Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

Emotional Intelligence



Are People Looking Scary to You Lately? (A Story to Allay Children’s Fears)

by Susan Colacello

Halloween is a fun time.  We get to dress up as our favorite character, put on costumes and sometimes even wear masks.  Sometimes those masks are meant to be scary, to make us look like a werewolf or monster. 

But, it’s not Halloween and there are lots of scary masks and costumes all around.  What’s going on? 

We all know that a serious virus called COVID-19 is making lots of people sick all over the world.  The thing that makes COVID-19 extra bad, is that it is very easy to give it to other people, even when you don’t know it.  So, people wear these masks to keep themselves safe. 

Right now, we are seeing a lot of masks, everywhere, and they are not Halloween masks. Should I be afraid of them?
No, not at all! These masks are here to help you and keep you from getting sick?

They help keep the people who take care of you in the hospital from getting sick too.
Masks may look scary at first, but they aren’t when you know they are helping you.

Let’s learn more about the strange things people are wearing to keep themselves safe and well.
This stuff is called PPE, Personal Protective Equipment. 

A picture like this can look pretty scary, right? Like astronauts or aliens.
But these people are doctors and nurses that are wearing medical clothing to keep them from getting sick and from getting you sick.
What PPE are these doctors are wearing?

• Masks– to keep them from breathing in and breathing out germs.

• Gloves – to keep them from getting germs on their hands that a patient may have on their body or may be on a surface.

• Goggles– to protect their eyes from germs. Germs enter your body through your eyes, nose and mouth.

• Suits– think of an astronaut suit! These protect the doctor from germs from head to toe.

If you get scared when you see a mask, think of how they are keeping you from germs that can get you sick.
Think about way masks can be fun. Like Halloween and even your favorite characters!

So next time you see someone on the street or on TV wearing a mask or PPE you do not have to be afraid, they are just trying to keep us all safe.

Susan Colacello, Director of School and Youth Engagement, Unified Champion Schools, Special Olympics New Jersey



Positive Emotions in the Classroom: Tips for Boosting Curiosity, Hope, and Belonging

By Christa M. Tinari, M.A., coauthor of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying

Have you heard that feelings are contagious? This is true in the classroom, as well as in other social contexts, due to our brain chemistry and the physical changes that happen in our bodies when we experience emotions. Positive emotions decrease the stress hormone cortisol and increase feel-good chemical messengers in the brain (such as dopamine and serotonin), helping students feel physically and emotionally safe. This boosts feelings of safety and trust, which helps students build better bonds with those around them. When students feel good, positive actions follow, creating better social relationships. And stronger relationships lead to better learning.

Still, some may argue that spending time on boosting positive emotions in the classroom steals time away from academic tasks. Yet if students are experiencing strong negative emotions, learning is compromised. Students’ attention is focused elsewhere, and their emotional dysregulation may even lead to social conflicts or personal meltdowns. These situations require immediate teacher attention, disrupting class time and causing emotional stress to classmates.

Ultimately, when teachers and students have so much to gain and nothing to lose, there is good reason to focus on increasing positive emotions in the classroom. To get started, try these strategies to boost curiosity, hope, and belonging.


Curiosity, the desire to learn or know something new, is a natural quality that all humans possess. Before language is learned, babies are driven to understand their environment by exploring their surroundings through their senses. Studies show that once children begin to speak fluently, they will typically ask somewhere between 70 and 300 questions a day! So, how can we encourage our students’ innate sense of curiosity, which is such a powerful driver for learning?

Ask good questions.

What makes a question good? Good questions cannot be answered by a simple yes-or-no response. One of my favorite strategies is to use I wonder as a sentence starter, followed by ifwhy, or how. Wondering can be used in many contexts, such as during read-alouds, text exploration, and pair-shares. Try using pictures to introduce new content, prompting students to craft their own I wonder questions. These can be used to create a bulletin board to guide your subject inquiry. Or, pass an object around the room, having students focus their wondering on it, and follow up with story writing. This strategy develops creative and scientific thinking and piques curiosity. It’s also naturally fun!

Connect with students’ interests.

Provide time for students to research and plan their own passion projects. There is plenty of opportunity for students to focus on a hobby or passion while applying their emerging skills. For example, if your students are working on percentages in math and citing sources in English, you can build in requirements for them to include these skills in a project on Minecraft (or any other interest).

Don’t jump to conclusions.

When students experience problems, don’t blame, but instead get curious. Teach your students to be detectives who investigate problems rather than jump to quick conclusions based on (potentially) incorrect assumptions. You can use the I wonder technique again here. For example, when meeting with a student about missed assignments, ask, “I wonder what’s been getting in the way of you completing the work?” Using an investigative approach brings empathy, open-mindedness, and cooperation to tough situations.


