Current Issue

Letter from the Director

I am most grateful for the opportunity to serve as the next Director of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility (formerly the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character.) It is an honor to carry on the traditions and programs built by our four previous Directors – Kevin Ryan, Karen Bohlin, Bernice Lerner, and Hardin Coleman. Thanks to their tireless and creative efforts ours has been a rich and productive history. As we expand our mission we also face many promising opportunities in our near future.

Our past efforts have included several signal achievements focused heavily on enabling teachers to weave more ethical and character-building learning opportunities in their classrooms and across their schools. We have also significantly strengthened academic ties between the School of Education and other colleges within and beyond Boston University. The subsequently strong academic foundation has served to make our professional improvement achievements more durable. These relationships have also fostered an impressive list of scholarly publications which have helped shape the direction of much of character education on a national level.

In our recent past we have expanded the mission and activities of the Center for Character and Social Responsibility (CCSR) by forging relations with other School of Education organizations and integrating more efforts in the realm of social responsibility as an aspect of good character. I have long relied on one of the 20th century’s most principled philosophers, Albert Camus, who explained that he “learned his ethics on the playing fields… “ We are most pleased to collaborate with Professor John McCarthy’s Institute for Athletic Coach Education. The core values of this group and their effectiveness in working with high need schools align well with the broader CCSR plans. Similarly, our recent Character Education workshops have presented experts in current and vital issues such as School Climate and Anti-Bullying. In these sessions we have been able to illustrate how schools, in and out of classrooms, are constantly making statements about individual character and community responsibility to their students and to their community. As the School of Education develops a service learning requirement into its teacher preparation programs the CCSR will serve as a resource to help students reflect on and therefore capture the full meaning of their efforts to work with a wide range of fellow citizens in need. By “full meaning” we will endeavor to set up projects and reflective seminars so that students understand not only their personal and professional transformations that unfold during their experiences, but also the citizenship and policy dimensions of those involved with their service site.

As we turn our mission statement and activities to the implementation stages we will need you advice and your help. We need your large and small ideas that are all indispensible to success in our plans to deepen our national influence and reputation. Correspondingly, we will need your advice on how to secure funding for the continuation of our past success and the expansion of our future ideas. As many of you know we have received the generous, anonymous support in the form of a matching fund. Any contributions you are able to make will be doubled up to a maximum of $25,000 over each of the next two years. This means our highest funding success would allow us to get these plans off to a great start with $100,000.

Please forward this newsletter to any fellow educators you think would like to join our community. Our primary goal is to ensure that Character Education and Social Responsibility are woven into as many schools as possible across the country.

Best regards,

Steve Ellenwood
Faculty Director
Center for Character and Social Responsibility
Boston University School of Education

Leader in Education  |  Interview with Professor Maurice Elias


1) Can you define a “healthy climate?” For instance, what would it look like, feel like, and sound like if I walked into a school with a “healthy climate?” Can you give us specific examples you have seen in practice? Does it have to be a holistic school approach to be successful?

There are two ways to think of a healthy school climate.  One is in terms of assessment—that a healthy climate is one that is substantially positive overall and for subgroups of students and staff on such dimensions as respect, friendship and belonging, feelings of contribution to the environment, perceptions of fairness in rules and discipline systems, safety, and caring.  Another way to think of a healthy school climate is more common sense.  It’s when students and staff want to be in school, see it as a place that is welcoming and validating, a source of positive identity and pride, a place where things are learned and where one’s contributions are valued.  My colleagues at ASCD define a healthy school climate as one in which students are safe, supported, engaged, healthy, and challenged, and although it’s implicit in these, I do like to add cared for and respected.

I have had the privilege of working with schools that have had a positive, healthy school climate.  But it takes work to maintain.  Changes in Federal, State, or District policies, and significant changes in leadership, can lead to changes in climate in a school.  It is not inevitable, but instability does increase the potential for change.  When the adults put children’s well-being second and their own worries first (like test scores), when the school becomes an arena for ego and/or power, children lose and the climate suffers.  Good leadership manages this.

