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Advocating for Social and Emotional Learning at 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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Have you seen any of the Indiana Jones movies? How about the one with Sean Connery and the pursuit of the Holy Grail? There is a scene toward the end of that movie that contains a great lesson for why social, emotional, and character development (SECD) is not more widespread, and how we can turn the tide -- or, as we shall see, cross the abyss.

Here's the scene:

Indy has thought and fought his way through numerous challenges and obstacles in search of the Grail and now finds himself at the opening of a cave that leads into an enormous, foreboding, and deep abyss. On the other side is a cave where the Grail is located, but there is no visible way to get there.

In some accounts of the movie, people say that Indy takes a leap of faith -- but he does not. He knows there must be a path, but he also knows that if he can't see it, his chance of success isn't so great. So he grabs some gravel and throws it out into the abyss. Sure enough, the gravel reveals an otherwise invisible path.

In truth, it still takes a leap of faith to traverse this semi-invisible bridge to the Holy Grail. (Indy does so, by the way, and gets to the other side.)

What's the takeaway lesson for those of us in schools?

We must be the throwers of the gravel. We must have the wisdom and patience needed to illuminate the path we want others to follow. Following a path toward SECD, service learning, or project learning takes more courage than those of us who are familiar with these areas may appreciate.

It's a lot to expect people to take a blind leap of faith. Even knowing that there is a path, a semiblind leap of faith is required because the entire path is not illuminated -- even after the gravel has been thrown.

Getting Colleagues On Board

So, how do we throw the gravel and get others to follow along? Here are ways that my colleagues and I use to illuminate the path I'd like to suggest:

Remember, we are in a climate where some see the challenge of integrating SECD into our schools as fruitful as the quest for the Holy Grail.

Whether one is a teacher, an administrator, or another school professional, or a parent who wants schools to educate the whole child, it takes courage and a leap of faith to go down this path. Please share with us the ways you encourage and implement SECD in your classrooms and schools.

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

M King's picture

Our school is an IB school where we integrate the Learner Profile and attitudes into every subject we teach. As teachers we are responsible for the social skills our students may be lacking. I totally agree with K Brown about "creating a culture of empathetic citizens" The teacher is the key!

John Lestino's picture

Courage to discuss , think, and implement SECD issues/learning must be supported by wisdom, knowledge, and perseverance as to make for wider and deeper change in the civic climate of the school(s). It's a work in progress, much like our core democratic principles that require nurtrance, reworking, and discovery time-and-time again for each generation.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

I am very impressed with the thoughtfulness and the passion behind the comments to my post. So much so that I want to challenge those of you who commented, and other readers, to take the next step. Send my blog post to your colleagues who are not sold on SECD. Send it to School Board members, to parent leaders, to key administrators and supervisors. Challenge them to comment, whether in agreement or not, as it will enrich our dialogue. As John Lestino noted in his comment, SECD is like our democracy, a work in progress, and like democracy, it is strengthened by sincere and serious participation. Take the challenge. Let's broaden the dialogue.

Andrea Lovan's picture

Thank you so much for this blog! Not only does it take me back to my days of Indiana Jones worship, it will be a great resource for the educators and counselors I work with. The non-profit I work for, Committee for Children, are the creators of SECOND STEP (a social and emotional learning program). I spend much of my day talking to teachers, administrators and counselors who are trying to secure support for social and emotional learning in their schools. Committee for Children also provides some tips for those who are trying to advocate for and implement SECD. Here's a link our webpage concerning sponsorship for social and emotional learning: Securing Sponsorship.

L.B. Caudle's picture
L.B. Caudle
K-8 ESE Teacher from Jacksonville, Florida

Our district utilizes the SECOND STEPS materials as part of the SECD of all of our students, especially as it pertains to anti-bullying. One of the things that I am very encouraged by is the realization that our ESE students who have behaviorally based exceptionalities will now learn the material as it is infused in the academic curriculum throughout the school day. This is particularly important with these children since their behaviors are quite often the defining factor when it comes to their acadmice and social successes.

Andrea L Lynes's picture
Andrea L Lynes
High school teacher in Maine

Although I like some of the ideas in the blog, I feel that I must point out an error that makes a big difference to the argument. Mr. Elias states that Indiana Jones doesn't make a leap of faith because he tosses gravel onto the path before crossing it, making it visible. This is not true. When Indiana first reaches the abyss (the leap at the lion's head), he says that no one can jump it. The camera cuts back to his injured father (Sean Connery); he has been left behind, and is imagining his son's progress and making encouraging comments, even though his son can't hear him. At this point he says that Indiana must have faith. Cut back to Indiana, who realizes, and announces "It's a leap of faith." He closes his eyes, crosses his arms across his chest (in imitation of the figure in his father's diary) and steps forward. He's startled when his foot encounters a hard surface. He walks carefully across and THEN tosses the gravel back onto the bridge over the abyss that he's just crossed. It's the other characters who follow the gravel.

Amy's picture


I work with The Association of Boarding Schools (TABS for short), a non-profit with more than 300 member schools in both North America and abroad. I recommend checking out TABS at, as boarding schools are a great place for social and emotional learning, as well as academics.

Marcos Karel Miranda's picture
Marcos Karel Miranda
Director of Educational Programs at Columbia Educational Designs

We are engage we bringing some educatinal program to of them is ZERO an anti-bullying program developed in Norway. Part of this program is addressing emotional educational, and creting a school environment where all actors (principal/teachers/parents) take responsibility. It is a slow process because it is a transfomation of an educational culture that has traditionally focus on measuring facts.

Jennifer T.'s picture

I had the good fortune yesterday to participate in a workshop given by Dr. Elias on Social and Emotional Learning as part of a Professional Development Day at my school yesterday. It was not only fascinating but gave me a name for some of the behaviors I have instinctively been using with my students all along. I also took away alot of new information to reflect on and to explore to enhance my practice and implementation of this crucial aspect of learning so necessary for todays students.

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