What is Social and
Emotional Learning?

Creating a Safe and Caring Home

Creating safe, caring, participatory and responsive homes is one of two important goals that support the development of socially and emotionally healthy children. The other is intentionally teaching children to become more socially and emotionally competent and ethically inclined.

The purpose of these guidelines is to help parents and/or guardians create positive environments for all children, helping them become confident and independent individuals and learners. In addition to teaching and learning of core social-emotional skills, knowledge and beliefs, we must help children feel safe and connected to their environment. These feelings are an essential element keeping children engaged in the educational process and sensitive to the needs of others.

First and foremost, children need to feel safe. There is a hierarchy of "feeling safe," the most fundamental level of which is physical safety. If we don't feel safe from physical threat or injury, children and adults alike are anxious and unable to attend to social and or emotional concerns, the second and third levels of hierarchical need. Social safety refers to an interpersonal sense of being safe from verbal abuse, teasing and/or threats. Emotional safety refers to an internal sense of being safe.

Understandably and appropriately, parents (and teachers) are first and foremost focused on issues of physical safety. To the extent that physical safety is not present, it will undermine our ability to function, to learn and to teach. However, in order to feel safe and connected to their environment, children need to know that they are free not only from physical harm but also from forms of verbal/social aggression, be it bullying or sexual or emotional threats. In recent years, more and more schools have developed anti-bullying programs. To what extent—if at all—is there any bullying in your home?

Establishing meaningful relationships between children and adults increases the likelihood that students will feel comfortable sharing their safety concerns with caring adults. Students who feel "connected" and safe at home—and also at school—are less likely to use substances or initiate sexual activity at an early age on the one hand and report higher levels of emotional well-being on the other hand (Resnick, et. al, 1997; Eccles, et. al, 1997; Steinberg, 1996).

Organizing Questions

To begin to develop a plan parents and guardians can ask themselves to what degree each of the following conditions is evolving in our homes:

Creating a caring community in which all family members feel connected, safe, and supported.
  • Do you—as a parent—feel 'connected' and able to talk and listen to your child?
  • Do adults consistently model respectful behavior and effective problem solving skills? Is there an underlying tone of respect in every human interaction?
  • Are children and adults respectful of areas of difference as well as similarity? Is there an acceptance and celebration of diversity?
  • Do children feel comfortable enough with adults that they are willing to articulate their concerns with them?
  • Are there explicitly communicated guidelines to prevent harassment and bullying at home? In what ways do we seek to make conflicts something that we can learn from?
Teaching children to be socially, emotionally and ethically able.
  • Given that we are always teaching social, emotional and ethical "lessons" through our behavior and words, what are the lessons that you are teaching your children? What the skills, knowledge and dispositions that want your children to know and live?
  • Are we promoting and consistently reinforcing a climate of tolerance and understanding?
  • What kind of social and emotional role models are we being?
  • How are we teaching children to communicate directly and clearly as well as to solve problems creatively?
  • How are we seeking to promote our children's reflective and empathic abilities?
  • Are there explicitly stated expectations for behavior?
  • Are the rules simply and concisely stated in a positive manner?

The Matter of Bullying

Bullying and victimization is a common and often accepted form of violence that exists in most schools.

There is a range of bully-victim behavior, from lethal violence to relatively subtle, but socially and emotionally toxic forms of ongoing teasing, abuse, scapegoating and exclusion. Often, children, educators and parents alike believe that we can and need to accept these behaviors as a part of growing up.

What is bullying? Bullying is intentional, repeated hurtful acts, words or other behavior, such as name-calling, threatening and/or shunning committed by one or more children against another. In fact, there is never just a bully. There is virtually always a victim and a witness: a by-stander (Twemlow, Fonagy, Sacco, 2001). We cannot have a bully without a victim and visa versa. In our schools, homes and communities, there is almost always a witness who sees or hears about bully-victim behavior. In fact, there is growing evidence that bullies "play" to the witness: Bullies want and need others to support them. . Witnesses can be a passive bystander (who is advertently or inadvertently colluding with and supporting the bully) or be an 'upstander' who—directly or indirectly says "no!" to bully-victim behavior.

