Last month, I published a four-part series on student engagement at Education Week Teacher.

I didn’t communicate deadline dates as clearly as I should have to Maurice Elias, a regular contributor to my blog there, and just received his piece. He has graciously agreed to let me publish it here as a guest post.

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University where he also directs the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. He is the author of the new e-book, “Emotionally Intelligent Parenting,” and a book young children, Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children. You can read his blog on social-emotional and character development at Edutopia:

For students to be “engaged,” they need to experience a pedagogy that involves them in co-creating curriculum, being creative, learning actively, and sharing with classmates and instructors in constructive, interactive ways.  They also need a sense of “voice,” to know that their opinions about their classes and school matter, and that they have a role in governing the school.

However, the responsibilities of engagement also require skills to engage meaningfully in tasks and projects.  Social-emotional competencies such as emotion recognition, management and regulation; goal setting, task planning, organization, and implementation; group participation and leadership skills; empathy and perspective taking; and problem solving and decision making are essential for students’ being effective members of engaged learning situations such as problem-based learning, service-learning groups, and student government.

My own view is that backward design is a good strategy for building engagement skills. That is, by giving all students, regardless of prior levels of achievement and behavior, appropriate and personalized opportunities to engage in projects and school and community service in which they have genuine input, voice, and interest, students will become motivated to build competencies in the skills need to carry out these valued responsibilities.   Engagement is less a strategy than ultimately a by-product, a feeling students have, of interactions in which they feel a sense of purpose and active involvement in their educational settings.

One relatively neglected element of student voice is giving them a chance to write about their aspirations, their “better self,” if you will.  Often in schools, students do not have venues through which to express their hopes and deepest perspectives about life.  So we encourage teachers to work into various aspects of the existing curriculum, opportunities for students to express their  “Laws of Life”—the key principles by which they want to live their lives.  For example, individual or groups of students select a core value and write an essay, create a comic, draw a poster, compose a song, generate a video, or create a sculpture representing how that value applies in their lives.  Both the collaborative and individual formats have advantages, and either allows students to express the person they most wish to be, and how they came to develop their particular “Law.”  Giving students a chance to express their “Laws of Life” has helped improve feelings of connection in school, support by school personnel, and engagement in academic tasks, in part because having publicly declared their Laws, young people are more likely to live up to them.

For further information, please see these blogs at

Engaging Students with Social and Emotional Learning

Engaged Teaching: “Do Now” Activities for Your Lessons

Restoring the Soul and Skill of Educators Through Engaged Teaching

and for more about Laws of Life:  Elias, M.J., Ogburn-Thompson, G., Lewis, C., & Neft, D.I.  (Eds.) (2008).  Urban dreams:  Stories of hope, resilience, and character. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/University Press of America.