Newswise — Studies show that social and emotional learning could reduce school violence and harassment, while improving attendance, graduation rates and perceptions of school climate.

But Maurice Elias, a professor of psychology and director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Developmental Lab, says in order for that to occur, social and emotional learning (SEL) must become the norm in schools nationwide.

A pioneer in the field, Elias discusses its importance and why social and emotional learning needs to be integrated in schools, at home and in other aspects of life.

What is social and emotional learning?

Social and emotional learning is a way of talking about the skills and dispositions of “everydayship,” meaning the skills we have that enable us to interact in the world and relate to friends, family and others. New Jersey and other states have adopted a set of five competencies that establish social and emotional learning. The first is self-awareness, which is the ability to recognize feelings in yourself and others. The second is our ability to regulate our strong emotions, positive or negative. The third area is social awareness, which helps determine what’s important to us and our positive purpose. The fourth is empathy and perspective, which is the ability to emotionally understand what other people are going through and what’s happening in their lives. Social skills is the fifth area, needed for effective interpersonal relationships such as working in groups and taking on leadership roles.

Why should it be an integral part of academic life?

Social and emotional learning allows students to put their knowledge into action. For information to be useful, it requires children to learn in the context of caring relationships with teachers, parents, coaches, supervisors, older classmates and others. They must channel and harness their emotions in productive and positive ways. They must also set goals and focus on what they are doing. If knowledge and information are going to travel from school to real life and from real life back to school, it will happen through relationships, emotions, goal-setting and problem-solving. Social and emotional learning is what allows our most valued outcomes to happen and that includes academic success.

How has the pandemic affected social and emotional learning?

The pandemic has created great emotional strain from which almost no one is spared. Emotions are heightened, stress is greater, feelings of loss and anxiety are constant, relationships are strained, creativity is taxed, polarization is up and listening is down. Social and emotional learning gives us insights into how we can help children and students cope. Some tips include: ensure students and children understand the science of COVID-19, physical health and mental health and the context of the world around them that is appropriate to their age level; and set and work toward physical health and mental health/character goals and be encouraging and forgiving.

What is the state of social and emotional learning in New Jersey?

Most schools are aware of social and emotional learning because of the coordinated messaging between the New Jersey Department of Education and other professional education associations. However, awareness is not the same as systematic and developmental implementation across an entire school. It requires more knowledge, commitment, coordination and resources. The majority of schools in New Jersey—and most other states—are not at this point yet. However, New Jersey can be proud that it has had more schools recognized as National Schools of Character—which incorporates social and emotional learning—than any other state. Additionally, Gov. Phil Murphy declared March 26 as Social and Emotional Learning Day in New Jersey, helping spread awareness.

What are the biggest challenges to implementation?

There are many, but the most impactful include a lack of in-depth understanding of social and emotional learning and its importance to every aspect of a child’s success, well-being and resilience. Others include funding and other incentives that push for “quick fixes," rather than supporting the long-term capacity building necessary for SEL to be well learned and fully integrated into lives. There is a lack of ongoing support structures for SEL in schools. While resources and models do exist, they are not yet supported in ways that would allow statewide reach.

We must recognize that children (and adults!) are emotional beings. They can never put their emotions in their cubbies or lockers during the school day. Inspiration precedes remediation.  We need all of our students to feel they can make contributions to the world that are appreciated and encouraged.