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Social and Emotional Learning
Educational Leadership Vol. 54, No. 8, May 1997

Maurice J. Elias, Linda Bruene-Butler, Lisa Blum, and Thomas Schuyler

How to Launch a Social & Emotional Learning Program

Naysayers may throw up all sorts of roadblocks to starting social and emotional learning programs, but advice from those who have already gone down that road can make the going easier.

Introducing a new program to a school or district often inspires both anticipation and hesitation. For some educators, implementing programs in social and emotional learning (SEL) brings about added concerns. To address these concerns realistically, we draw from a series of ethnographic site visits we made from September through December 1996 as part of a team at Rutgers University. We visited established social and emotional learning programs in public and private schools in all parts of the United States. The schools are in urban, suburban, and rural settings, and the programs have been operating from 3 to nearly 20 years. In addition, all of us have been involved in implementing and evaluating award-winning Social Decision Making and Problem Solving Programs in school districts around the United States.

Here we present information to help educators get SEL programs started. Specifically, we address the attitudinal and logistical roadblocks that educators initiating these programs have faced--and have overcome.

Attitudinal Roadblocks

Is it a fad? Some educators may dismiss social and emotional learning as the latest fad, claiming that teachers already address these needs every day. They would like to keep doing things the same way, hoping that the new interest in social and emotional learning will fade away.

It is true that many educators address students' social and emotional learning on a daily basis, and many teachers and schools are already involved in excellent practices that promote social and emotional development. That does not mean, however, that there is nothing new to consider.

The past decade has produced tremendous gains in our knowledge of what skills are most predictive of academic and life success and, more important, what it takes to develop these skills in a way that results in long-term behavior change and positive life outcomes. The skills must be taught as incrementally as reading is taught. Further, at the successful sites we visited, educators had rethought their own individualized methods of teaching these skills in favor of larger organizational plans that allow for shared language, consistency, and the sequential building of skills across grade levels.

Joan London is assistant superintendent of Berkeley Heights Public Schools in New Jersey. Working with a program developed over the past 11 years, she describes the observable results:

Sometimes you do not see it in the younger students, but with the older students who have learned to apply the skills, adults are able to stand back and watch the students self-evaluate and self-monitor their own behavior. It is like any other type of learning--you first need to learn the pieces in isolation, but then you can start to put the pieces together and apply them. That is when the learning is most beneficial, when the students can apply it and take it with them through life.

Is it New Age? Detractors of such programs may express the perception that social and emotional learning is linked to some kind of "New Age" philosophy or to values areas that should be the province of families, with schools properly focusing on academics.

Our site visits revealed that educators in public and private schools, including Jewish and Catholic schools, believed that social and emotional learning had an essential and proper role in the mainstream of educational concerns. These educators are as concerned as anyone about academics; they are respectful of parents and devoted to their students. Questioning revealed that they did not arrive at their conclusions about the importance of social and emotional learning as a result of overexposure to Yanni's music; nor had they been kidnaped by cults or taken over by their inner child. Rather, they arrived at their positions through study, reflection, experience, and collaboration with colleagues, parents, and their communities.

Is it based on research? The first section of Dan Goleman's book, Emotional Intelligence (1995), summarizes the essential interrelationships among our emotions, our thinking, and our actions. Howard Gardner's Multiple-Intelligences theory (1983) is based on the same premises. We are, biologically speaking, social and emotional beings. To succeed in school, family, friendships, the workplace, community life, and democratic participation, students need a full complement of skills--social, emotional, and academic. Further, carrying out cherished values such as honesty, loyalty, and responsibility requires the integration of complex sets of skills; these values are by no means simply matters of attitude and motivation.

In A Celebration of Neurons (1995), Robert Sylwester summarizes the implications of recent scientific findings:

By separating emotion from logic and reason in the classroom, we've simplified school management and evaluation, but we've also then separated two sides of one coin--and lost something important in the process. It's impossible to separate emotion from the other important activities of life. Don't try. . . . Scientists have now replaced this duality with an integrated body/brain system (p. 75).

Sylwester goes on to explain that "Most of our brain's neural networks process the complex interactions that lead to the analysis and solution of problems" (p. 106). Three broad areas of organizing this information in our brain are described as temporal, spatial, and personal, the latter comprising intrapersonal and interpersonal awareness. "It's difficult to think of linguistic, musical, and interpersonal intelligence out of the context of social and cooperative activity, and other forms of intelligence are likewise principally social in normal practice" (p. 117).

