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Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Rutgers in New Brunswick, New Jersey, Director of Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, a recipient of lifetime achievement awards from CASEL and Character.org, and is on the Leadership Teams of SEL4US and SEL4NJ.
Today, March 10, 2023, is international Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Day. SEL Day is intended to have everyone join in actively promoting our most important common ground, the well-being of our children– ALL of our children. Schools and community groups and organizations are encouraged to engage in activities that day (and the preceding and following days, of course) that encourage children’s empathy and compassion for others in and out of school, problem solving to make their schools and communities better, and affirm a moral compass pointing toward kindness, support, and caring.
New Jersey is particularly actively involved in this effort through SEL4NJ.org and it is supported by the New Jersey Education Association, New Jersey Principles and Supervisors Association, New Jersey School Boards Association, our Department of Education, and many other educational groups. We expect proclamations to be issued from the Governor and the State Board of Education is issuing a supportive resolution and the Governor’s office has been asked to issue a proclamation (as it did for last year’s SEL Day).
The theme this year is Uplifting Hearts, Connecting Minds. With many studies documenting an increase in mental health difficulties among our students, and high levels of stress in our educators, it’s essential for our schools to be places where well-being can be nurtured and everyone can find some respite from the challenges of the world outside the school doors. Uplifting Hearts means celebrating our strengths and accomplishment; Connecting Minds means recognizing that we each do better when we all work together, and that solving the problems in our schools and communities will be more effective as we bring in more diverse ideas.
Examples from Our Schools
New Jersey schools are engaged in many activities to help improve our students’ abilities to handle the tests of life, and not just a life of academic testing.
Fourth graders at Tinc Road Elementary School in Mount Olive, Becca Hopler asked her fourth grade students to read the book, Where Oliver Fits, by Cale Atkinson. It tells the story of a small puzzle piece named Oliver who dreams of being part of a larger, more important puzzle. As he begins his journey to find a place to fit in, Oliver has to deal with rejection from other puzzle pieces. To fit in, he changes his color and shape so that he can fit in with the other puzzle pieces. As you might guess, by the end of the story, he realizes that pretending to be someone else to please others is not the way to succeed.
Teachers like Becca Hopler help uplift students’ hearts by having them reflect on their strengths through writing activities and creating their own unique puzzle pieces. To help connect minds, the puzzle pieces can then be put together in groups and for the entire class, filling in what is needed to create a coherent whole.
Activities like this build students’ skills in cooperation, reflection, problem solving, taking turns, listening, perspective taking, and more, all within the structure of a language arts lesson. SEL Day hopes to highlight for all educators how adding social-emotional development to existing lesson plans can lead to greater engagement by students, and deeper learning of the lesson’s lessons!
Physical education classes in a number of schools have students set short and long term goals for themselves, for a marking period as well as for the school year, around the PE areas being emphasized in a particular grade. Setting goals helps students focus their efforts and develop skills of perseverance and determination as they are learn how to overcome obstacles to reaching goals that they have set. When done at its best, students work together to help one-another set and reach goals and hurdle barriers.
Make Every Day SEL Day
At the web sites of SEL Day, SEL4NJ.org, or the New Jersey Alliance for Social, Emotional, and Character Development, you can find many examples of what schools in New Jersey are doing to promote the growth of the whole child, for all children in our schools. There are ideas for parents, as well. SEL Day is a time to celebrate these accomplishments, but not to rest on our laurels. Giving our students the academic, social, emotional, character, and civic skills to meet the challenges of the future is the task of educators, parents, and the community as partners. SEL Day is not meant to be a one-off. It’s a catalyst for ongoing work. And it starts with ensuring our schools are the caring and supportive places where everyone—kids and staff– can thrive.