George Lucas Educational Foundation

Emotion in Education: An Interview with Maurice Elias

The director of Rutgers University's Social and Emotional Learning Lab talks about why SEL should be an integral part of academic life.
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Social emotional learning started out as I think, a little hobby that some people had. It was an idea that we thought would be a good thing to help kids feel better about themselves and maybe prevent some problems. But as we started to study the impact of this, we began to realize that this is a very serious part of education. That not one single classroom can function without a good inter-personal set of relationships between the kids, with each other and between the teacher and the kids, the teacher and the principal. The whole thing is inter-personal. So what we thought was sort of marginal and maybe a little off to the side, now we start to realize, this is the foundation of what all learning is about.

And then we started to reflect on teachers we've had when we were younger. And we all had teachers when we were younger. Some were good teachers, some were not so good. But you know, we all remember teachers who affected us in a profound way. And it turns out that what we learned from those teachers, has stayed with us longer than anything else, even when we've taken the standardized tests and passed tests and I took the Regents in New York and you do all that stuff. The only thing that matters is whether there was a caring context for what you learned, because that stays with you.

My own view is that we're starting to realize, social and emotional development is an absolutely essential part of academic success and success in life. Unapologetically, we have to make an integral part of everything that happens in schools. When that happens, I think we're gonna have schools that are more productive and I think we're gonna even transform kids to be the kinds of kids that I think we talk about when we say, "Oh we want our kids to become better citizens. We want our kids to be more caring." We need to give them opportunities to do that in the schools. And then they will actually turn around and do that in their lives.

So I am very excited about where we're at right now, but we're at a crossroads. The crossroads is that it's not something that only happens in classrooms. It's not something that only happens in programs. It's something that has to be a basic part of the way every single educator that steps into the building sees their job. Teachers, principals, psychologists, social workers, counselors, every school staff member, if you ask them, "What are you doing here?" Their first answer should be, "I'm here to promote the social and emotional and academic development of children. That's my job. That's what I'm here for." And we're going to do this in a collaborative way and that's how we have a chance to be successful. But we're not there yet and that's the big challenge that I see.

I'm involved in a project in New Jersey called developing safe and civil schools. And the State Department of Education of New Jersey, has mandated our project to try to bring social and emotional learning to all 2400 New Jersey schools. And we have over 600 districts and we're gonna do this. And the reason we're gonna do it, is because we don't have to start from scratch. It's already there. You talk to teachers and you ask them why they came into this field and they'll tell you, we wanted to affect children and make them into better people. We just have to provide the opportunities. And I think we'll find that when we build from the bottom up, when we take what's already in place, tweak it, nurture it and most of all, interconnect it, we are gonna be successful.

The analogy that I like to use is that of a quilt. There are many programs in place that we're giving our children and I see them as pieces of a quilt. They're all beautiful individually but they don't make anybody warm until you stitch them together. Two pieces, three pieces, four pieces, stitched together coherently, cohesively. And we don't know, nobody knows really how many pieces of a quilt it takes to make a child warm. But I do know that it doesn’t take covering the absolute, entire body of the child. We just have to keep stitching those pieces together and we are gonna find ourselves being successful. We're going to reach the tipping point. And our kids and our schools are going to find that they are in the business of promoting social, emotional and academic learning as a totality, as a unity and not in pieces. And I think we can do this. And I'm very optimistic about this. This is a field that is as well supported by research as any other endeavor in education. It's as well supported by research as most of what we know about psychotherapy and other kinds of interventions. We are talking about a field that makes sense in our hearts. It makes sense in our minds. It makes sense in our data and we can do it. So I think this is something that really can join us all together, across disciplines and not just leave no child behind, but dedicate ourselves to moving every child forward as far as their potential can take them. That's an exciting and fun thing to do.

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Video Credits

Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Associate Producer:

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Karen Sutherland

Camera Crew:

  • Orlando Video Productions

Maurice Elias is a psychology professor at Rutgers University and director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab and the Developing Safe and Civil Schools Initiative. He is a regular blogger on Edutopia.

This interview was recorded on December 10, 2007, at the CASEL Forum, an event in New York City that brought together seventy-five global leaders in education and related fields to raise awareness about social and emotional learning (SEL) and introduce important scientific findings related to SEL.

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

Jean Tully's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am nearly 80 years say we are on the threshold of understanding this way of being teachers. I thought so in the '70s when I was involved in such an exciting project called Confluent Education. We taught using all of the "little pieces of the quilt" you speak of and taught others; the majority of teachers bought in. As I say, that was in the '70s...what happened? One of the problems was getting administrators on board. They felt they were losing "control" of the classroom and no amount of showing them that discipline was in taking responsiblity could assuage the fear. We teachers and trainers loved the classrooms we were part of. So a conservative government declared the program not useful after 5 years in all the schools in Manitoba. We taught teachers in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia in Canada. Check out the program's history in Santa Barbara and the Manitoba Project. You will find lots of material and what we learned in the process of developing strategies. Good, good luck in what you are trying to do. Maybe you will find the secret to longevity of these wonderful and absolutely necessary idea.

René's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's beautiful that SEL is considering in the Educational process.

In Mexico there is a lack in this item and there is an abyssm between Teacher's and students about the emotional field. Far beyond is better they think.

But after all we are more than flesh and bone, specially in these massive societies we're living in where persons lose their faces.

Now is more easy get involved in virtual relationships or lifes behind an avatar. What about the face to face contact? What about feeling in touch with other humans?

Thank you for sharing.


Dr. Howard Knoff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In Arkansas and nationwide, Project ACHIEVE has been ( implemented as a schoolwide SEL or Positive Behavior Support (PBS) approach in hundreds of schools--from preschool through high school. Project ACHIEVE has been designated an evidence-based model (through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services-- SAMHSA), and its research and practice have demonstrated its ability to increase positive school climates, students' social skills (through the Stop & Think Social Skills Program for both home and school), academic achievement, and school safety.

The Project ACHIEVE website provides a number of free technical assistance papers that describe its very specific step-by-step implementation blueprint and components. Begun in 1990, a number of schools are implementing Project ACHIEVE through various federal grants-- for example, the Character Education grant, the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling grant, and the Safe Schools/Safe Communities grant. Project ACHIEVE also has partnered with the Core Knowledge Foundation and with the Strategic Alliance for Education (SAFE).

Rhonda Chambers's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It seems ironic that the education curriculum for children and youth does not include knowledge about the self and the emotional functioning, nature and developmental stages of the human self. How can we expect children to function in a socially acceptable way if they are unaware of how their own body-mind functions?

Ms. Kenney's picture
Ms. Kenney
Medical Assistant Instructor in Dayton Ohio

I have been an instructor for almost 20 years and I teach adults from the ages of 17 to 60. At the the current time I educate inner city adults. I feel it is very important to incorporate social and emotional learning in our primary education. Many of my student graduate high school and/or take the GED, however, that lacking in the area of social skills and thier emotional well being has not fully been developed. If the soft skills were taught at an eailer age, it would make my job much easier. I appreciate that some one has reconized the youth of American are lacking in this area and it will take all of us to help them to be sucessful. This is a part of our responsibility of the educators, to help people to become productive citizen.

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