Will it steal time from academics? What about the concerns of faculty, parents, and administrators who believe that nothing should take away from time and energy spent on traditional academic subjects? We hear so much talk about the basics and improving test scores.

Proponents of SEL can address these concerns of parents and staff by pointing out that social and emotional learning is strongly related to several of our national educational goals and standards and that it provides precisely the kinds of skills that national reports indicate youngsters need to help avoid disaffection, dropping out, and other self-destructive behaviors. Indeed, it is hardly credible or professional to argue an exclusively "three Rs" position for students approaching the 21st century.

Educators who are just beginning to teach social and emotional skills do find that lessons take longer to complete, that the integration of SEL material into various subject areas takes planning, and that the connections may not be obvious. A single year of working with students rarely results in dramatic progress. However, such work helps build a solid foundation of skills essential for future applications.

A 5th grade teacher in Washington, D.C., felt a lot of time pressure when she first began teaching lessons based on an SEL development program. Especially at the beginning of the year, she felt she lost crucial time for academics because it took several weeks to properly orient the children to the classroom and agree on ground rules. As a new teacher, she felt pressure to jump into academics right away. The second year she taught the program, she chose not to conduct all the orientation lessons at the beginning of the year; instead, she tried to weave the lessons in as the year went on. The results were disappointing. She found that the classroom and the kids were much more disorganized, and it took much longer to get all the systems in place. Her experience led her to conclude that three weeks of orientation at the beginning of the year nets a whole year of more productive academics.

Will it have an impact? Some who express skepticism about SEL may cite a negative social context--difficult home situations, TV, pervasive reports of violence, poor or absent role models. The apparent hopelessness of it all leads them to conclude that students' deficiencies in social and emotional skills are hardly surprising, and they wonder whether schools can really make a difference.

Unlike many educators, those implementing social and emotional learning realize how powerful the school is as a protective influence in the lives of children. Building a safe and collaborative classroom environment in which children can sort out their feelings, put aside their hassles, and appreciate the joy of learning provides lifelong benefits that children miss out on when they are too angry, hurt, or scared to participate in learning. Kevin Haggerty (see p. 28) of the Social Development Research Program in Seattle says,

We need to make sure that teachers are teaching in the very best ways with the very best skills in order to effectively build that protective environment for kids. That protective environment can prevent [the self-destructive behaviors] that lead to delinquency, drug use, and
dropping out.

Logistical Roadblocks

Overcoming time constraints. One of the first objections that some teachers express when confronted with the prospect of adding SEL to the curriculum is the difficulty of fitting the program into an already overcrowded teaching schedule. Every year brings mandates to cover more and more material.

Darlene Mattia, principal of Watsess-
ing School in Bloomfield, New Jersey, acknowledges the problem of time:

You can eventually weave the lessons into everyday curriculum, but the first run-through is always rough. We had to design what we wanted in the curriculum the first year and then gradually improve on that and get bigger.

Solutions to the problem vary. The lessons can become part of health education or social studies; the teacher can coteach with the guidance counselor, using the lessons as a guidance period; or the lessons can be rotated through two or three different content areas (for example, one week social studies, one week language arts, one week health, back to social studies, and so on).

Whatever the solution, it must be worked out in accordance with local constraints and opportunities. Determined proponents of social and emotional learning articulate the link between the social and emotional lessons with another curriculum area so that time devoted to SEL lessons will benefit that area as well. In special education contexts, social awareness, emotional self-control, and other behavioral skills fit well into the goals of individualized education plans.

Once in place, many SEL curriculums require a restructuring of time and approach, not content. The methods for building social and emotional skills are compatible with what we know about effective teaching. Districts have integrated SEL curriculums with many mandates, including family life education, critical thinking, citizenship, and promotion of character and self-esteem.

Coordinating programs. Express-
ing a closely related concern, some teachers cite the prevention programs they are already implementing, such as DARE, Growing Healthy, AIDS prevention, prejudice reduction, and conflict mediation, as a reason for not adding an SEL program. They question how these programs can mesh.

From a practical perspective, the most important point to convey is that though meshing is possible and feasible, it does not occur without a conscious, persistent commitment to planning. Districts where such programs mesh well often have a social development coordinator or committee that identifies the overlaps, distinctions, and unique aspects of various programs and then develops strategies to sequence activities so that they work together in a meaningful way. Successful districts can share their models with others. Such planning and sharing produce concrete recommendations that can then be sanctioned by district administrators who know the constraints, needs, and goals of their teachers and students.

