The complementary perspectives of social and emotional learning, moral education, and character education

Maurice J. Elias, Amy Kranzler, Sarah J. Parker, V. Megan Kash, Roger P. Weissberg

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

8 Scopus citations


Aristotle’s words suggest that humans have long been interested in how best to manage their emotional and social lives. Most recognize that their emotional reactions to events have significant impact on their social interactions and effectiveness. Many have considered the question of how individuals or groups of individuals might acquire more effective ways of regulating their emotional responses and/or social relations. Others prefer to frame the question in terms of how individuals or groups learn to guide their behavior in correct or virtuous ways. Many have looked to traditional educational environments as places to make progress towards these aims. Indeed, as one of the primary cultural institutions responsible for transmitting information and values from one generation to the next, schools have typically been involved in attending to the social-emotional well being and moral direction of their students, in addition to their intellectual achievements. Not surprisingly, moral education (along with its close cousin, character education) and social-emotional learning (SEL) have emerged as two prominent formal approaches used in schools to provide guidance for students’ behavior. Moral education focuses on values and social-emotional learning focuses on the skills and attitudes needed to function in relevant social environments. Pedagogically, the two approaches have come to differ more in practice than in their deeper conceptualizations. Moral education has focused more on the power of “right thinking” and “knowing the good,” and socialemotional learning has focused more on the power of problem solving (Elias et al., 1997; Huitt, 2004). Both, however, in their most discerning theorists and practitioners, have recognized the role of affect (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000; Nucci, 2001). Now that research has caught up with this observational and intuitive understanding, both approaches are converging toward a central pedagogy involving the coordination of affect, behavior, and cognition and the role of the ecological-developmental context. Paradoxically, moral education and social-emotional learning are values-neutral approaches to aspects of socialization. Acknowledging the role of context brings to visibility the elephant in the room in discussions of moral education, which is the source of moral authority or direction. This is an arena in which individuals and groups are going to disagree. However, from the perspective of America’s public, secular education system in a nation committed to democratic principles, there are sets of values and moral principles that can be seen as consensual. Dewey has written about these with particular eloquence. And Nucci (2001) has found that even among religious children of different denominations, there is a consensus about moral values that transcend religion and degree of belief (e.g., most children would believe that stealing is wrong even if G-d commanded people to steal). Yet, as it is said, the devil is in the details. What exactly constitutes “stealing”? Taking a friend’s pencil and not returning it? Grabbing an apple from an open marketplace to bring home to your siblings when your family is hungry? Copying from a neighbor’s test paper? More difficult in many cases is defining the positive value. What is “honesty”? Always saying the truth, all the time? Telling a hospitalized person how lousy they look? Pointing out to a classmate who has a problem with an activity in gym that he has not succeeded on 10 consecutive trials? Walking into class and telling the teacher you did not do the assigned reading? Gather a group of educators or parents into groups and ask each member of each group to think about one child they know well. Ask the first group to think about a child who is highly responsible. Ask the next one to think about a child who is respectful. Have members of the third group think about one who is honest. Have the final group think about a young person that they would say is an exemplary citizen in their school or community (or if you are able to explain this without “giving away the answer,” family). Ask them to picture the child they are thinking about and then write down and/or discuss what is it about that child that has earned the label of responsible, respectful, and so on, in their eyes. Tell them that you are not interested in an abstract list, but things specific to the child they are envisioning. And then have each group come up with a consensus statement containing their observations. When one leads a discussion and puts each group’s responses on pieces of newsprint (yes, we will be honest, we really mean large sheets of post-it pad paper) for all to see, a pattern invariably emerges and participants realize that to enact any of these cherished values and attributes, one needs a large number of skills. Responsibility involves time and task management and tracking and organization; respect involves empathy and social approach behaviors; honesty involves self-awareness and communication skills; good citizenship involves problem solving, decision-making, and conflict resolution, as well as group and teamwork skills. And many of the skills cross-cut areas, such as the need for clear communication in citizenship and interpersonal sensitivity in responsibility. Indeed, there are instances in which children will “want to do the right thing” but either will not know how or do not believe they can do so successfully. Efforts at moral and character education, however their objectives may be defined, are designed to inform behavior. Enacting their principles requires skills (Berkowitz & Bier, 2005). Berman (1997) has framed this by defining skills that he believes are essential for the development of social consciousness necessary to live effectively as an engaged citizen in the modern world; Dalton, Wandersman, and Elias (2007) have identified a similar set of cross-cultural “participatory competencies.” These are the specific cognitive, behavioral, and affective skills needed to effectively enact key roles in a given social context. Lickona and Davidson (2005) have made explicit what has been implicit, or at least not featured, within character education, by articulating a distinction between moral and performance character. It is their way of codifying that “doing the good” does not follow automatically from “knowing the good.” Most current writings about moral education and social-emotional learning are aligned with these prevailing notions. As moral and character education and social-emotional learning move toward what we believe is an inexorable and long-overdue convergence, having a sense of the trajectory of the SEL side should help practitioners, theorists, and researchers appreciate and put to better use the assets and limitations of the field. Because much has been written about the evolution of moral and character education (e.g., Lickona, 1976, 1991; Nucci, 1989; Wynne & Ryan, 1997; this volume), the following will emphasize the development of SEL and elucidate its underlying bases. Again, it must be noted that in contexts with differing sources of moral authority, focal values and requisite social-emotional skills might vary from those that will be the implicit focus here. The considerations we present are relevant across particular sets of moral principles or interpersonal skills. In subsequent sections, we present thoughts about the implications of this background for linkages with moral and character education.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHandbook of Moral and Character Education
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781136293122
ISBN (Print)9780415532334
StatePublished - Jan 1 2014
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)


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