The unifying themes in my action-research, clinical work, and policy/advocacy are the development of positive, constructive life paths for children and youth and the organization of opportunities to allow this to happen in equitable ways. This has brought me into areas such as social-emotional learning (SEL), its more recent variation, social-emotional and character development (SECD), emotional intelligence, social competence promotion, character education, primary prevention, school-based, evidence-based intervention, and socialization of identity. It has also brought my work increasingly into the areas of implementation and sustainability of interventions, and cutting edge issues such as the link of SECD and academics and the distinguishing features of sustainable, versus well-implemented, empirically supported innovations.
I have worked to establish the field of prevention, school-based preventive intervention, and social competence promotion as a credible, important, and rigorous area of research, practice, and public policy. To accomplish the latter, collaborative models are necessary, as are programs of longitudinal, synergistic action-research with an explicit eye to practice and policy. Thus, I have organized my work within the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org and https://www.edutopia.org/profile/maurice-j-elias).
The Lab is dedicated to conducting action-research in public, private, and religious school settings for the purpose of building children’s skills for facing the tests of life, and not a life of tests. It focuses on understanding the relationship of academic achievement, social-emotion competencies, and the development of character and a core set of life principles, and the development of school-based interventions to strengthen social-emotion skills , character, and one’s Laws of Life and sense of Positive Purpose, and prevent bullying, violence and victimization, substance abuse, and related problem behaviors. I also focus on the area of promoting civic engagement among Rutgers University students by serving as Contributing Faculty Member at the Collaborative Center for Community Engagement (engage.rutgers.edu) at Rutgers.
The COVID-19 pandemic, clear issues of racial injustice and disparity, and the crisis in American and worldwide democracy—which includes the use of war as an instrument of autocracy and an alternative to diplomacy—have led to reconsideration in our understanding of the relevance of social-emotional and character development and how to optimally and feasibly encourage it in school, out of school, and family settings. The approach we are taking involved activating children and youth’s SEL competencies, encouraging their sense of positive purpose, adding SECD “in” and not “on” to existing school and program requirements, and to focus on inspiration before remediation.
This has led to Lab partnerships with a number of other organizations and movements, and key books related to these connections:
1. SEL4US.org: The Social-Emotional Learning Alliance of the United States, a network of over 20 states linked as a set of professionals learning communities to accelerate sharing and progress in SECD implementation, policy, and advocacy. Of particular concern
Kress, J. E. , & Elias, M. J. (2020). Nurturing Students’ Character: Everyday Teaching Activities for Social-Emotional Learning. Routledge. (Translated into Greek.)
Elias, M. J., and Berkowitz, M. W. (2016). Schools of social-emotional competence and character: Actions for school leaders, teachers, and school support professionals. National Professional Resources.
Elias, M. J., Ferrito, J. J., & Moceri, D. C. (2016). The other side of the report card: Assessing students’ social, emotional, and character development. Corwin.
Poedubicky, V., & Elias, M. J. (2021). Social-Emotional Learning Lab: A Comprehensive SEL Resource Kit. Research Press.
2. SEL4NJ.org: The affiliate of SEL4US in New Jersey.
3. SELDay.org: Promoting activities to build SECD leading up to International SEL Day in March of each year.
5. Social Studies, History, Civics, and related professional associations: We are bringing our Students Taking Action Together approach to ensure all students are prepared for their roles as active participants in their schools, communities, democratic processes, and other aspects of civic life (www.SECDLab.org/STAT)
Fullmer, L., Bond, L., Nayman, S., Molyneaux, C., & Elias, M. J. (2022). Students Taking Action Together: 5 Teaching Techniques to Cultivate SEL, Civic Engagement, and a Healthy Democracy. ASCD.
Elias, M. J., Murphy, N., & McClain, K. (2022). Morning Classroom Conversations: Build Your Students’ Social-Emotional, Character and Communication Skills Every Day. Corwin.
Elias, M. J., & Leverett, L. (2021). Addressing equity through culturally responsive education and SEL. National Professional Resources, Inc.
6. SEL and Parenting, Young Children: Parents are undergoing tremendous stress and the SECD Lab has produced materials and carried out webinars (available at www.SECDLab.org)
Elias, M. J., Gootman, M., Schwartz, H. (2106). The Joys and Oys of Parenting: Insight and Wisdom from the Jewish Tradition. Behrman House.
Hankin, V., Omer, D., Elias, M. J., & Raviv, A. (2012). Talking treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children. Research Press.
Elias, M.J., Tobias, S. E., & Friedlander, B., S. (2000). Emotionally intelligent parenting: How to raise a self-disciplined, responsible, and socially skilled child. Random House/Three Rivers Press. (Since publication, there have been 10 International Editions of this book)
Both graduate and undergraduate students play a significant role in these and related projects and they are conceptualized as action-research projects, which means there are significant field components as well. We welcome students with interests in the field/practice or research components, or both. Current practica are focused on SECD and the visual and performing arts in general and special education, implementation of SEL assessments, the SEL Lab for Tier 2 interventions, and consultation around bringing SECD and positive purpose into schools and districts.