In Promoting Social-Emotional Learning:  Guidelines for Educators, CASEL identified “flagship” schools that were positive.  And the Character Education Partnership has a wonderful program for identifying National and even State Schools of Character.  But there are certainly instances where one would go to visit schools getting these designations and find that things have changed.  We have the knowledge to keep school climates positive for SECD and for learning.   But this knowledge has yet to become a core part of the preparation of educators, whether teachers or administrators

2) You mention a transition from social-emotional learning (SEL) to social-emotional and character development (SECD) in your faculty profile. What separates the two? What is driving the transition to SECD?

Social-emotional and character development (SECD) is, to me, the natural evolution of the convergence of two important streams of influence, social-emotional learning (SEL) and Character Education (CE).  Both of these fields found their formal organizational origins around the same time, in the 1990’s with Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and Character Education Partnership (CEP).  And both organizations sought to develop themselves as “brands” and as the “umbrella” under which all related approaches would be organized.  Thus, one can find SEL umbrellas with CE underneath, and CE umbrellas with SEL underneath.  But the larger point is that while different professional groups are putting up their umbrellas, the vast majority of children are not under either umbrella and continue to get deluged.  Now, our most vulnerable children are getting deluged with an education system that is overly focused on academic test scores, often to the expense of deep and useful learning.  As recently as 9/8/12, in the NYTimes, Joe Nocera wrote about the importance of what are now being labeled as “non-cognitive factors” in children’s success in school and life, especially disadvantaged, minority youth.

While I appreciate the sentiment, I would not say there is a “drive” toward SECD.  Here is how I see it.  Both CASEL and CEP are, in a way, “stuck” with their brand products, SEL and CE.  SEL has traditionally focused on a set of skills, now referred to as the CASEL 5 (, and the importance of these for effective interpersonal interaction and well-being.  In the past decade, after CASEL changed its name to emphasize that SEL skills are also important for academics, considerable research has been directed toward elaborating the link of SEL and academics, and the results have shown clearly that SEL skills are associated with greater academic success, positive adaptation, and reductions in problem behaviors.  This is best summarized by the Durlak et al. (2011) meta-analysis article in Child Development.

At the same time, the CE field established a journal, The Journal of Research in Character Development, and also directed more focus on elaborating the relationship of character to mental health and academic outcomes.  Lickona and Davidson made an important formulation as part of their Smart and Good Schools work, in which they articulated the constructs of moral and performance character.  This operationalized much of what I had been articulating about the need for an integration of SEL and CE perspectives.  Skills without character is not a desirable outcome.  And it is hardly possible to enact such character attributes as honesty, responsibility, and fairness without a good complement of SEL skills.

While there are many debates about what character “should” be or who gets to define what is “moral” and how it is defined, it is clear that schools establish norms, rules, climate, and character, implicitly or explicitly, and that SEL competencies play an important role in what happens in a school.  There are so many apt analogies. One that comes to mind at the moment is that SEL is the engine room and the propellers and all that goes along with maintaining them, and CE is the rudder that determines where the boat is headed.  SECD is the journey, and that journey depends on both SEL and CE—there is no way to disentangle them, certainly when one is focused on education and schools.

So the field is inevitably headed toward SECD, in my opinion, but at present, SEL will become more accepting of notions of climate and CE will gradually embrace the idea of skills.  One of my colleagues, Marvin Berkowitz, who is a recognized leader in the CE field but very attuned to SEL said to me that he is no longer as focused on vocabulary and labels.  The majority of those working in the SEL and CE fields recognize that a greater integration of perspectives is theoretically and pragmatically essential and the labels given to this are of secondary importance.

3) I am attracted to your comment on preparing students “for facing the tests of life, and not a life of tests.” What do you see as the “tests of life” and how can educators adequately prepare students for the “tests of life?” Can there be a balance with the current push in academic testing?

