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When Social, Emotional, and Character Development Goes Statewide

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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photo of smiling young man holding a basketball

In late May, on the campus of Rider University, the New Jersey Alliance for Social, Emotional, and Character Development (NJASECD) held their eighth annual conference. The theme was "Character: A Must for Everyone, Everywhere, in Academics, Athletics, and the Arts."

The conference began with a recognition ceremony for the schools that won the New Jersey Schools of Character Awards; some of these schools were also winners of National Schools of Character Awards.

Each of the 14 schools represented a journey and a story, with varied pathways to becoming Schools of Character. Some samples:

  • Cedar Hill Elementary School in Montville has a theme of "Connect with Respect" that is infused in daily school life and curriculum, with a strong focus on local and global service learning.

  • Juan Pablo Duarte-Jose Julian Marti School in Elizabeth integrates the three core values of respect, responsibility, and integrity in curriculum, after-school programs, and student government. A character education team provides weekly lessons for all staff to implement on Friday morning.

  • Macopin Middle School in West Milford combines social decision making and project adventure values of: Be Here, Be Safe; Be Respectful; Let Go, Move On; Set Goals; and Be Honest. Operation Thank You and the Make a Change Club show the school's moral and social action focus.

  • Old Bridge Township Public Schools in Old Bridge built its character program on the 11 Principles of Effective Character Education. The district, with its long history with social decision making and social problem solving, used the 11 principles and six character pillars to provide the integration and continuity needed for coordinated PreK-12 efforts. This architecture is now integrated into goals and policies and workshop opportunities for teachers and other school staff.

A Support System for Aspiring Schools and Districts

NJASECD uses regional networking centers to provide any interested school in the state with the support needed to advance their SECD efforts. They can do this because every NJ School of Character commits to helping other schools replicate what they have done, tailored to their local circumstances.

They also provide collaborative professional exchanges, provide assistance in applying to become a NJ or National School of Character, and join with NJASECD leadership to plan the annual professional development conference and create a monthly email newsletter to share teacher workshop opportunities, research, reports, websites, and school stories.

Shared Stories Show a Common Pathway

At the conference, schools had a chance to share their paths toward success, and almost every time, the story was the same. A group of dedicated teachers/counselors/other school support staff, and sometimes administrators -- often two or three -- came together to support one another in learning together about SECD, and starting to implement where they could. Their successes led colleagues to join them, often putting in voluntary time.

They began to articulate shared values, ways to involve, engage, recognize, respect, and empower their colleagues and their students.

They began to identify the different ways in which they were already implementing SECD in the school -- like pieces of a quilt -- and began the process of stitching them together (usually via SEL curriculum, a set of values, or the 11 principles), making adjustments where necessary. Gradually, more colleagues bought in, the culture and the climate of the school changed, and they saw changes in indicators they targeted. They became a school of character.

This process almost invariably took three years from the time the core group intentionally decided to build toward that goal.

More Than Mandates Needed: Share Your State's Story

With a statewide organization for SECD, school culture and climate, whole-child education, and their variants can rapidly advance the progress of these efforts. The mutual support, sharing of stories and techniques, and public recognition allows obstacles to be more easily surmounted and success maintained. It takes more than a mandate to create a true support network.

Please share your examples of statewide organizations of SECD (or school wide) with us in the comments section below.

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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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SEL Alliance for Massachusetts

In the words of Peter Drucker, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Athletics has an uneven culture, where in high schools with 32 teams, there are 32 educational products. Why? Because there are no character building traits to which each coach is held accountable. Each coach establishes his/her culture on the team and AD's have abandoned their role as head of a department where each coach/teacher is given a set of skills beyond their sport to teach.

I suggest the following skills be taught on every team so athletics can lead schools in how to teach character through sport. Coaches should be reviewed based upon the effectiveness of teaching these skills.

1. Creating a positive environment for self and team;
2. Giving maximum effort;
3. Managing thoughts, feelings and focus;
4. Communicating effectively and problem solving;
5. Visualizing success;
6. Setting realistic, challenging goals daily.

Congratulation to the New Jersey SEL Alliance on their 8th conference. Having just completed our 4th conference we aspire to be match your commitment.

Phil Brown's picture

We on the board of NJASECD greatly appreciate this fine summary of our work developing and administering the Schools of Character program. Most of this work is done by a group of volunteers committed to using this process as a tested method for improving school culture and climate. It should be noted that our efforts began with support by the U.S. and New Jersey Departments of Education in the 1990s and early 2000s. While government financial support is not necessary to launch or make these efforts effective, it does signal what is important in the development of young people and can help incentivize local efforts in a meaningful way.

ConnectEdProf's picture

Great to see this focus on Social, Emotional, and Character Development in schools. I've added the article to a collection of Resources for Social and Emotional Learning here:

In California, there has been strong advocacy, outreach, and support from the FixSchoolDiscipline initiative ( to provide schools with resources, toolkits, and webinars to improve school climate, strengthen relationships, enhance student engagement, and shift to more supportive discipline models. The Restorative Schools Vision Project ( is also gaining momentum to bring statewide attention to Restorative Practices in schools. And the Illinois-based remains one of the leading resources that administrators and school leaders draw from for information, research, and reports on Social and Emotional Learning.

Thanks again for a great piece. Look forward to learning more.

MHillmann's picture

In Minnesota a non-profit organization, Synergy & Leadership Exchange, hosts the State Schools of Character and Promising Practices Programs. It is exciting to see the great things these honored schools are doing.

Also, the Minnesota Department of Education's School Safety & Technical Center is working with individuals across the state to create a network of climate specialists to assist schools and districts with their work in creating positive cultures and climates.

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