On the eve of the new academic school year, Maurice Elias, a professor of psychology and director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Developmental Lab, is available to discuss social and emotional learning and how it should be integrated into schools.

Elias is a pioneer in the field and a founding member of Social-Emotional Learning for New Jersey (SEL4NJ).

What is social and emotional learning (SEL)?

SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. It also refers to the culture and climate of the school and the way schools promote students’ positive character.

What do we see as schools prepare to get started in September? Why is there confusion over social-emotional learning?

Many schools plan to use SEL to help them navigate challenges and make the most of the new year's opportunities. School districts in New Jersey and across the country will receive unprecedented resources and support for SEL. For most parents and some educators though, it’s not clear what SEL is. In some states, objections have been raised about using social-emotional learning based on misinformation about its focus. In South Carolina, there has been legislation banning SEL teaching with related concerns in New Mexico, Florida, Texas and Virginia. Additionally, one key misunderstanding is attempts to link SEL to critical race theory (CRT). Despite the push for mental health throughout the pandemic, SEL practices remain absent across many school districts.

Why should SEL be an integral part of academic life, especially now?

When students attend schools where SEL has a strong presence, they are more likely to enjoy school, less likely to act out, feel more accepted and inclusive of their schoolmates, and more likely to do better academically. Not surprisingly, they have a better chance of completing higher education successfully and have career advancement. It’s not SEL that “does” this alone—it depends on whether the school has a positive, welcoming, accepting, respectful, fair and supportive climate for all students, builds positive character and encourages SEL skills using best practices. SEL works best when everyone, including school staff, parents and caregivers, and students alike are involved in how SEL is designed, delivered and integrated across all aspects of school life.