The tests of life begin for children when they wake up in the morning to chaos, hecticness, and/or disorganization.  Maybe they have to take care of siblings, or leave early because their parents have to get out to work.  Maybe they walk to school in a dangerous neighborhood.  Or maybe their school is not safe.  Maybe they come home to an empty house, or go to an after-school center, or have to pick up siblings and take care of them after school.  Maybe their parents – or one parent, or guardian—has a physical or mental health or drug problem.  These are just some of the tests of life that we include under “non-cognitive factors” that influence learning.  Handling these situations and still having energy and focus for learning requires SECD.  We also know that to a disproportionate degree, when minority and poor students get into higher education, they are likely to drop out.  It’s not because they are not smart enough—it’s because they do not know how to manage all of the many decisions and problems and interpersonal relational challenges that they will face as part of college (and adult) life. As Dewey said so well, we do not prepare children for life by teaching them in schools “about” life—we have to help them live an engaged life while they are in schools, advancing their SECD as well as their intellectual development.  This will make for better students, better citizens, and more productive people.  Data from Durlak et al. also suggest that it is one of the best routes we can take to improve test scores.  But that only comes with time and we are too impatient with our school reform efforts to conform with the reality of sustainable change.

4) Can you tell us about your academic and personal journey into this field of social-emotional learning, civic engagement, service learning, and healthy school climates? Where did it all start for you?

My graduate training was in Clinical Psychology at the University of Connecticut.  Early on, in one of my practica in a Hartford, Connecticut, facility that provided treatment to children and families, I heard staff members lamenting that “if only the schools had done their job,” “if only the parents knew how to parent,” “if only adequate prenatal and early child care and education had been provided”…. All of these things seemed to me as if they could have, and should have happened.  This, combined with my learning about research showing the inequities in who received services and who received high quality services, led me toward a prevention perspective.  My focus on the schools was serendipitous.  A fellow graduate student at UCONN, Steve Larcen, introduced me to George Spivack and Myrna Shure, two pioneers in school-based prevention, that he happened to work with while he was an undergraduate in Philadelphia.  They took me under their wing, as did another great preventive psychologist who worked in schools, Emory Cowen, and I began to follow in their footsteps.

Over time, I have come to understand, and the research has increasingly shown, that “program” cannot be considered outside of the overall school context and climate and the degree of engagement of students in the life of the school.  Citizen and service become cornerstone concepts for me, and so I have embraced an expanded notion of SEL (social-emotional learning) as SECD- social-emotional and character development, and all that is encompassed by efforts to promote it effectively.

5) You have a significant number of projects going on at the Rutgers Social- Emotional Learning Lab. Over the course of your career, what are some of the most significant findings of the Research Lab? How do these findings dictate your programs?

This is a very challenging question to answer.   I appreciate the chance to reflect, which I don’t usually give myself much time to do.

I can identify several major projects in the Lab and one effort that has been an outgrowth of the Lab but it not a research project per se.

Early in my career, the focus was on assessing, implementing, and evaluating social decision making-social problem solving programs (SDM-SPS).  Over ten year period of time, we used action-research to create disseminable curricula for grades k-8 (  The curricula was recognized by all the relevant “certifying” authorities at the time, including the National Diffusion Network, National Mental Health Association, and National Education Goals Panel—all of which have been superseded by other organizations at present.  Our work has been recognized by CASEL, CEP, and professional groups such as the National Association of School Psychologists as well as international groups.

One main contribution, supported by our research, is that programs must focus on generalization, and we piloted what we called the “application” phase in which the SDM-SPS skills systematically incorporated into academic subject areas, special subjects, and the routines of classroom and school as a systematic part of the curriculum structure.   This approach is now featured in virtually all curricula of this kind.

A second contribution was to focus on emotion recognition, labeling, and regulation as an essential, and early, part of the problem solving process.  Ours was the first curriculum to put emotions/feelings into the problem solving “steps” students received, because we were persuaded by our own research and those of others that emotions affect how and what we learn—including problem solving, and academic work—in substantial and guiding ways.

