a program" and "a commitment." I happen to be co-facilitating a training for teachers today & tomorrow in using the Self-Science framework for SEL, and several times today said, and heard colleagues say: It's a process, not a program.

One of our principles at Six Seconds (thank you Maurice for mentioning) is that if we want our students, children, employees, friends, etc., to develop these skills, then our job is to develop these skills in ourselves. Ultimately, this is what accountability means and how change occurs.

At the very same time, we operate within a system where legislation sets many of the priorities. To date, it seems most education legislation has focused on "IQ / content," leaving the "EQ / process" side somewhat to chance. Almost every educator I've met values both domains -- and frequently laments, "because all the legislation is about content, I have to teach to tests and force-feed information." They WANT a balanced, thriving learning environment, but somehow the pressure has mounted against that. As a result, SEL efforts become a bit haphazard; as Maurice wrote, it's "fragmented" rather than a cohesive, developmental, research-based approach.

My sense is that legislation does not solve these problem, nor create the real accountability, but it does support those who are doing the work to stand up for what they KNOW is essential for quality learning. So I'm highly supportive of this legislative effort and grateful to Maurice and the other CASEL leaders for advocacy in this regard.

Rusty & Jayme mentioned the importance of measurement, of knowing how we're doing in the domain of SEL. As a co-author and/or publisher of several assessments (including validated youth EQ and school climate tools), obviously I am excited about the potential of valuable data. As with legislation, data doesn't create accountability, but it provides feedback that helps us all (students, teachers, administrators, parents, community members, advocates) approach this work more systematically.

In other words, one leg won't work alone; legislation + data + accountability + professional excellence should be mutually reinforcing.

- Josh

Rusty May's picture
Rusty May
School counselor, Exectuive Director of the Bullying & School Safety Foundation and Creator of

So many solid points have been made, not the least of which is the idea of government legislating morality. I for one want nothing to do with morality as that is way above my pay grade and I think the same is true of the bureaucrats in Washington. I do know how to help children self motivate, work more effectively with others, think positively and calm themselves before their emotions get the best of them. Good legislation could clearly define the terms and the boundaries of the conversation. It would talk about things like anger management and impulse control and not about faith or belief systems which belong to the family. Secondly, good legislation could give more than just tacit approval to the character education so many teachers are already providing and announce to everyone else that we see the social emotional well being of our future as a important part of the educational process.

Nicole Forsyth's picture
Nicole Forsyth
President and CEO, RedRover

Ensuring children have the strength of character and critical thinking skills to become conscious, good decision-makers; the leaders and citizens of tomorrow, used to be a cornerstone of education. It saddens me deeply that this is no longer the case. I'm a former teacher and now lead an organization with a humane education curriculum that aligns to content standards, builds critical thinking and promotes literacy. We create opportunities for children to observe and reflect on people and animals and to make moral decisions based on observed facts and informed by personal feelings. We allow children to practice the kinds of decision-making skills they will need to engage as members of their communities.
Volunteers or teachers use stories and discussion guides to encourage critical thinking about what it means to be "humane." Pilot research on the program indicates it has a great potential to increase empathy in children as well as build critical thinking and literacy skills. For more information, visit's picture
SEL Alliance for Massachusetts

Thanks so much for your article, Professor Elias,(posted it at, because it clarifies what many of us in the SEL community have been grappling with: a confusion of what SEL is and what it encompasses.

As the SEL Alliance for Massachusetts begins to educate the general public about SEL (by forming grassoots outreach where possibe and developing a Speakers Bureau to go out and talk to people), we frequently encounter confusion. I'm glad you listed all of those various components that have SEL-lessons, but am convinced that unless we (a) train pre-service teachers in a complete SEL-embedded certification process and (b) have statewide funding and leadership for an SEL/Academic parity, we cannot accomplish our goal piecemeal.

One argument for a statewide program is to examine the cost of social issues to the state budgets - for instance in Massachusetts, 22% of the 2009 state budget ($6.6 billion) went speifically to substance abuse and crime. With meaningful funding, SEL, in the broad definition you gave, can reduce that number significantly, especially if it is not left entirely to the schools but parents, local businesses and public awareness campaigns are committed to this educational process. Thank you once again for being one of the leaders of this effort.

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