This post is an adaptation of the final for a class I am taking through Rutgers University.

In the realm of clinical psychology there are two prevailing types of psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT). When people go to therapy the type that often jumps to mind is PDT where the therapist tries to help the client understand their history and why they feel the way they do when they encounter a triggering event. CBT is different in that it doesn’t focus on your history but instead focuses on how the triad thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are interrelated and teaches that a client can affect one of the triad by focusing on the other two. In the realm of whole child education there is a parallel between CBT and PDT and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Education (CE). The focus of this blogpost is to describe the differences between the evolutions of CE and SEL and how, unlike CBT and PDT, they are coming together to form a new entity called Social Emotional Character Development (SECD) as well as describing how I implement SECD in my setting.

Character Education (CE)

Character Education is probably as old as culture. Developing prosocial behavior is an important part of belonging to a group of people. Antisocial behavior would be detrimental to a small group of people trying to survive and thus would be frowned upon. Ancient religious texts espouse virtues that people should work to attain such as honesty, thou shalt not lie from the Ten Commandments, or altruism (Ren) from Confucianism. One of the modern fathers of CE, Thomas Lickona (n.d.), calls CE “the deliberate effort to cultivate virtue” (pg 1). Virtue in this regard would be whatever prosocial behaviors culture deemed good. In fact, Matula (2004) calls CE the act of “teaching students to ‘know the good, love the good, and do the good’”(pg 3).

Likona credits Dewey with incorporating CE in public schools in the late 19th century. While early efforts in public education focused on describing the importance of having virtue it often didn’t teach students how to be virtuous. It certainly didn’t reflect on how CE would benefit school culture (Cohen 2006). In this way CE is similar to PDT where learners would focus on understanding how the past influences the present without explicitly teaching the skills necessary to manage the present.

In the middle of the 20th century the focus of CE changed in response to cultural shifts. Where before CE was used to inculcate patriotism and adherence to social norms, it evolved to include performance character in addition to moral character. Examples of performance character include timeliness, initiative, effort, etc. The inclusion of performance character helped schools implementing CE to work on school culture more explicitly while promoting academic success (Smith 2013, Character Education Partnership 2008).

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

If CE is PDT then in this analogy SEL is CBT. SEL is newer by far than CE and its emergence in 1994 was in large part to the work by the Collaboration for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (CASEL). CASEL has continued to be a major contributor to the field and defines SEL as:

“…The process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. (CASEL Secondary Guide, page 9).

Given the definition above and those of other SEL organizations (such as CSEE), it is clear that from the very beginning SEL was focused more on skills that learners can develop through explicit instruction. Because these skills can be taught explicitly, they can also be practiced and assessed. Just as CBT explicitly teaches people how to control their emotions, SEL teaches learners how to control their character.

Some other differences in SEL are that teachers can use pedagogical approaches to teach skills in a variety of ways that will work for different learners. SEL efforts can include goal setting and reflection to increase skills incrementally. SEL skills can be taught to address issues that are pertinent to the current events, such as anti-racism in response to racist graffiti or compassion if a new student with a visible handicap joins a class. Curriculum can be developed to focus on skills to build self-efficacy or SEL can be integrated into content classes (Matula 2004). Overall, SEL is very flexible and can be used to educate the whole child.

Social Emotional Character Education (SECD)

Where the analogy with psychotherapy breaks down is the emerging field of SECD where aspects of SEL and CE are blended to create a third paradigm with the strengths of both programs. There are several aspects of overlap between SEL and CD so practitioners of SECD work on that common space. Those aspects are: Continued improvement in whole child education through evaluation, The importance of reaching out to parents and the community for support, Ongoing support for staff to develop both their own skills and to teach them, Offering opportunities for learners to practice, and the understanding that educating the whole child is supports academic achievement (Matula 2004).

The fields of CE, SEL, and SECD have only recently started to experience the rigors of research to determine what practices are best. While a review of that research is a different essay, it is clear that SEL and SECD are having some success. While much of the focus of the research is on the academic outcomes as a result of implementing SEL, CE, or SECD programs, I think that helping learners become the best versions of themselves is itself a worthy goal. I would like the assessments that are in the process of being developed to focus on this aspect in addition to determining which aspects of explicit SECD education is best.

SECD in My Setting

I teach in Mathematics classes to grades 6-12 in Saint Paul, MN. In my math classes I have five character goals that I try to work on through the year related to my schools chosen character traits of Integrity, Perseverance, Responsibility, Collaboration, and Stewardship. My goals are as follows:

Integrity – I can treat myself and others kindly.

Perseverance – I can rise to meet new challenges and try new things.

Responsibility – I can come to class on time, organized, and prepared to learn every day.

Collaboration – I can work with anyone.

Stewardship – I can take personal responsibility for shared space and materials.

I start the year off with introducing the goals. Whenever the opportunity arises we come back to these goals as needed. For example, if a student is working on a tough problem and are looking to quit I ask them how they are showing perseverance or when they complain about groups that I have put them in I ask them how they can show collaboration in those groups. Historically I was able to include feedback through our grading system on these topics, but my school has scaled back on reporting character development on content courses so I no longer do so. I do continue to give verbal feedback and often have students reflect on their own character development with emphasis on specific examples.

I also am a Homeroom teacher where SECD lessons are delivered. In my homeroom, which at my school we call Crew, I am able to deliver at least three explicit SECD lessons each week. We usually start the week by sharing important aspects of our weekends so we develop a sense of shared experiences. When issues arise we discuss them and how we could have handled them differently. Other sessions are dedicated to lessons that they indicate they want to take, lessons that I see a need for, or lessons that we are doing school-wide. As a part of my own journey as an educator my Crew class has gone from my least favorite time of the day to my favorite.

In addition to loving my Crew time, I am actively working on providing professional development for others at my school to have great Crew experiences. I teach at a small school and I have no classes in common with any other teacher aside from Crew. As such, we can all learn from each other how to have successful SECD experience by sharing what we are doing that works.

Reference List:

CASEL Guide. (2015). Effective Social and Emotional Programs – Middle and High School Edition. Retrieved from: 08/10/2017.

Cohen, J. (2006). “Social, Emotional, Ethical, and Academic Education: Creating a Climate for Learning, Participation in Democracy, and Well-Being.Harvard Education Review 76(2), 201-237.

Lickona, Thomas. (n.d.). “Character Education: Seven Crucial Issues.” Course Reading

Matula, Leslie L. (2004). “Character Education and Social-Emotional Learning: Why We Must Teach the Whole Child.” Course Reading.

Smith, Brian H. (2013) School-based Character Education in the United States, Childhood Education, 89(6), 350-355, DOI: 10.1080/00094056.2013.850921


From CE and SEL to Social Emotional Character Development (SECD)

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