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New Jersey Association of School Psychologists

SEL Is Alive and Well in New Jersey, or, “Are You Talkin’ to Me?”

by John Lestino

We all know growing up in Jersey that there are a few people outside of our state who like to poke fun at some of our foibles or our less than perfect political reputation. Yet, my love for the Garden State grows stronger than ever. Which means, for this article, I won’t even say anything disparaging about other states, but if they give me a hard time…I know a place in the Pine Barrens where we could meet and settle it….Whoops! I’d better stop now, and get to the heart of the matter here, which is to celebrate the ongoing support for social-emotional learning valued as being an integral part of New Jersey’s effort to improve school climate and academic support for our students. 

So, during the Summer of 2017 Barry Barbarasch and I attended a public hearing where the New Jersey State Board of Education adopted a resolution noting the foundation for explicit recognition and acceptance of social-emotional learning’s importance in New Jersey schools. The spirited back and forth questions and comments by State Board members belied the years of preparation around SEL from a multitude of stakeholders who had the vision to bring the SEL paradigm to a fuller recognition in New Jersey. The primary presenter affirming the value and importance of SEL was none other than Dr. Maurice Elias of Rutgers/GSAPP. His presentation discussed the breadth and depth of SEL and how it has such positive potential, e.g., proactively impacting school culture, influencing stronger academic effects, building and encouraging caring relationships for students, and making for safer schools.  

 Yet, as NJASPers, we were there not only to hear the deliberations but ready to add the voice of NJ’s school psychologists  to the essential importance of SEL. As many readers are aware, NJASP has for many years supported SEL not only as programming (techniques and strategies),  also a philosophy (for positive relationship building between staff and students). This is a viewpoint for improving school climate and culture in our educational settings.  In essence, we believe most school psychologists would see SEL as an essential part of education, for all students, school staff, families and broader communities in which we serve. Finally, at the end of the day, the dye had been cast. We didn’t have to testify, as the resolution passed unanimously, clearly touting the five main characteristics of SEL as State Board policy. Here are the hallmarks that passed on that day, and have been receiving even greater acknowledgment in New Jersey since that date in 2017. See below:

Self-awareness is accurately recognizing one’s own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.   

  • Example skills/behaviors: recognizing when sad or frustrated; understanding the impact of thoughts/attitudes on feelings/actions.

Self-management is defined as regulating one’s emotions, thoughts, & behaviors. 

  • Example skills/behaviors e: following the rules; paying attention; staying calm with others; setting and working toward goals.

Social-awareness is defined as taking the perspective of and empathizing with others.    

  • Example skills/behaviors: understanding how others feel; doing nice things for others; standing up for others; showing empathy and compassion.

Relationship-skills are defined as establishing and maintaining healthy relationships with others.

  • Example skills/behaviors: getting along with peers and adults; making compromises; taking turns in conversation; resolving conflicts.

Responsible decision-making is defined as making constructive choices about behavior and interactions.

  • Example skills/behaviors: doing the right thing when unsupervised; identifying problems and solutions; taking responsibility for one’s behaviors; thinking about the consequences before acting.

My request for the reader today is to consider that SEL can become more than just a remedy for localized school challenges. That a wider concept of SEL can meld with other and broader fields of study (e.g., moral psychology and economic theory) so as to make deeper positive impacts on our school cultures.  To that end, I will introduce 2 luminaries, one from a moral and relational psychology perspective and one from the field of economics.  Integrating these theories will help weave together how social relationship paradigms have potential for an additive interaction that makes for more active and wider scope for SEL’s influence. An understanding of these concepts can affect our practices as school psychologists. 