A third contribution was about the pedagogy of effective skill development and retention.  We systematically studied the extent to which teachers should use directed or discovery learning techniques and found that a balance was essential; in essence, this is a combination of direct instruction in skills, combined with inquiry modes and problem-based approaches to practice and integration of skills.   A corollary to this, which has pervaded a great deal of my subsequent work, is the importance of implementation.  It may sound silly now, but we found that even the best curriculum in the world would not work unless implemented with fidelity.  We were surprised to find that the degree of fidelity required was not close to, say, the 85-90% we might have expected a priori, but we also realized that the impact of the curriculum depended on the Application Phase and how the teacher and the rest of the school prompted and cued the use of the skills outside the lesson context and provided recognition and feedback to students regarding their use of the skills.

Another major research effort was an eight-year action-research collaboration with the Plainfield, NJ public schools.  This was an urban, failing school district and although I began my collaboration there with the idea of providing an adaptation of an SDM-SPS curriculum for the largely African-American and Latino population in 10 elementary schools, it quickly became clear that a whole-school approach was needed and that a curriculum would not provide the basis for that approach.  At a CEP meeting, I learned about Laws of Life, a character education intervention that provided a vehicle for building students’ positive identify and values through writing.  With the full collaboration of colleagues in Plainfield and an outstanding and creative team of graduate and undergraduate students, we were able to bring Laws of Life into elementary, middle, and high school levels and link the skills of SDM-SPS to the important aspects of character identified by students.   We showed the students that they needed these skills to “live their laws of life.”   The net result of the work in Plainfield was a true sense of collaboration and the positive transformation of the district.  Without making this an obsessional emphasis, through the leadership of Superintendent of Schools Larry Leverett, Special Assistants Carole Berris and Eloise Bryant Tinley, Supervisors Linnea Weiland and Laura Fattal, and dedicated school principals and staff, test scores rose significantly and Plainfield was no longer under state scrutiny.  That said, when the Board of Education replaced the Superintendent for political reasons and brought in a “law and order” disciplinarian and a test-score drill focus, fortunes in the district declined sadly and, due to politics, have yet to rebound, despite some oases of excellence that remain.

I would offer as a brief side note that for almost two decades, I have engaged in a parallel working relationship with the Ministry of Education in Israel.  At first, my focus with them was helping with their Life Skills curriculum.  That gradually extended to more integrative efforts, including violence and substance abuse prevention and health promotion, and eventually to an incorporation of Wisdom of the Hearth- Binat Halev—as a school culture and climate emphasis, sustained in part by the Laws of Life program (translated for Jewish and Arab Israeli schools as Meaning and Purpose of Life).  While funded initially by the Templeton Foundation, Tel Hai Academic College has taken ownership of this work in Northern Israel, while another consortium, led by Dr. Josef Levi, has championed this approach in Central and Southern Israel.  This is still a work in progress, but one account of its success in schools for ethnically diverse gifted and talented youth is in press, and another study is under review by the Peabody Journal of Education.

I am not going to comment on my work to help in the development of CASEL as part of this response, but I do want to note that this has been a highlight of my professional career and has been the vehicle for forming many lasting professional partnerships and lifelong friendships.  This work is really the outcome of my research, in a sense.

The next major project was a five-year effort funded by the NJ Dept. of Education to bring SECD to 250 schools in NJ.  In order to accomplish this, we had to develop methods for creating an infrastructure in the school to sustain this effort once begun, and we had to articulate a feasible and replicable process that schools could learn and own.  Our research identified fragmentation and proliferation of SECD-related programs as a major problem in schools and a source of poor morale; we saw that schools did not have systematic approaches to building students SEL and problem behavior prevention skills; we also found that they did not have a coherent identity that they provided to students, as part of systematically promoting a healthy school climate.  So we developed a school climate assessment, feedback, and planning process for students and staff, methods for creating and promulgating a cohesive school identity and integrating it into academics, approaches to unjumbling the jumbled schoolhouse and creating synergy with regard to SECD across grade levels and schools, and we worked very hard on professional development and infrastructure to implement and sustain all this.

