Mark HyattWhen it comes to flourishing in school nowadays, scientific evidence is mounting that confirms what many of us have suspected all along—that if we want children to truly learn, and to perform better in life as both students and citizens, then we have to educate them in an environment that they see as safe, caring and nurturing. In short, school social climate matters, so social and emotional learning (SEL), combined with character education, just may be the magical combination that makes academic growth possible.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Every day, more and more educators seem to be reaching that same conclusion. Earlier this year, for instance, the May issue of The Atlantic magazine featured an article headlined “The Benefits of Character Education.” Written by Jessica Lahey, an elementary school English teacher in Lyme, NH, the light-hearted piece details her journey from being a skeptic about character education to becoming a true believer. Once she saw how emphasizing core values such as kindness, compassion, empathy and self-control had transformed her classes of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, she was sold. Explained Lahey:

“At a time when parents and teachers are concerned about school violence, it is worth noting that students who attend character education schools report feeling safer because they know their fellow students value respect, responsibility, compassion and hard work. From a practical perspective, it’s simply easier to teach children who can exercise patience, self-control, and diligence, even when they would rather be playing outside – especially when they would rather be playing outside.”

Who can argue with that?

Studies conducted by the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) also persuasively argue that when students are surrounded by caring adults who provide them with safe, supportive school environments, they are much more likely to thrive. Many liken this relationship to the concept of the “dry sponge.” If children do not feel that they are in a safe and supportive school environment, their distracted minds are unable to concentrate enough to fully absorb their lessons, especially the complex concepts now being emphasized by the national push to improve science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills. In this sense, according to the analogy, social and emotional character development (SECD) moistens the “sponge” enough to allow these students to process, reflect, absorb and learn.

At CEP, our 11 Principles of Effective Character Education form the cornerstone of our philosophy for mobilizing student, teacher, parent and community involvement in creating both relationships and institutions that value and promote good character. Adherence to the 11 Principles also serve as the basis upon which K-12 schools around the country are designated as State Schools of Character and National Schools of Character. At least three of the principles directly address SEL goals. Specifically, such exemplary schools must “define ‘character’ comprehensively to include thinking, feeling and doing”; they must commit to “create a caring community”; and they must “regularly assess (their) culture and climate” to ensure program effectiveness.

One of the nation’s leading experts in this area of social research is Dr. Maurice Elias, director of Rutgers University’s SECD Lab in New Brunswick, NJ. “We’re talking about a field that is as well-supported by research as any other endeavor in education,” he says. “It makes sense in our hearts. It makes sense in our minds. It makes sense in our data. And we can do it… Our work has established an inextricable link between children’s social-emotional and character development and their academic achievement and life success.”

I have experienced this phenomenon first-hand. Not long ago, when I ran a system of K-12 charter schools in Colorado, I used to tell my teachers and staff at the annual back-to-school training sessions that, throughout the upcoming school year, I would be asking students if they could give me the names of adults at their school whom they knew actually cared about them and their success. In turn, I stressed to the faculty that if their students could not name any supportive adults, then we all would have a problem. I wanted our students to know that everyone—from the Principal to the Custodian—honestly cared about them, as well as each other. When we know others care—we thrive. I firmly believe that. And the results at those schools reaffirmed that belief.

In Chicago, with the help of the NoVo Foundation and the 1440 Foundation, CASEL is working to promote that same message nationally. Last fall, the nonprofit released its 2013 CASEL Guide, which identifies 23 school-based programs that successfully promote students’ self-control, relationship building and problem solving, among other SEL skills. They also improve academic performance, according to a review of more than 200 separate child development studies.

“It’s really a ‘two-fer’,” says Dr. Roger Weissberg, CASEL’s President and CEO, and a professor of psychology and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If you address kids’ social and emotional growth, you’ll also be benefitting them academically.” 
In my experience, the equivalent term is “force multiplier.” If we first teach our children—both at home and at school—how to be good, honest and compassionate people, then the benefits can be exponential. Remove, or at least reduce, the social and emotional barriers to their character development and their academic potential can truly be limitless.


Please note: SEL expert Maurice Elias will be a keynote speaker at CEP’s upcoming National Forum on Character Education. The conference will also feature a Safety Summit focusing on ways to keep students physically and emotionally safe.