In discussing a theory from a background of behavioral regulation let us turn to Dr. Alan Fiske, who posits that moral qualities around the regulation of behavior can be understood from four models which are culturally prescribed and will influence our interactions. They are labeled as: Moral Motives for Unity, Hierarchy, Equality, and Proportionality. “Unity (Communal Sharing)is the motive to care for and support the integrity of in-groups by avoiding or eliminating threats of contamination and providing aid and protection based on need or empathic compassion. Hierarchy (Authority Ranking) is the motive to respect rank in social groups where superiors are entitled to deference and respect but must also lead, guide, direct, and protect subordinates. Equality (Equality Ranking) is the motive for balanced, in-kind reciprocity, equal treatment, equal say, and equal opportunity. Proportionality Market Pricing]is the motive for rewards and punishments to be proportionate to merit, benefits to be calibrated to contributions, and judgments to be based on a utilitarian calculus of costs and benefits. The 4 moral motives are universal, but cultures, ideologies, and individuals differ in where they activate these motives and how they are implemented….” (See the graphic below, for a fuller explanation of the four motives as they apply to developmental trajectories.) 

Why are these concepts important from an SEL perspective? My suggestion is that a program that stands on moral theory has the potential to be infused with looking at broader viewpoints of the school culture which both recognizes cultural mores and is flexible enough to support and expand behaviors considered as (more) pro-social and perhaps even more egalitarian in delivery. Thus, sensitivity from a so-called dominant cultural standpoint which knows the background of the SEL behaviors noted above would be discussed and promulgated with greater transparency and active engagement. From an anecdotal standpoint, I have used the four factors from the Relational Model approach in consultation at systems levels, and for small group and individual stages of/for consultation. In my work as anti-bullying coordinator I have woven Fiske’s concepts into many discussions so as to understand social situations both broadly at a group-level as well as boiled down to an individual’s actions within a social/relational context.  Considering that as social beings we engage relationally in many contexts, we can work to improve our school, classroom or an individual in order to work our differences through the lens of the 4 SRM that can be conceived as values conflicts in a more obvious and clarified manner. The graphic below allows the reader to see potential applications of the themes from both a developmental perspective and setting levels for engagement.

Image result for relational model theory fiske

I will now turn to Nobel Prize winning economist Dr. Elinor Ostrom’s work on how people organize their use of resources for the common good so as to use them in our understanding of social and relational frames of interaction.

Pulling from two sets of structuring principles, i.e., working for the common good and collective action, SEL behaviors can provide for an ethical set of principles as to why we can act in a more proactive stance. Especially, one can consider how moral behavior (see A.Fiske, et al) and Ostrom’s concepts of the common good would be useful for those who use SEL techniques and strategies. Once again, SEL constructs can elucidate a deeper understanding of their importance toward enhancing social and emotional learning. A discussion around ethical behavior(s) can be used for exploring the convergence between the principled approaches in the development of a common organizing view for the social good in the settings in which we work. What we can learn from Ostrom is that we do have moral and ethical principles which structure social interactions that are built on cooperation and enhanced productivity, and can be celebrated for their impact on the school community. 

Where do these paradigms possibly get us, you ask. How about an opportunity to learn to act with psychologically flexibility and to model our schools as caring for all people in the school environment?  Does this affect positive affect and emotionally healthy learning? We surely must try. Thus, effectively we can truly feel we are contributors to both individual and group well-being. The graphic below expands the principles’ impact:

Image result for Explaining Ostrom's 8

There are more ideas related to a broad conception of SEL which I will offer in subsequent articles for our NJASP Newsletter. Suffice it to say, currently in both our professional and personal lives, there is much to learn about SEL application that reaches beyond one’s local school, classroom and/or individual consultation. As school psychologists, in a state that at times is seen as a hotbed of political complexities, I want to challenge those stereotypes for those unaware protagonists. We have plenty to be proud of. So, ”If they’re talkin’ to me or to you”, we can, as an alternative, state proudly that our work in the social and emotional/affective domains will meet challenges that lie ahead. It is a great journey, even one laced with frustration can lead to great outcomes. As FDR noted in the throes of the Great Depression, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Or maybe, as the comic strip character Pogo intoned, ” We have met the enemy and it is us.”  As school psychologists, we can lead assertively in the wide breadth of domain(s) that SEL practices represent.  Yet, my sense is unless we work on these issues together, we will not have as deep an impact that potentially we make together. Our schools can be healthier and more proactive with social settings that benefit all who meet its sweep. 





John Lestino has been a school psychologist in the Edgewater Park Schools for over 30 years. He is Pres-Elect of NJASP and  has served on committees with NASP and NJDOE.

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