Many prevention programs share core features, such as teaching skills for interpersonal interaction and group functioning, teaching decision-making and problem-solving skills, and developing clear prosocial classroom and school norms. Coordinating programs around a common core has a stronger impact.

Finding funding. Another important logistical concern is funding. "People worry about the cost, but it is important to look at the cost of what will happen without spending the money now," says Dirk Hightower of the Primary Mental Health Project in Rochester, New York. Successful schools have started with a small pilot project, monitored it carefully, and built from there in a spirit of continuous improvement. They did not begin by addressing the most pressing problem in the school; they began where they could learn and be successful. They sought funds from local businesses, parent-teacher or home-school organizations, local educational foundations, municipal alliances for substance abuse prevention, Safe and Drug Free Schools grants, state grants, grants for teacher innovations, and in-kind time donated by local colleges in exchange for research or field placement or community service opportunities.

Training teachers. Finally, critics may question the implications for staff development if a school commits itself to SEL. Administrators report that some teachers feel uncertain about social and emotional learning because of a lack of training. Some teachers may prefer not to invest time in acquiring new skills, especially when demands for professional development in other areas (technology, for example) are also pressing. Others may feel caught in the conflict resulting from professional evaluation criteria that largely reflect students' traditional academic achievement and standardized test scores. Each of these issues creates unneeded uncertainty; the planning team and administrators should address them in advance, working out solutions with the faculty before full implementation of SEL.

The administrators we met expressed a common need for better preservice training for teachers in the area of social and emotional learning. Most teachers have received neither systematic training in these skills when they were students themselves nor extensive training in these methods in their teacher preparation programs. Currently, the bulk of training in SEL takes place through staff development activities funded by school districts.

Many interviewees also felt that it was critical that administrators be able to sustain a long-term commitment and perspective and to help their staff maintain this perspective during the developmental process. "People want to see change within a 2- or 3-year period. Administrators should have a much longer perspective. It might actually take 7 to 10 years to integrate programs," according to Dirk Hightower.

Developing a staff that is knowledgeable and skillful in social and emotional learning comes from a sustained investment in helping teachers learn by doing and by working together on problems of practice. Although teachers benefit from some latitude in implementation, they need time to share stories and materials and develop a collective knowledge base about ways to apply these teaching practices in a variety of real-life and academic contexts.

Successful administrators we spoke with understood that it takes time for the developmental process to unfold and the learning curve of the adult learner to rise. Individuals who have worked in SEL staff development stress that although one year of staff training and some technical assistance may seem sufficient, it is not effective when the goal is to build a comprehensive and integrated program. William Haffey of the Monroe County (New York) Board of Cooperative Services (BOCES) said, "An SEL program is in a constant growth cycle for everyone involved. You constantly have to nurture and validate. If you don't, the effectiveness will fade away." Karen Bachelder, executive director of the Committee for Children in Seattle, offers some useful advice:

An SEL program needs to grow with the changes of the society around it. It is good to provide ongoing education in order to promote constant development. It is not necessary to change the program, but the people involved in implementing the program need to adjust to new problems that develop. You have to keep progressing.

A variety of ongoing staff development activities have been used successfully. They include regular monitoring of implementation and assessment of outcomes; monthly staff meetings to assess how things are going and to discuss issues and share successful practices; instituting a building or district SEL committee; developing teacher networks, coaches, or mentors; and providing semiannual workshop time that allows teachers to figure out how to infuse SEL methods within the context of revised academic curriculum or content demands.

Looking Down a Clear Road

Despite the roadblocks, the predominant message from the educators we spoke with is that social and emotional learning is essential for preparing students for future roles. Once the focus becomes "how" rather than "if," even large obstacles to implementation can be overcome. Further, a strong consensus supports the idea that the academic work of the children--especially its application to real life--benefits directly from the time spent on social and emotional learning. *


Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Sylwester, R. (1995). A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator's Guide to the Human Brain. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

For additional guidance, see "Fostering Knowledgeable, Responsible, and Caring Students: Social and Emotional

Education Strategies," authored by members of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), to be published by ASCD in September 1997, as well as other resources available from the authors.

Maurice J. Elias is Professor, Department of Psychology, at Rutgers University, Livingston Campus, New Brunswick, NJ 08903 (e-mail: Linda Bruene-Butler (e-mail: is Director of Training and Lisa Blum is Field Consultation Specialist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-University Behavioral Health Care, 240 Stelton Rd., Piscataway, NJ 08854-3248. Thomas Schuyler, who can be reached at the Piscataway address, is Cofounder of the Social Decision Making and Problem Solving Program and a retired elementary and middle school principal.