Hope is defined as experiencing a positive expectation or aspiration about the future. A hopeful child happily anticipates the future. But students can lose their sense of hope, fearing that they are not good or deserving enough to succeed, but rather are doomed to fail. Students may feel that people are “against them,” causing them to be defensive and suspicious of others’ motives. On the other hand, students with a high amount of hope believe that others are there to help. Hopeful students set goals, create plans to reach those goals, and are able to persevere despite setbacks. Try these strategies to inspire hope!

Focus on strengths.

We must not get caught up in the deficit model of education which looks for what’s lacking in students. Rather, we should be able to identify multiple strengths in each of our students and help them uncover and recognize strengths within themselves. Do an internet search for “multiple intelligences” to find lists of the skill sets in each of the intelligence areas to help your students expand their thinking about what it means to be “intelligent.” Provide weekly reflection prompts, such as, “A strength or intelligence I used this week is _________,” “A strength I discovered this week is _________,” and “A strength I’m developing is _________.”

Positive Emotions in the Classroom: Tips for Boosting Curiosity, Hope, and BelongingTeach positive self-talk.

Unfortunately, many of our students have a negative script running through their minds: I suck. No one likes me. I’m no good at this. These kinds of thoughts contribute to feelings of hopelessness that compromise children’s motivation. To help students develop a new internal language, provide them with examples of positive self-talk, and have them generate their own examples. Make positive self-talk visible in the classroom through posters, collages, and reminders on brightly colored index cards. Add the word yet to students’ negative statements: I can’t do this . . . yet! Fostering a growth mindset reminds students that challenges are normal and change is possible.


Belonging refers to having a fond feeling toward one’s group or place and to feeling that one is accepted, respected, welcomed, and included there. Belonging is a well-researched concept in the youth development field, since it has been associated with better academic and health outcomes for students who experience it. A sense of social isolation or alienation, on the other hand, is a risk factor for negative behaviors, including substance abuse, self-harm, and, potentially, aggression toward others. Due to the many social dynamics at play in society and at school, some students have a higher sense of belonging than others do. Thankfully, there is much you can do to increase opportunities for belonging!

Greet every student.

Establish a daily greeting ritual that ensures every child is welcomed into the classroom. A 2018 study found that implementing a greeting ritual increased student engagement and decreased disruptions. I’m a fan of the “choose your greeting” posters that contain images of the options: fist bump, wave, high five, smile, dance, or hug. Students can simply point to the greeting they would like to give to and receive from you on their way into the classroom. Have students greet one another as well, practicing their social skills as they do so. Be sure to review expectations regarding safety, respect, and consent when inviting students to participate in greetings that include physical contact (even handshakes).

Sync up with sound.

Music and rhythm bring us together, because they actually sync up our heartbeats and breathing patterns. You may already use a clapping rhythm to get your class’s attention. Clapping in unison—try speeding up and slowing down or doing a call-and-response pattern—provides a sense of cooperation. Singing a song chosen by students to represent your class provides a sense of unity. Experiment with creating new words to familiar tunes. Play music or lead a call-and-response chant to facilitate transitions between activities or to make cleanup more fun.

Share admiration and appreciation.

It feels good to be noticed and appreciated. Facilitate a closing circle at the end of the week during which one student (voluntarily) sits in the appreciation chair while other classmates consider something they admire, appreciate, or want to thank that student for. Give students think time so that everyone will have something to share. If you have a large class or feel that sharing might be difficult, invite comments from five to six students. After each admiration or appreciation, the student in the chair responds “thank you.” Receiving honest appreciation from peers increases students’ sense of acceptance and belonging within the classroom.

A final word of advice: Remember to be proactive about cultivating your own positive mood. Your mood might be the number one influence on your students’ moods in the classroom. Once you start focusing on positive emotions, you will experience the ways in which positive vibes can transform your day. Students will be more focused, patient, and cooperative. Your students will form closer bonds to you and to their peers. Learning will become joyful again!

Author Christa TinariChrista M. Tinari, M.A., is a bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, and school climate specialist. She speaks at educational conferences and provides training and consulting to schools across the country. Visit to learn more about her work.




by Ed DeRoche, Director, Character Education Resource Center, University of San Diego. 

The 90th annual MLB All-Star Game was played on July 9th at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio. The American League won the game for the seventh straight year. Players are selected based on their SKILLS by three groups—fan voting, player voting, and the Commissioner’s office.

In schools and classrooms, we call it the SKILLS GAME taught by All-Star Teachers at all grade levels. The “fan voting” includes parents and students. “Player voting” includes teachers and staff. The “commissioner’s” selections are from school and district administrators.

What might you find on a SKILLS SCORECARD?

On one of the older cards, you will find Bloom’s Taxonomy—the “go to game” for thinking skills a few decades ago.

