Any school would probably say it supports a child’s social and emotional learning, but it’s difficult to define what exactly that means and what exactly it entails.
At the behest of the State Board of Education, state officials put out school guidelines this month about the components of such teaching and learning, from emphasis on self-awareness to relationship skills to “responsible decision-making.”
For instance, schools can foster better decision-making by teaching students to look at the consequences of their actions and using critical thinking in making choices.
To some, it may sound vague and ethereal, but there is growing research about the importance of these personal skills in building academic ones, not to mention general wellbeing. The state board had been pressing the issue for the past year to be part of its own strategic plan for the state.
Tragic context and consequences
The discussion was particularly timely, too, in the aftermath of the suicide of a Rockaway middle schooler in June after she had been subject to incessant bullying by her peers. Her parents this month announced they would sue the school and district for not doing enough to protect their child.
Following the board’s action at its August meeting, NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney spoke with Maurice Elias, a professor in psychology and director of the Social Emotional and Character Development (SECD) lab at Rutgers University. Here are excerpts from the conversation:
NJ Spotlight: How does all this relate to what happened in Rockaway?
Elias: “Too often things are driven by tragedy and that’s one reason they don’t have staying power. But certainly it speaks to positive school climate, and theoretically, that could have been a greater emphasis (in Rockaway).”
NJ Spotlight: Would an emphasis on social and emotional learning — and guidelines to carry it out — help schools prevent these kinds of tragedies?
Elias: While I would never say any program can entirely prevent individual tragedies from happening, I can definitely say that if the spirit of SEL (social and emotional learning) were implemented from K to 12th grade, the likelihood of such an incident would be drastically less.”
NJ Spotlight: Has the state done enough to focus on these issues in the implementation of its anti-bullying law?
Elias: The department is focusing more and more on school climate, to its credit. And the implementation of SEL will make a big difference in complementing the anti-bullying law.
NJ Spotlight: But wouldn’t every school say they care about a student’s social and emotional learning?
Elias: There is a big difference between engaging in something, and engaging in best practices. It’s like the difference between saying the operating room is clean and the operating room being sterile. It’s the difference between good practices and best practices.
This is not something that has been typical in the training of teachers or in the training of board members. … We are going to have to train teachers differently. The world is a lot more complicated.
NJ Spotlight: Improving school climate is already a piece of the bullying law. What stands in the way of more improvement?
Elias: I think the problem was of implementation resources, both in the schools and the department. But let’s be honest, the department is responsible for the implementation of the law. The more we implement what we know works, the less likely these incidents take place.
NJ Spotlight: Where are the resources going instead?
Elias: So many resources are tied up in things like testing. Actually, if you diverted the money for testing to instead go to SEL, scores would actually go up … Schools are still set up where the whole-child emphasis still takes a back seat to the academics.
We say “How can a school ignore the alarm bells,” but in a school environment where educators are beleaguered and the focus is overly focused on academics, they sometimes don’t hear the alarm bells.
NJ Spotlight: These are just guidelines for districts. Should these practices be mandated by the state?
Elias: No. With more than 560 districts, mandates are often where things go to die. We don’t have to mandate what we can show works. If we can show it works, people will do it.