Thanks for your interest!- Maurice J. Elias
Special Foci of the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org)
Please find below a description of a major area of focus in the Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab. The Lab is a focal point for school-based efforts at prevention, social-emotional learning, social problem solving, violence prevention, and character education. The Lab serves as a consultant for various school districts and, in some cases, plays a very active role in fostering the development of school-wide efforts and programs targeted at specific populations, to build character using empirically-supported, evidence-based approaches.
The Development, Implementation, and Dissemination of Laws of Life and Related Empowerment-Oriented Interventions around Promoting Youth Competence, Purpose, and Voice
Brief History and Mission: The Laws of Life (LOL) program is a process that challenges young people of all ages to discover for themselves the core values and moral principles that will guide them throughout life. LOL activities emphasize reflection and writing. They encourage students to think about the people and experiences that have helped to shape their values in positive ways. Students are challenged to take a stand for what they believe in and then build the skills needed to communicate their beliefs in a clear and compelling manner. Plainfield, NJ, an Abbott district, was the first in NJ to carry out LOL, via an essay. Over seven years, working with a research team from Rutgers, Plainfield developed and implemented variations of LOL designed to tap into the multiple intelligences of high-risk students. Working through different modalities (such as art, dance, poetry, music, as well as writing), all of the LOL programs encourage students to think deeply about their values and character, critical to developing the social and emotional learning (SEL) skills to help students be successful in school and in life. Plainfield has been a national leader in developing programs to provide high-risk, urban students in elementary, middle, and high school with ways to get in touch with, express, and live their Laws of Life. These programs continue to be developed, with projects under way in Israel and at the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia. In addition, we have a large data base of student Laws of Life essays awaiting innovative analysis, both in terms of their own linguistic, values, and affective content and, in some cases, as can be linked to students’ behavioral and academic data.
Collaboration with colleagues in Israel has brought Laws of Life interventions to Israel, as Binat Halev (Wisdom of the Heart), Kishureh Chayim (Life Skills), the “Moral Compass” project, and now SEL, to schools for Jewish and Israeli Arab students in Israel and small group in-school and after-school strengths-oriented interventions focus. Spin-offs of this work has been focused around community service/service learning as a vehicle for youth skill building, competence enhancement, empowerment, leadership development, problem behavior prevention, and risk reduction, using a constructivist and CBT-oriented theoretical and pedagogical structure. Another signature program is “GLO”—Girls Leading Outward, named by the youth involved in the program. We have a version for boys.
Development of Positive Purpose
The Laws of Life projects have given way to a broader and more comprehensive emphasis on the development of positive purpose and the competencies and dispositions to enact that purpose. Youth in disadvantaged, urban schools often feel disempowered and lack opportunities to feel connected to school. This dampens aspirations for college and careers and short-circuits current motivation for academics. Our MOSAIC Project (Mastering Our Skills And Inspiring Character) project developed a program aimed at increasing student empowerment and school engagement by targeting students’ sense of purpose, focusing on six middle schools in Jersey City, NJ.
Actualization of purpose in disadvantaged youth is complicated by their histories and contexts. They need the value and skills of diligence and generosity, a positive sense of the future, forgiveness—to not be unduly weighed down by the past and current circumstances—and the creativity to see beyond their immediate reality and envision and move toward a real purpose for themselves. MOSAIC recognizes that widespread change in school circumstances for disadvantaged youth will require systems-level political and policy changes beyond the schools themselves. However, while those efforts proceed, schools as they are must be made effective as possible for ALL students now. This is centered on articulating the positive purpose and core values of the school and everyone in it, especially the students.
Purpose is connected to 5 core supportive values:
Optimistic Future mindedness (mindset/aspiration),
Responsible Diligence (grit, perseverance),
Helpful Generosity (service, civic/school engagement and contribution)
Compassionate Forgiveness and Gratitude—(unless these youth are able to forgive/get past their negative circumstances, they will not be able to move forward toward their purpose) and
Constructive Creativity, to be able to see things around them in ways different from their peers, what the media say, even what their unempowered peers say, and to be able to think on their feet and improvise to reach their goals successfully and with integrity.
This is not to the exclusion of other core values, of course. However, these are the most essential and actionable within a school context, and therefore capable of serving as vehicles for bring social-emotional, moral, and character development into the mainstream of education. MOSAIC consists of a three-year curriculum sequence, ideally taught in Advisory periods, with a developmental focus on Better Me, Better School, Better World. All MOSAIC materials can be downloaded at www.SECDLab.org/MOSAIC.
A cornerstone of MOSAIC is The Ambassadors Program, providing training, leadership, and character development opportunities for two student-elected members of every homeroom within a middle school. These student leaders facilitate student discussions about problems
students are facing and bring consensual student feedback to the school’s Student Council or school administration for action. Ongoing Ambassador training and ongoing Ambassador-led student discussions aim to enhance purpose and related values in both the Ambassadors and their peers. Ultimately, the Ambassador Program aims to increase school-wide engagement, empowerment, and motivation for learning. At the web site, videos of Ambassador training, materials, and samples of MOSAIC lessons co-led by Ambassadors can be found. MOSAIC can be adapted to schools that are characterized by student alienation and de-motivation for learning and achievement.
We continue to research and elaborate the model showing the interconnection of SEL and Character and the added, essential role played by Positive Purpose. Webinar materials and research studies can be accessed at www.SECDLab.org.