Many of you will remember the SCANS Scorecard, highlighting the need for employee skills in three general areas:
1) basic skills (reading, writing, math, listening, speaking);
2) thinking skills (thinking creatively, making decisions, solving problems, reasoning); and
3) personal qualities such as responsibility, self-esteem, sociability, self- management, and honesty.

You may have seen the Business World’s Scorecard where people are talking and writing about “soft skills.”
Like it or not, emotions are an intrinsic part of our biological makeup, and every morning they march into the office (and our schools and classrooms) with us and influence our behavior. Executives are starting to talk about the importance of such things as trust, confidence, empathy, adaptability and self-control.”
Shari Caudron, “The Hard Case for Soft Skills”

Currently we have the 21st-Century Skills Scorecard that includes:
• Ways of Thinking (creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and learning);
• Ways of Working (communication and collaboration);
• Tools for Working (communications technology and information literacy); and,
• Skills for Living (citizenship, life and career, and personal and social responsibility).

Two skills that cut across all four categories are “collaborative problem solving” and “learning in digital networks.”

The Fortune 500 Companies Scorecard identifies five top qualities these companies seek in employees:
• Teamwork,
• Problem solving
• Interpersonal skills
• Oral communication
• Listening

Another Scorecard offered by the Pew Research Center showed that adults identified several essential skills that were most important for children and youth to learn “to get ahead in the world today.” These included communication skills as the most important, followed by reading, math, teamwork, writing and logic.

There are two other very essential Skills Scorecards. One is on the topic of Emotional Intelligence (ET) and the other is a scorecard that describes Social Intelligence (SI).

You know well the All Star for Emotional Intelligence. Psychologist Daniel Goleman hit a couple of “homeruns” with his books Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, and Working with Emotional Intelligence. His scorecard included such skills as self-confidence, self-awareness, self- control, commitment and integrity.

In discussing emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman cites Peter Salovey, a Yale professor who categorized components of emotional and social skills into five areas:
• Knowing one’s emotions
• Managing emotions
• Motivating oneself
• Recognizing emotions in others
• Handling relationships

The scorecard for Social Intelligence is also revealing and relevant.
Social intelligence [social skills] is as important as IQ when it comes to happiness, health, and success. Empathetic people are less likely to experience anxiety, depression, and addictions later in life. They are also more likely to be hired, promoted, earn more money, and have happier marriages and better-adjusted children.
Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., Board-Certified Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychologist

If we increase social skills, we see commensurate increases in academic learning. That doesn’t mean that social skills (including cooperation and self-control) make you smarter; it means that these skills make you more amenable to learning.
Stephen Elliott, Vanderbilt Peabody Education and Psychology Researcher and co-author of the newly published The Social Skills Improvement System.

Lastly, there is the Ten Skills Scorecard from the work of Stephen Elliott and Frank Gresham who surveyed over 8,000 teachers and examined 20 years of research in classrooms across the country. They identified these top 10 skills that students need to succeed:
• Listen to others
• Follow the steps
• Follow the rules
• Ignore distractions
• Ask for help
• Take turns when you talk
• Get along with others
• Stay calm with others
• Be responsible for your behavior
• Do nice things for others
“Top 10 Social Skills Students Need to Succeed,” Research News
at Vanderbilt University, 9-27-2007

Does this sound like the “skills-game“ teachers are now playing in schools and classrooms? If so, then give these teachers your vote and be sure they are rewarded for being an ALL-STAR.

Ed DeRoche, Director, Character Education Resource Center, University of San Diego. BLOG, July 2019



Improving Self-Control: Short-Term Actions Improve Long-Term Outcomes

by Tara Laughlin, Ed.D., Director of Curriculum & Education Training at PAIRIN

Imagine this: You’re sitting in a room, and a hot, delicious-looking slice of your favorite pizza is placed right in front of you. You’re told that you can eat it now, or if you’re able to resist for fifteen minutes, you’ll be given a second slice. Would you be able to resist the temptation in order to earn twice the reward?

What if it was money? You could have $1,000 now, or $2,000 a year from now? What would you do in that scenario?

This was the premise of the famous Marshmallow Experiment conducted at Stanford University by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. The experiment essentially tested the self-control of children ages 4-6, and found that those children able to resist one marshmallow, earning a second, generally ended up more successful later in life.


Research has shown there are many benefits to possessing higher self-control, such as:
● Sleeping better
● Getting sick less often
● Helping others more often
● Having less anxiety and depression
● Earning more money
● Remaining happier
● Living longer


Here’s some good news: Having lower self-control is not a life sentence. Self-control, defined as the ability to recognize and regulate your own emotions and behaviors, is a skill that can be improved with intentional practice.