How can adults help children from becoming victims of bullying?
  • Have ongoing conversations at school and home regarding the importance of respecting oneself and others.
  • Have explicitly stated and consistently communicated "rules" about bullying at home.
  • Decide that all children, educators and parents will not be passive by-standers. Decide to 'stand up' and say "no" to bullying and victimization.
  • Talk about hero's who have been upstanders. Whether it is someone from our neighbood, World War II, the Civil Rights movement or any number of other moments, upstanders have changed the course of history when we stand up to bully behavior.
  • Consider setting aside time to periodically reflect on moments when we saw bullying and victimization. Learn from experience by talking about what made possible to stand up or made us feel that we had to be a passive by-stander.
  • Help each child develop a sense of his or her own personal power and sense of self worth.
  • Teach children to stand up for themselves to show that they wil not be intimidated by bullies. (Naturally, children and teenages may be afraid of a bully. But, that does not mean that we can and should do nothing. Telling a parent or a teacher, for example, is one important way of being an upstander.)
  • Help children know when to absorb, ignore, and walk away from insults and threats.
  • If a child is being harassed, encourage him or her to speak to a caring adult about the problem.

Bully-victim-passive bystander behavior has become a growing area of concern and focus for NSCC. Supporting parents/guardians and educators to work togehter to create homes and schools that are characterized by 'upstanders' who—directly adn indirectly—say "no" to bully-victim behavior is typicaly a central facet of our work and teachings in schools, districts and recently, States.

Characteristics of a Safe and Responsive Home

Research has affirmed that one of the core characteristics of effective school reform is to create collaborative partnerships between the school and families (Melaville, 1999; Twemlow, 2001, 2002). It is important for parents and educators to send the message to children that home and school are working together to assure a safe and secure environment. In their 1998 report entitled Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, the U.S Department of Education and the Department of Justice outlined the characteristics of a school environment that is safe and responsive to all children, underscoring the need for this collaboration:
  • Involve families in meaningful ways.
  • Develop links to the community.
  • Emphasize positive relationships among students and staff.
  • Discuss safety issues openly.
  • Treat students with equal respect.
  • Create ways for students to share their concerns.
  • Help children feel safe expressing their feelings.
  • Have in place a system for referring children who are suspected of being abused or neglected.
  • Offer extended day programs for children.
  • Promote good citizenship and character.
  • Identify problems and assess progress toward solutions.
  • Support students in making the transition to adult life and the workplace.
  • Focus on academic achievement.

(Dwyer and Osher, 2000)

Strategies to Promote Collaboration
  • Hold conversations among parents, educators, and community members regarding fundamental beliefs to which all can agree about what constitutes a safe, caring, and responsive environment. This effort will help children and adults to establish a common vocabulary. An effective way to begin this dialogue is to assess and understand what currently exists and what each group would like to see in the future. This can be done informally or with a more formal needs assessment or School Climate Survey.
  • Draft a list or statement of consensus regarding the essential rights and freedoms to which each child in your community should be entitled.
  • Consider behaviors of both children and adults that interfere with the vision of the climate you hope to maintain at home and at school. As a community, discuss why you feel those behaviors are present and develop strategies to address the behaviors.
  • As you frame these conversations, be certain to include all key players in the world of the children: parents, teachers, youth services personnel, local health care professionals, coaches, recreation workers, and children themselves.
  • Once this group has reached consensus, members can then act as key communicators within the larger community, getting the word out and soliciting feedback in refinement of community terminology, definitions, and goals.

Community Activities that Enhance the Environment for Children

Train all coaches within the community—scholastic and recreational—in positive, anti-bulling coaching techniques.

