George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

SEL and Spirituality: Instructional Implications

Maurice J. Elias

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

In the previous blog, I began to explore the connection of SEL and spirituality with Jeffrey Kress, Ph.D., an associate professor at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York. Here, we finish the conversation with a focus on the instructional implications, specifically, how might we bring the SEL and spirituality connection into any school?

Dr. Kress and I in the my last blog discussed how adolescents make the deepest connections when they are in the context of caring, trusting relationships. We continue from there . . .

Edutopia: What are the implications of this reality for SEL-related curriculum and instruction in adolescents?

Dr. Kress: The starting point for SEL-related curriculum and instruction begins with the nature of relationships among adolescents and between adults and adolescents in the particular educational setting. Feelings of safety and trust form the bedrock of meaningful interactions and discussions. This could take time to develop and should go beyond the SEL-spirituality issue. So relationship building is always the first step.

It seems as if, in secular schools at least, the topic may best be addressed through subjects and contexts where spirituality and contemplation have authenticity. Literature, poetry, art, architecture, music, and social studies provide clear openings as would informal educational settings like trips and retreats.

Dr. Kress: About the latter, yes, sometimes a change of venue helps in spurring on conversations that may feel out of place at school. Rachael Kessler describes the intensive work achievable on retreats with adolescents. In my own work with on informal learning contexts in Jewish schools, I witnessed the strength of creating intentional communities in which students and staff come together to celebrate the Sabbath together, as described in detail in the book I wrote on the topic.

There are also ways to prime the discussion through having students read literature by or about people, such as Martin Luther King Jr., who have used their spiritual quest as a springboard for self growth and contributions to the world, or viewing art or buildings that have been similarly inspired.

As you implied, the work of Laura Weaver and Mark Wilding with Rachael Kessler's Passageworks Program are such excellent examples. They provide clear guidance for how these delicate topics can be brought up to students in authentic ways, particularly around life passages, such as entry to and exit from high school, as well as in the course of one's teaching. But they also focus on everyday school contexts.

Resources and Getting Started

In their book, The 5 Dimensions of Engaged Teaching, Weaver and Wilding discuss the importance of mindfulness and creating a sense of connection to self, others, and the world as important in building adolescents' willingness to embrace the "big questions" about themselves and life. Among the practices they have found useful are:

  • Explore where students come from: lineage, roots, heritage, people, beliefs
  • Create opportunities for students to understand themselves as part of "communities" in which they live -- family, neighborhood, region, nation, humanity
  • Provide students with opportunities to contribute to something larger than their own personal lives, such as through school or community service projects, action letters on topics related to current events, trips to deliberative bodies such as legislatures, judiciaries, Civil Rights commissions, United Nations meetings, etc. 
  • Build mindfulness by asking students to notice five things out of the classroom window: clouds, trees, birds, cars, people, buildings, power lines, etc. And to do so with fresh eyes, seeing something different from what they have seen before; these observations can be pair-shared and/or written about
  • Bring in an inspiring quote and discuss how and why it is inspiring
  • Use reflective writing in the context of various curricular content areas. Journaling or blogging assignments can be opportunities for students to draw out the spiritual, social, and emotional elements of, say, a poem, a novel, or a particularly poignant historical figure or event, or a scientific discovery or innovation in the arts or athletics

Rationale: Spirituality in Schools

Dr. Kress and I agree that's it is clear that there is no barrier to connecting SEL and spirituality, contemplation, and reflection in the public school context. While some educators are concerned about the boundaries between religion and public education, there should be less concern with spirituality. Spirituality is defined as relating to, or affecting the human spirit. The word itself denotes a profound sense of belonging. Others link the term with transcendence.

Regardless, these are areas of particular developmental salience to adolescents, which is why it is important for education, and the SEL field in particular, to find ways of being comfortable with, and encouraging of, the spirituality and SEL connection.

Was this useful? (1)

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

Ian the Miller's picture
Ian the Miller
Creative Director for Satyrus Jeering™, The Legendary Facemaker & Storyteller

This is brilliant work Maurice and Jeffrey!

I hope to see the rationale segment of this discussion travel throughout the educator realms.

I feel that redefinition of the term spirituality and the confidence to intentionally implement it will allow further work to be done both within and outside the classroom. Critical components for a new model.


Leslie Stanick's picture
Leslie Stanick
Art educator, Contemplative education, ESL instructor, Teacher educator,

Art-based practices offer students non-verbal ways to explore inner realities that have not yet been processed emotionally or verbally. I invite students and workshop participants into a quiet contemplative awareness of breath, their bodies, heart, hands..... I will sometimes invite inquiry in a particular direction, it might be one word, music, a line from a poem, a feeling, and ask them to sit with it for a few moments, as long as it takes, until they feel an urge to express or see an image. The process is very organic and flows easily from inner awareness through contemplation to expression through various art materials. I have used fabric art, drawing, painting, clay and collage as media for self exploration. As students create, feelings, insights and understandings will arise. Giving form and visual expression, as well as physical expression through movement, will often elicit verbal or written expression during or after the art-making process. The act of making marks or sculpting clay is both visual and visceral allowing an embodied exploration of emotional and spiritual experience.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


I substituted a lot and taught long supply jobs in the special education section of a school for Jewish kids, as well as in their mainstream classes, pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

On my first day, in homeroom, a little sixth grade girl with a wild head of hair asked me if I was Jewish.

I said I didn't know.

She looked at me funny, and then cocked her head. Then she asked me if I was a Christian.

I asked her ... How do I know if I'm a Christian?

She made an even funnier face this time.

I said why do you ask.

She asked have I ever asked a question just for the sake of asking a question.

I gave her my most serious face, which took a few moments to make, and then said ... Uh, no.

Mark Wilding's picture
Mark Wilding
Ed PassageWorks Institute

Maurice and Jeffrey: Thanks for taking on this topic! Rachael is smiling! One of Rachael Kessler's most powerful principles was "Welcoming the Unwelcome." This is core to supporting young people (and educators too) to develop resilience and grit. "Welcoming the unwelcome refers to the capacity to see challenges and obstacles as opportunities for learning and growth." - (from page 72 of "The 5 Dimensions of Engaged Teaching" - - Warm regards, from chilly Boulder.

Rabbi Micah Lapidus's picture

Happy to see folks engaging in the conversation about how to let spirituality emerge for students in various milieus. From my perspective it is simply an essential part of the human experience and one that needs to be nurtured and celebrated!

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.