Strategies for improving self-control generally fall into three categories:

1) Situational
2) Mental
3) Emotional

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these three categories.


The first set of strategies you can use to improve your self-control fall into the category of ‘situational strategies’. These are strategies used in specific situations.

Situational Self-Control Strategy 01: Identify Problem Situations
First, identify one or more situations where your self-control is consistently weak. For example, you might say, “My self-control is weak when I look at my phone while driving.”

Situational Self-Control Strategy 02: Choose Positive Situations
Once you’ve identified your problem situations, be proactive and make decisions to “stay away” from those situations. For example, if your self-control is weak when it comes to your phone, keep it in your bag while driving.

Situational Self-Control Strategy 03: Modify Problem Situations
If you can’t avoid the problem situations you identified, work to change your environment so you’re more likely to manage yourself well in those situations. For example, if you need your phone while driving, you might say, “Since I need to use my GPS, I’ll set my phone so incoming texts won’t come through while I’m driving.”


Another set of self-control strategies are in the category of ‘mental strategies’. These are self-control strategies used in your mind.

Mental Self-Control Strategy 01: Visualization
Visualize yourself making a good choice, in detail, and picture the positive outcomes that could result from this good choice. For example, to resist giving up on a complex project, you might visualize yourself completing it, presenting it to your boss, and getting positive feedback.

Mental Self-Control Strategy 02: Self-Talk
This strategy involves mentally giving yourself a little pep talk towards making a good choice. This might sound something like, “You can get through this,” or “It’s not that big of a deal – I can let this go.”

Mental Self-Control Strategy 03: Focus Elsewhere
To use this strategy, shift your attention to something less distracting or tempting. To avoid eating unhealthy foods, for example, you might shift your focus to watching a movie or cleaning your room.

Mental Self-Control Strategy 04: Change the Reality
This strategy involves thinking about a situation oppositely. For instance, if you’re tempted to quit your job to have more free time, you might instead think about how your job gives you spending money which makes your free time more enjoyable.


The third set of strategies you can use to improve your self-control fall under the category of ‘emotional strategies’, which as the name implies, are strategies used with your emotions.

Emotional Self-Control Strategy 01: Flip the Reaction
To flip your reaction, consider the negative emotions you’ll feel if you make a poor decision, and consider the positive emotions you’ll feel when you make a good one. Then, flip your reaction to get those positive emotions.

Emotional Self-Control Strategy 02: Pause
Pause a situation by leaving the room, asking to be excused or saying you need a few minutes. Once you’ve done this, think the situation through and, if possible, talk it out with someone you trust.


So, there you are, staring down that mouth-wateringly delicious slice of pizza. Or stretching out your hand to take that $1,000. What will you do? Which of these strategies will you employ to hold yourself back, delay gratification, and come out with a greater reward on the other side?

(For more information on strategies to improve social and emotional skills, visit to learn about our SEL curriculum.)



Reputation, Relationships, and Responsibility

by Ed DeRoche, Director, Character Education Resource Center, SOLES


I know. I’m lazy. But I made myself a New Years resolution that I would write myself something really special. Which means I have ’til December, right?
– Catherine O’Hara

It happens daily—the references to “character.” We read about it, we hear about it, we even practice it (at least most of us do).

The most frequently asked question: “What is character?” A quick answer: Character is who you are when no one is looking—or, these days, when everyone is looking (see tweeting).

I decided to frame my answer to the question around specific character strengths as I did in my November blog (gratitude) and December blog (emotions, empathy, and engagement).

My purpose is to encourage you and others (students, colleagues, parents) to think about, to talk about, to ask the “why and how” questions about learning, teaching, and practicing the “strengths” that support good, positive character behaviors.

For this blog I have selected three character strengths—Reputation, Relationships, and Responsibility.


One cannot answer the character question better than William Hersey Davis has. (Positive Thoughts, 25 Sep 2016)
Bolded words are mine.

• Reputation is what you are supposed to be; character is what you are.
• The circumstances amid which you live determine your reputation; the truth you believe determines your character.
• Reputation is the photograph; character is the face.
• Reputation comes over one from without; character grows up from within.
• Reputation is what you have when you come to a new community; character is what you have when you go away.
• Your reputation is learned in an hour; your character does not come to light for a year.
• Reputation is made in a moment; character is built in a lifetime.
• Reputation grows like a mushroom; character grows like the oak.
• A single newspaper report gives you your reputation; a life of toil gives you your character.
• Reputation makes you rich or makes you poor; character makes you happy or makes you miserable.
• Reputation is what people say about you on your tombstone; character is what angels say about you before the throne of God.


