Paving the Way for Change Through Social and Emotional Learning

By Jeffrey Kress

Recently, I’ve heard (several times, actually) organizational change described as “trying to change a tire when the car is in motion.” The phrase is apt in many ways. We can’t call a time-out when changes are being made and we can’t always anticipate the exact timing of change. At the same time, in this situation, change is perceived as more sudden, risky, dangerous, and aversive than it needs to be. The message becomes clear: fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a wild ride.

All educational settings are at risk of working in reactive, rather than proactive, mode. While change can be threatening and scary, planning proactively for change can result in a much smoother journey. After all, we know that the tires will need to be changed, so why not have structures in place so that when (and it is “when,” not “if”) important changes occur, there are systems in place so that they can happen in a positive way? Proactivity can occur at the leadership level through, for example, building positive communication pathways among leaders, staff, parents, and board members. Here, I’ll focus on the experience of the learner, taking inclusion and diversity as an example. Inclusion tends to be addressed reactively. In her research on inclusion of learners with disabilities in day schools, for example, my colleague Dr. Abby Uhrman found that schools generally don’t think about inclusion until approached by parents asking about whether the school can accommodate their child.

There are several steps that can be taken to pave the way for smooth movement to inclusivity and diversity (or any educational change, for that matter).

Enumerate core inclusive values: Take a minute to think about the values you’d like the learners and staff to embody. You can probably make a lengthy list. That’s good; many values are needed to navigate life’s complexities. Now, try to narrow the list to three or four values. Not as easy, but an important step in the process. Why? Because trying to make everything a “core” value puts us at risk of diffusing our message and overwhelming our learners. The adage tafasta merubah lo tafasta (when you grab too much, you end up with nothing) applies here. Look at your abridged list to make sure inclusion can be located there. Perhaps you’ve picked something like be’tzelem elohim (treating everyone as created in the image of god) or kavod habriot (honor for all creation). Use this value as a filter through which to view your setting. If a traveler from outer space (who conveniently speaks the languages used in your setting) lands in your midst, what would be seen as evidence of this inclusive value in action? What would the décor and physical plant say? What is celebrated? What is emphasized on the website and other public materials?

Set up practices to enhance relationships and community: Creative inclusive environments can’t be a “sometimes” thing, and it can’t be first introduced for so-called special or diverse populations. Social inclusion is everyone’s business – all the time and for every learner. How do learners come to see that they are cared for and valued by staff? How do they express care to one another? What norms and processes are in place for handling social challenges that inevitably occur in all groups of learners? Does conflict result in punishment or in opportunities to repair relationships and make whole the community? How do learners get to know one another in a deep way? When any individual faces learning and/or behavioral challenges, what systems are in place to meet that learner’s needs? The answers to these questions define the social and academic standard operating procedure of a school.

Focus on social and emotional skill-building: Creating norms and articulating values must go hand in hand with efforts to equip learners with the skills needed to navigate the complexities of life within your setting. The five social and emotional learning categories articulated by the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning ( provide a solid foundation: self-awareness (Can I identify how I am feeling?); self-regulation (Can I manage strong emotions productively?); social awareness (Can I identify and empathize with the emotions of others); relationship skills (How can I speak and listen effectively?); and decision-making and problem-solving skills (Can I set goals and identify ways to reach them?). Importantly, we can’t just learn about these skills, we need to model, teach, practice, and prompt their use repeatedly. Just like any complex skillset, competency requires practice.

One can tell a well-functioning educational setting not only by how well it prepares learners to manage the realities of the moment, but also by how it prepares them to address realities that are unknown. But how do we know what realities are to come? I’ve recently heard this question posed: “What are the challenges Jewish education will face in the next 10 or 20 years?” I believe there is only one honest answer to this question: “I have no idea.” It’s the wrong question. I’d suggest asking, “Given that we don’t know what the challenges and needs will be in 10 years (and certainly not 20), what are our learners/participants most likely to need as they move ahead?” The values, norms, and skills for building relationships and community, and for proactive problem solving are my leading candidates. Thankfully, our tradition and pedagogies provide countless opportunities to make inroads in these areas.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress is the Dr. Bernard Heller Chair in Jewish Education and director of research at the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of JTS. More information on the topic of this essay can be found in Dr. Kress’s recent book (written with Dr, Maurice Elias), Nurturing Students’ Character: Everyday Activities for Social-Emotional Learning (Routledge, 2020).

This is the final article of a series from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS on training educators to lead inclusive learning communities.