Educate and train all members of the community (children, school personnel and parents) about the bully-victim-witness cycle and ways to eradicate by-stander behavior.

Organize a network of mental health care professionals to offer services to children in the community identified as at risk.

Develop neighborhood parent networks for the purpose of establishing support systems for children during the day when many parents may not be at home.

Develop a community mentoring program to engage middle and high school students in meaningful activities with adult members of the community.

Encourage children to talk about their feelings at every opportunity. At home, this may take the form of a nightly dinner table conversation; at school, consider daily morning meetings organized around common themes.

Ask children to review the community belief statements and begin composing similar statements for their homes, classrooms, and their schools. Ask children to give concrete examples that demonstrate the qualities and beliefs they value.

Encourage students to participate in conversations about basic human needs (i.e., safety, belonging, fun, power, freedom) and to consider what people do to meet those needs. Next, ask students if they can think of times when those activities can interfere with the needs of others.

Develop an Adopt a Classroom program for middle school students to work with elementary school classes. Initial activities could include a book discussion group focused on issues related to topics such as individual differences.

Hold focus groups of middle school students and ask them what community issues are on their mind and give them an opportunity take positive action. For example, if bullying, a common phenomenon with students this age, is an issue, help students develop an Anti Bullying Committee to address the issue.

At school, develop an advisor-advisee/mentoring program to assure that each child has at least one personal and meaningful connection with an adult.

With older students, hold student forums and ask teenagers to share the stories of when they have felt most connected and most disconnected from their community.

Develop a mentor program for older students to work with younger students.

Empower students to take action on matters of importance to them through community service and/or service learning.

Credits and References

These guidelines were written by the National School Climate Center (Jennifer Allen, Jonathan Cohen and Lauren Hyman) and peer reviewed by the following individuals:
  • Maurice Elias, PhD—Professor in Child, Family and Community Psychology, Rutgers University; Vice-Chair, Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning
  • Stuart Twemlow, MD—Professor in Psychiatry, University of Kansas School of Medicine; Member, Academic Advisory Council Of The United States Presidential Campaign Against Youth Violence, Consultant For The FBI On School Violence.
  • John Devine, Ph.D.—Past co-chair, The National Campaign Against Youth Violence
  • William Johnson, Ed.D.—President, New York State Association of Superintendents; Superintendent of Schools, Rockville Centre Union Free School District, NY; Adjunct Professor in Education, Teachers College, Columbia University
  • Ramon Murphy, MD—Associate Clinical Professor in Pediatrics, Mount Sinai Medical Center, NYC
  • Debra Fuchs Nadeau—Director of Research, New York State Center for School Safety
  • Mary Grenz Jalloh—Executive Director, New York State Center for School Safety
  • Candace Mayer LaRue—Training Specialist, New York State Center for School Safety
  • Lorelei Christensen—Training Specialist, New York State Center for School Safety
  • This material became an organizing center for the New York State Project SAVE related legislation: Interpersonal Violence Prevention Educational Guidelines 2002

Eccles, J.S., Early, D., Frasier, K., Belansky, E., McKarthy, K. (1997). The relationship of connection, regulation, and support for autonomy to adolescents' functioning. Journal of Adolescent Research, 12; 263-286.

Melaville, A. (1999). Learning together: The developing field of school-community initiative. Flint, Mich.: The Mott Foundation.

Resnick, M.D., Bearman, P.S., Blum, R.W., et. al. ( 1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278; 823-832.

Steinberg, L. (1996). Beyond the classroom: Why school reform has failed and what parents need to do. New York: Simon & Schuster (pp. 62-77).

Twemlow, S., Fonagy, P., Sacco, F.C., Gies, M. & Hess, D. (2001). Improving the social and intellectual climate in elementary schools by addressing bully-victim-bystander relationship power struggle. In Cohen, J. (Ed.) Caring Classrooms/ Intelligent Schools: Social Emotional Education of Young Children. New York: Teachers College Press.