Character Development is a relational process. Character is a construct that links the person positively to his or her social world. Relationships are the foundation of character.
– Tuft’s Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development

Research clearly reveals that few factors in K-12 education have a greater impact on students’ educational experiences than a caring relationship with teachers. James Comer, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University, notes that, “No significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

We know that positive relationships can help reduce the negative effects of stress and boost one’s self-esteem. In classrooms, we know that it starts with the teacher taking time to build trust with each student. We know that trust has to be a joint responsibility between a teacher and his/her students. Teachers tell us that we need to pay more attention to the “relationship factor” because strong relationships help reduce behavior issues, improve classroom climate, enhance student attitudes and attention, and contribute to student achievement.

John Maxwell invites us to “Relationships 101” and the six most important “relationship” words. He notes that the least important word is “I.”
• The most important word: WE
• The two most important words: THANK YOU
• The three most important words: ALL IS FORGIVEN.
• The four most important words: WHAT IS YOUR OPINION?
• The five most important words: YOU DID A GOOD JOB.
• The six most important words: I WANT TO UNDERSTAND YOU BETTER.

Post this on your bulletin board and your refrigerator.


Responsibility is knowing and doing what is expected of a person; that is, doing what is right, being dependable, and fulfilling what one agrees to do even is if it means “unexpected sacrifice.”

The word “character” has two Cs in it; one stands for “choices” and the other for “consequences.” Living a life of good character doesn’t happen by chance, nor does it happen by circumstance. It happens by the choices one makes.

Our job as teachers and parents is to help young people learn to make good, positive, ethical choices and learn to take responsibility (a virtue) for their actions; to be willing to accept the negative consequences of their actions/behaviors and to do something about them—being responsible.

Sir Josiah Stamp writes:
“It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.”

Joan Didion, American journalist, notes that:
“Character is the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – it is the source from which self-respect springs.”

And Denis Waitley, speaker/writer:
“The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.”

Ed DeRoche, Director, Character Education Resource Center, SOLES
January 2019 Blog



All About Character

by Edward DeRoche,  Character Education Resource Center Director, University of San Diego

Politicians, the press, the public, and most educators are excited about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM), and, of course, the ever present thrust for more testing.

Most of us know that knowledge keeps no better than fish—use it or lose it. But the one thing that we carry with us for a lifetime is our “character.”

Recent polls of public attitudes toward schools show that Americans want schools to prepare the young to be academically competent, and career ready. But they want more.

The public is urging educators and others to help children and youth develop character strengths such as kindness, gratitude, self-control, social skills, teamwork, diligence, perseverance, strong work ethic, positive attitudes, ingenuity, integrity, justice, caring, respect, and responsibility—all of which are learned.

What do we know about character? We know that:

– Character is learned—taught to the young by the entertainment industry, the media, the Internet, the environment they live in, their peers and role models, and hopefully by parents, teachers, schools, youth agencies, and religious institutions.

– Character is about strengths and virtues that guide an individual “to act in an ethical, pro-social manner.”

– Character is about choices—the ones we make daily (good or bad, ethical or unethical). It is about decision-making—the circumstances, the risks, the chances, the consequences, and the rewards.

– Character is about relationships and social skills—skills such as sharing, participating, following directions, and listening. It is learning how to be a friend, how to care for others, how to appreciate others, how to be polite, respectful, courteous, and how to resolve conflicts peacefully.

– Character is about “emotional” self-discipline.

– Character is who you are when no one is looking, or when everyone is looking.


What, then, is character education?

Let’s use the U.S Department of Education’s definition:

Character education is a learning process that enables students and adults in a school community to understand, care about and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship, and responsibility for self and others.

In schools, character education must be approached comprehensively to include the emotional, intellectual and moral qualities of a person or group. It must offer multiple opportunities for students to learn about, discuss and enact positive social behaviors. Student leadership and involvement are essential for character education to become a part of a student’s beliefs and actions.

The most frequently asked question—the one I get most from educators and parents—what’s the payoff?

One, a commitment to making character education an integral part of the education process will increase students’ academic achievement. For example, among middle-school students, the character strengths of perseverance, love, gratitude, hope, and perspective, predict academic achievement.

Two, character education in schools has a broad impact on students’ pro-social and moral behaviors by developing their problem-solving skills, building positive peer relationships, enhancing their self- esteem, improving their interpersonal skills, and strengthening their ability at self-regulation (control).

A third “pay-off”—an effective character education program shows that the school will become a more caring community, that discipline referrals will drop, that quality of peer and adult relationships will improve, and that students’ will make a greater commitment to schooling and academic achievement.

Professors Tom Hierck and Kent Peterson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) found that there are 19 student and staff behaviors that contribute to a positive school climate.

– Showing pride in school

– Collaboration

– Kindness

– Taking pride in one’s work

– Leadership

– Helping others

– Using time wisely

– Being prepared

– Love of learning

– Making good choices

– Active listening

– Cooperation

– Using appropriate communication

– Caring

– Self-reliance

– Perseverance/resilience

– Making an insightful comment

– Organization

– Going above and beyond


Take note of how many of these behaviors are character-related!