Learning all this was very powerful in animating our sense that schools, even troubled schools, can be turned around better by SECD than by emphasizing test scores and test prep.  We also learned that the antidote to bullying in schools is the creation of a climate of respect, and systematically and genuinely involving students in the operation and life of the school.  In addition, we found that students are watching their teachers carefully and to the extent to which they see teachers treating each other in caring and supportive ways, they are more likely to believe the anti-bullying and positive SECD messages they are sending.  But if teachers do not walk the talk, students will tend to ignore the talk—no matter how many blue ribbons, blueprints, or other accolades a curriculum might have.

We also have learned a lot about the complexities of school climate- that overall school climate scores can be very misleading and that breakdowns by grade level and ethnicity matter.  We also learned that 3 years is an essential minimum window to expect to change the climate of a school in a way that is less likely to backslide.  And we learned that even if there are many areas of school climate that are problematic, they cannot be attacked all at once; a gradual, steady approach is what works, as hard as it may be to see problems persist.  Changing the climate requires genuine collaboration and strong student involvement.

Our most current project is the redesign of school report cards to reflect social-emotional and character dimensions systematically.  We believe that once SECD becomes part of the language of teacher feedback to students and to parents, we will reach the tipping point for SECD in schools.  We have begun to empirically study the relationship of SECD and academics—including standardized test scores- even in the relatively few indicators of SECD on existing report cards and we find that there is a clear connection.  We are continuing to explore the nuances and will begin to pilot more SECD-explicit and intentional report cards in the coming years.

So from this journey, I have taken away a strong sense of optimism that all schools can be improved, that we know how to do this, that it involves adults setting a caring, challenging, supportive tone and walking their talk, that students are looking for relationships with caring adults and to be inspired in school, that they want to do good in the worlds and be recognized for positive contributions, and that success requires pooling of knowledge and approaches.  Hence, the kids do not need competition between SEL and CE, between School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports and Whole Child Education, or any other such distinctions.  They need us to put them first and get on with it….preparing them for the tests of life and not a life of tests.

6) In your opinion, how distinct, if at all, are social intelligence and emotional intelligence?

We are biological beings. Therefore, I find that it is not useful to attempt to differentiate social and emotional intelligence.  That’s why, when CASEL created the term, we moved from social and emotional to social-emotional.  Social-emotional intelligence (which is another way of taking about SECD) is exciting because it brings biology and psychology, and the social, cognitive, and emotional aspects of our functioning, together. It doesn’t allow us to separate these aspects of what it means to be human. For example, we know that the unit of human memory is not solely based on bits of information. The unit of human memory consists of information, but it also consists of the context in which we learn and our feelings about what we learn. This is one of the reasons why we need to look at social-emotional intelligence- and its variants–  as holistic and unifying approaches.

And the good news is that social-emotional and character attributes take shape not only through the school years, but throughout life. People who have gone to therapy have developed their social-emotional abilities and character modified at various ages of life. If there was a biological barrier to doing that, it wouldn’t happen. So the ability to develop emotional and social competence and develop one’s character is life-long.

Ultimately, SECD is a core aspect of who we are and must be nurtured as such, including in our education, parenting, and informal education subsystems.   What is it that makes us human? What is it that makes us special? We are special because we have compassion. We are special because we have empathy, because we have the ability to organize and do things for others and not just for ourselves. Those kinds of attributes are linked to SECD. It is also part of the human being to be goal- and plan-oriented. One of the most important principles of everyday life is that we need goals to help us organize. These are things that we have not been taught – they are a part of us.

However, these abilities can be developed. There are social conditions that make them more or less likely to take place. In fact, there are a lot of social conditions that do not enhance the natural development of social-emotional competencies and positive character. For example, the media and the fast pace of society are actually working against the way that human beings work their best. Interpersonal relationships are things that can’t be “surfed” and can’t be “scanned” and “twittered.” These are things that take time and depth. You have to look at somebody for a few seconds to get some clue about how they are feeling. Yet in our current society, we’re training people visually to stay on the surface, to move very quickly, and to go from virtual place-to-place in fractions of seconds.

Social and emotional intelligence are functionally intertwined and inextricably connected to character.  While research may find some distinctions and separations at some molecular or physiological levels, those are not distinctions that should enter into policy and practice decisions for the foreseeable future.