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Three takeaways from Dr. Maurice Elias’ experience in SEL and character education

Classcraft TeamDecember 13, 2022

Three takeaways from Dr. Maurice Elias’ experience in SEL and character education

This article is part of an ongoing series featuring conversations with experts and researchers in SEL, behavior support, and learning technology led by Classcraft CEO and Co-founder Shawn Young. 

On November 10, we were lucky enough to be joined by Dr. Maurice Elias, who is currently a Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University and the Director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab. He is a highly accomplished researcher in SEL and character education who has made influential contributions to his field, both in the academic community and as a writer for the general public.

As someone who has a deep and nuanced understanding of SEL and what it’s capable of accomplishing, Dr. Elias had a lot to share about how educators can use it not just for teaching long-lasting and rewarding competencies, but also for improving behavior in the moment and enhancing the learning process altogether.

Let’s explore three key takeaways from the conversation.

Education research must translate to practical solutions for educators 

Dr. Elias has been working in research and education long enough to understand the needs of everyday educators. When discussing the way his career has progressed since the 1970s, he described a shift in priorities as he recognized the difference between research and practice.

“In the early part of my career, I really focused a lot on the research side of things. What are the skills that really matter in life? How do we get these skills? In the more recent part of my career, it’s more about, now that we know a lot of this stuff, how do we put it into practice?

He then credited the editors at Edutopia — where he’s been a regular contributor for over a decade — with helping him develop skills for conveying research-based knowledge to educators in accessible ways.

“I learned how to write for the readers. Not how to write for my colleagues in academia or the people at CASEL, but how to write for the 3rd-grade teacher at the school down the street. How do I write for the high school teacher who’s got loads and loads of students? They don’t have a lot of time to read research articles.”

Dr. Elias went on to demonstrate the gap between education research and practice by turning his attention to SEL in particular, pointing out that there’s a difference between what people call “SEL” from a scientific standpoint and what the term actually refers to on the ground.

“Researchers didn’t find SEL, SEL has always been around. Our social life has always had social-emotional skills and character development. It’s in the kids’ emotions, it’s in their ability to set goals, it’s how they handle obstacles, it’s whether they wait to raise their hand when classmates are speaking. It was all relevant before we put a label on it.”

This highlights a simple but powerful truth — while academic research is crucial for generating scientific knowledge about education, it’s educators themselves who apply it to education as a day-to-day human experience. The more accessible that knowledge is to them, the better.

SEL isn’t just about social-emotional skills, it’s about the learning process itself

Most of the time, SEL is described as a framework for teaching social-emotional skills. It’s also usually emphasized that these skills are valuable not just in the context of school, but throughout life. While both of those things are true, they don’t quite cover the full picture of what SEL is all about. During the conversation, Dr. Elias stressed that SEL should be treated as essential to an effective and positive learning process, no matter the setting or subject.

“It’s the social-emotional aspects of learning that we’re trying to highlight. When a kid comes to school, they don’t put their social-emotional issues in a locker. They have those issues with them every minute, in every class. Those things almost sit between the teacher and the learner. If we can’t get that to be a facilitative relationship, then we’re fighting against these things.”

Every learning experience is defined by relationships, social interactions, and emotional dynamics. Dr. Elias’ insight reminds us that the highest-quality learning will always happen when everyone has the tools to connect and engage with one another productively, not to mention navigate challenges and disagreements. He went on to say:

“When you leave SEL out of education, you are leaving out what generates lasting learning. And we’re seeing the consequences of that. Kids can do great on tests, but they may not pass the tests of life. So, what are we accomplishing when we do that? Not a lot.”

While some may see social-emotional skills as separate from academic learning, in reality, they’re deeply interrelated — we can’t fully support one without also supporting the other.

You can shape student behavior by fostering their sense of purpose

Educators often think of SEL as being focused primarily on the way students relate with others, but a major portion of SEL skills are about relating to oneself as well. Dr. Elias feels that when it comes to this side of things, there are two components in particular that tend to get overlooked — goal setting and sense of purpose.

“Inspiration needs to precede remediation. Our kids are more engaged when they know their purpose and when they have goals. One of the things to ask them is, ‘What are a couple of goals that you have to make yourself a better person? Or to make your group better, your school better, or your community better?’ Each one of our students can do all four of those things.”

In the same way that relevance plays an essential role in getting students engaged in their learning in general, real social-emotional development requires a foundation of personal relevance and purpose. Dr. Elias then connected this to the more immediate — and often particularly challenging — matter of student behavior.

“When your kids have goals, and then they misbehave, there’s an opportunity to say, ‘How does that behavior get you to your goal? It’s not my goal for you, it’s your goal for you.’ So, rather than having this disconnected misbehavior that we’re trying to modify, we’re connecting it to ‘me’, or ‘my school’, or ‘my community’.”

This is not just a handy piece of advice for approaching negative behavior on a practical level, it gets to the core of what SEL is all about — helping students understand and strengthen the connections that exist between themselves, their learning experiences, and everyone around them.

We’d like to thank Dr. Elias for sharing his time and expertise with us. These takeaways were only a small part of a deep and wide-ranging discussion, so be sure to watch the full webinar below for more! 

As a Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University and Director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, Dr. Maurice Elias is a leading figure in the research and implementation of SEL. His work is centered around developing and advocating for effective and equitable systems that help kids lead positive, productive lives. You can follow the SECD on Twitter or read his writings at Edutopia.

School & District Leadership - Social Emotional Learning