SEL, Sports, and Character

by Maurice Elias, Co-Director, SEL Academy

We are in a contest with the larger forces in society, to determine whether our students will grow up to be confident, competent, capable, and of good character.  SEL is a key part of this contest.  Will your schools win, or not?

Maya Moore, forward for the WNBA team, the Minnesota Lynx, was named Sports Performer of the Year for 2017 by Sports Illustrated.  Here is what she says about winning:

 “I think it takes different types of winners to maintain a winning culture.

You have to have some winners who know how to win people, to [keep] people together with vision and perspective. Then you have to have toughness and resiliency because sustained excellence is way harder than it looks. You have to be able to bounce back and deal with disappointment, failure and weaknesses, and a lot of that happens behind the scenes for teams that are very successful.

I think a winner has to be a master of preparation, they have to be a master of connection, extremely competitive and have really high standards for themselves and the people around them. They have to be willing to put in that emotional energy to hold each other accountable. They have to have a lot of passion—sustained excellence takes conviction and passion and focus. When you are dealing with a team sport, you also have to be willing to adapt and be flexible.

“Hopefully, that is a pretty reasonable definition.”

SEL—and the successful education of our children—is a team sport.  Are you going to play to win, to ensure our children will be successful?

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology
Rutgers University





Simple Tips for a Kinder Middle School Culture

By Naomi Drew, M.A., and Christa M. Tinari, M.A

(Originally posted on the Free Spirit Publishing blog, posted March 13, 2017)

Kids thrive in an atmosphere of kindness. They blossom, do better in school, and feel safer when surrounded by kindness.

That said, middle schoolers can be sarcastic and just plain mean to one another. This was corroborated by a national survey we conducted with over 1,000 middle school students: 81 percent said they heard kids saying mean things to one another every single day. An eighth-grade teacher we interviewed concurred. “My kids are constantly putting each other down.” The raw truth is that gossiping, exclusion, and unkindness can be as much a part of the middle school culture as puberty and mood swings.

So what can we do?

Lots! The first thing is to remember that any investment of time you make to create a kinder, more accepting culture in your school will yield rewards far greater than just having students treat one another better. According to the America Institutes for Research,  “Positive school climate is tied to high or improving attendance rates, test scores, promotion rates, and graduation rates.” And who doesn’t want that?

The truth is we actually can teach kids to be kinder. Maurice Elias, director of the Social-Emotional Learning Lab at Rutgers University, eloquently reminds us: “Kindness can be taught, and it is a defining aspect of civilized human life. It belongs in every home, school, neighborhood, and society.”

To this we say, “Yes!” And to help you get started, or move ahead even further in fostering kindness, here are three concrete things you can do right now:

  1. Model, teach, and expect acceptance, empathy, and kindness.
    Modeling and expecting kindness is critical. Kids watch us for clues as to how to behave. Even though middle schoolers are pretty peer-obsessed, our actions and attitudes hold more weight with them than we realize. Modeling kindness is key. Equally important is expecting kindness from your kids. Never let cruel behavior go unchecked. Each time we do, we normalize meanness.  A great example of promoting acceptance, kindness, and empathy is the true story of Coach Biff Poggi of Gillman High School in Baltimore, Maryland. Poggi prized kindness and empathy over all else. The character expectations he set for his football team far exceeded his expectations for prowess on the field. Poggi’s hard and fast rule was “Empathy and kindness for all.” See if you can be as steadfast as Coach Poggi in your commitment to empathy, kindness, and acceptance among your students.
  1. Help your kids see cliques and social groups through a lens of kindness.
    Peer acceptance is more important than ever in middle school. Tightly knit groups form quickly at this stage, and some kids relish the social power of being in the “in-crowd.” Others struggle to fit in, and being excluded chips away at their self-esteem. Kindness can fall by the wayside when kids become more focused on popularity than on respecting their peers.  Social groups based on common interests can provide kids with a sense of safety, purpose, and belonging. Cliques, on the other hand, can also provide these—but at a cost. Cliques are exclusive, and kids in them often discourage members from expressing individuality. They create unhealthy peer pressure for kids to fit in. More powerful members of cliques tend to mistreat less powerful members, who often put up with bad behavior just to stay in the group. Even more problematic is the use of collective power to ignore, tease, or bully others. Ultimately, cliques chip away at the possibility of a culture of kindness.  Your kids might not be aware of the advantage of forming inclusive social groups based on common interests rather than cliques. Understanding the negative impacts of cliques will also help your kids make better choices about which group to align with. Take a look at the following activity. Discuss it with your kids and help them see the benefits of opting for social groups and avoiding cliques.

