Good Work: Inhabited By a Question

People that make a difference often seem possessed. Some people are infected by a vision, some are captured by calling, some are just angry that things aren’t the way they are supposed to be.  For 35 years, Roger Weissberg has been inhabited by a question: How do schools, parents, and communities come together to promote positive behavioral outcomes in young people?

As noted in November, Weissberg formed the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) almost two decades ago.  What some call non-cognitive skills, CASEL defines social emotional learning (SEL) as:

  • Self-management : Managing emotions and behaviors to achieve one’s goals,
  • Self-awareness : Recognizing one’s emotions and values as well as one’s strengths and challenges,

  • Social awareness : Showing understanding and empathy for others,

  • Relationship skills : Forming positive relationships, working in teams, and dealing effectively with conflict; and

  • Responsible decision making : Making ethical, constructive choices about personal and social behavior.

These skills and dispositions are similar to lists produced by work-ready and character development advocates (as noted last month). It’s the executive functions that help “kids navigate cognition, affect, and behavior,” said Weissberg.  He added, “These skills are key to academic performance, health, career, and citizenship.”

Connecting social and emotional learning to important ends is key–otherwise they run the risk of being presented as disembodied skills. Math may be key to college, but self-awareness and self-management are key to being a productive citizen, family wage job holder, and a good dad.

Weissberg’s question has attracted an impressive board of directors including Steve Arnold, vice chairman of the George Lucas Educational Foundation; Jennifer Buffett, president of NoVo Foundation; Timothy Shriver, CEO of Special Olympics; and educators Linda Darling-Hammond and Carl Cohn.

After a Bridgespan plan in 2010, CASEL launched the Collaborating Districts Initiative aimed at supporting district-wide SEL efforts in Anchorage, Austin, Chicago, Cleveland, Nashville, Oakland, Reno, and Sacramento. Each district is improving SEL leadership, strengthen instruction, and building a culture connections and continuous improvement.  (On integrating and measuring SEL, the districts should check out the new tracking system at Summit Public Schools.)

What could more important than asking, “How to promote positive behavioral outcomes in young people.” Roger Weissberg has made a career of it.


Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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