Activity: Exploring Social Groups and Cliques. 

Think of a social group you belong to. This group must include one person in addition to yourself. It could be a group of friends you spend time with socially, friends from your sports team, kids in band or chess club, and so forth. Once you have thought of a social group, read the characteristics below. Circle the characteristics that describe your social group.

People in my group:

  1. Share similar interests
  2. Place a high value on popularity
  3. Support one another
  4. Are kind to people within the group and outside of it
  5. Are encouraged to act the same as other members of the group
  6. Exclude other students
  7. May feel pressured to do certain things to fit in with the group
  8. Are given the freedom to be themselves
  9. Make fun of, or look down on, students not in the group
  10. Are members of several groups

Discussion Questions

  • Which of the above characteristics seem positive to you?
  • Which could have a negative impact on students in the group?
  • Which could have a negative impact on students who are not part of the group?

Think About It
If your group includes more negative characteristics than positive ones, it might be a clique. A clique is a social group of students who may exclude, tease, or bully other students.

Choose Kindness Over Cliques
What are some actions you can take to ensure that you and your social group are kind, inclusive, and respectful of other students in your social group and students not in your social group?

  1. Teach kindness—literally.
    You can plant seeds of kindness in your classroom every time you talk about its importance and model it through your behaviors and attitudes. Help your students understand the basic human need all people have for being treated with acceptance, respect, and empathy—the fundamentals of kindness.  Here’s something else to remember: Just as kindness spreads, so can cruelty and callousness.  A Harvard Study of 10,000 middle school and high school students reported that 80 percent of students were more concerned about their own success and happiness than they were about others’. The report states something all of us have seen: “When caring takes a back seat, youth are at risk for being cruel, disrespectful, and dishonest.”  On the other hand, when enough kids treat each other with kindness and respect, others are likely to follow. This happens because of “mirror neurons” in the brain that prompt people to unconsciously mimic others’ behaviors. According to neuroscience researchers Souvra Acharya and Smarth Shukla, mirror neurons are activated when we observe the actions of the people around us. This helps explain why kids learn through imitation. We have to fill our classrooms and hallways with enough empathy, kindness, and respect to motivate every student toward kindness and away from cruelty.

One final thought: When you wonder how you can fit one more thing into your day, please remember that your efforts will touch your students’ lives in fundamental ways. Remember, too, that in this changing world, any infusion of kindness is both necessary and valuable.

Naomi Drew and Christa Tinari are coauthors of Create a Culture of Kindness in Middle School: 48 Character-Building Lessons to Foster Respect and Prevent Bullying.




Buying on line.

Tweens/Teens and Technology: What You Need to Know What You Need to Do

by Michelle McCoy Barrett, Ph.D., College of Saint Elizabeth, Associate Professor and Director, Psy.D. in Counseling Psychology, Licensed Psychologist

Technology has made our lives easier, more efficient, and even more enjoyable. Socially, a new world has opened up allowing many to connect in ways that are no longer dependent on proximity. With all of these benefits, there comes a growing number of concerns, particularly for tweens/teens of Generation Z, the “Always on Generation” (born 2001-present).

Lack of Connection and Relatedness

Communication, although more frequent, can lack genuine meaning and connection when done primarily through text or social media outlets. Today’s tweens/tees may be less equipped to understand social cues and may hide behind technology to avoid genuine and meaningful interactions. Texting as a primary mode of communication lacks face-to-face interaction. How often are text messages misinterpreted because of a lack of eye-contact, tone of voice, and body language?

Can’t unplug or Disconnect

Many parents and educators worry about the amount of time tweens/teens spend online and on their phones. Some of the strongest research suggests that our sleep is being affected by technology, specifically cell phone use at nighttime. Phone notifications being on at night affects our sleep and this is especially problematic for tweens/teens. Concerns exist about attention spans, multi-screening, and the constant need to find out what others are doing, known as “Fear of Missing Out” (FOMO).

Consequences of Bad Decisions

Perhaps the most frightening concern has to do with the consequences of what kids put out there (e.g., hurtful words, inappropriate images). Emotional regulation and impulse control take on new meaning when one considers how quickly and widely messages can be broadcast. Developmentally, this age group struggles with things like planning, thinking ahead, and making good decisions. It can be a disastrous combination for this group to have instant access to an audience. In addition, there is often the false belief that once something is deleted, it disappears. Teens/tweens need to know that once something is out there, it stays out there!

Today’s parents have an additional job as soon as they allow their kids to enter the world of technology/social media. Often the issue of privacy is raised, however it’s crucial remember that what tweens/teens are doing online is PUBLIC. A diary is private, while a text or post is public. The time to set up monitoring is sooner rather than later, as it’s easier to set up rules with a 12-year-old versus a 16-year-old.

Social Emotional Learning

Given what today’s tweens/teens are facing, there is an increased need to focus on social and emotional learning in schools and at home. Developing an awareness of one’s own emotional state is crucial for healthy development and building relationships. This awareness also serves as the building blocks for understanding other people’s emotional states. With a decrease in face to face communication and an increase in electronic communication, there are fewer opportunities to develop that understanding of others and more room to make errors. Because texting has become the primary mode of communication for tweens/teens that have a phone, this generation may be lacking in social awareness and understanding and the need for these skills to be intentionally discussed and taught is tremendous.


  1. Charge phones at night in a charging station, not in a tween/teens’ bedroom.
  2. Model unplugging as parents.
  3. Be familiar with the types of technology that your kids use.
  4. Know passwords and monitor communications. Start off with this understanding.
  5. Discuss what you see. Mistakes will happen and can be important conversations; the key is to catch these early.


Weiss, R., Schneider, J. (2014). Closer together, further apart: The effect of technology and the internet on parenting, work, and relationships. Gentle Path Press: Arizona.

Weir, K., (2017). Disconnected. Monitor on Psychology, Vol 48, No. 3, APA: Washington DC.




Preventing Microaggressions: Creating a Safe Space to Discuss Race in the Classroom

By Chloe G. Bland, Ph.D., Chair, Psychology Department, Assistant Professor, College of Saint Elizabeth, Morristown, NJ

As white educator, my first and central responsibility is to become aware of the myriad power dynamics that exist in my classroom because any lack of awareness of my power, my privilege, and our shared cultural norms makes it very likely that I will perpetrate a microaggression as I interact with my students.

Therefore, I heighten my own awareness of where I personally fit in the system of power and privilege. As a faculty member, I always have power and privilege. Add to that white privilege and my own history of ignorance about race. It is incumbent upon me to use my power and privilege to support, validate, and legitimize discussion of race in the classroom. Otherwise I am in grave danger of creating a hostile environment for my students.

I find it important to keep up to date on strategies that work to reduce my own perpetration of microaggressions in the classroom. Sue, Lin, Torino, Capodilupo, & Rivera, (2009) suggest letting your students know that discussing race is okay by actively creating a safe space at the very beginning of the year. For example, this can be accomplished with activities where students get to bring a part of themselves to class and share it with the group.

The Artifact Game

I have used multiple variations on this theme. However, my favorite activity is the artifact game. I first learned this activity from Elizabeth Williams-Riley and Bari Katz at the Common Ground Institute sponsored by the American Conference on Diversity in January, 2016. Each student brings in an artifact—defined as some specific, tangible object but nothing more detailed than that so as not to influence students’ choices- that is representative of who they are, broadly construed. Everyone gets a chance to share their artifact and why it is important to them. The magic of this exercise is that it instantly exposes our complex identities. We often think we know our students, and our students often think they know their peers. Yet, there is always so much more beneath the surface.

Once we become familiar with each other’s nuanced identities, there is a palpable shift toward a kinder and more respectful classroom climate. I developed and teach a class called, The Psychology of Racism, where I do this exercise in the beginning of the semester, before we delve into the sensitive topic of racism. The atmosphere instantly changes. For example, I have had students from vastly different backgrounds and cultures begin to identify with each other. The personal stories that emerge from this exercise bring students closer and open a space for more difficult and deeper conversations.

Validating Feelings

Another important piece in creating an atmosphere that is safe for everyone is to validate experiences and feelings of all students. Too often, when race is discussed in a classroom setting white students get uncomfortable and try to shutdown or defend themselves (I know this from being the person who is uncomfortable with the discussion). Some of the subconscious avoidance tactics I have personally employed when finding myself in an uncomfortable discussion of race include eye rolling, shifting or slouching, doodling, fidgeting, becoming quiet or trying to defend oneself, or crying. While crying is not always problematic, it can be used by people in the majority culture to shut down conversations about race when they feel uncomfortable. Such reactions create an unsafe space for everyone in the class, but particularly for People of Color. The underlying message that is communicated when white students take these actions is, “I am fragile and refuse to engage with issues that challenge my worldview.”

Part of our jobs as instructor may include speaking to white students who display these typical reactions to discussions of race. When I was a scared white student just waking up to the racial realities in the United States, I believed anything I did or said was okay because I knew I was a good person and always had good intentions, even when i did or said something that offended those around me. I have learned that in fact, I was wrong. Good intentions do not have a privileged place in discussions of race. We must hold ourselves accountable for the effects of our words and actions, regardless of our intentions.

Chloe G. Bland, Ph.D., serves as Chair of the Psychology Department and Assistant Professor at the College of Saint Elizabeth in Morristown, NJ. Her email is