An Interview with Dr. Ed Dunkelblau

Director of the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning, Dr. Ed Dunkelblau speaks about the enduring importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) in shaping the lives of students today and tomorrow.

Students encounter a staggering amount of information to process every day. Dr. Ed Dunkelblau has spent decades working with educators around the world to move past the rigidity of core subjects that often fall short in supporting students through the complexities of these demands. For him, schools provide a rare opportunity to be a space where students can develop the skills of emotional intelligence needed to sift through the noise and make more empathetic choices for the rest of their lives. Dr. Dunkelblau is currently the director of the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning, an organization that is focused on doing just that: developing and improving the social and emotional skills of both students and adults. His work has been featured in the New York TimesChicago TribuneUSA Today, and on NPR and CNN. We spoke with Dr. Dunkelblau about how social-emotional programming helps students tackle the unique problems they face today, some of the challenges in getting everyone to buy in to a consistent process of SEL, and how the fundamentals of SEL can continue to foster students who are creative, ethical and supportive in ways that last beyond the classroom.

Tell us a little bit about your background and what lead to you founding the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning.

I’m a psychologist by training and in my early years, I did mostly psychotherapy with individuals and families. I realized that I wanted to have a greater impact on my community and society at large, and the way to do that was through education. During that time, I had an ongoing conversation with Dr. [Maurice] Elias and we developed ways of bringing success skills and resilience skills to children so that they dividend in years to come. He has done most of the writing and research relating to social and emotional confidence in schools, and my work has been more to establish it in school systems. Between us, we’ve been working in this field [for] over 30 years.

Most recently, we’ve been collaborating with the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools at, which is a series of online courses available to educators all over the world. They can earn certifications in either Social-Emotional Education, or Leadership in Social-Emotional Programming.

Can you talk about some of the successes in implementation that you’ve seen in districts you have worked with? How do you measure success, and how has that changed over time?

Essentially, what we’re finding is that when schools commit to doing social-emotional programming, there is a time period that is sort of an organizational time period, but it takes a year to get the staff clear and on board. After a year, you definitely see changes and commitments to improvement on the part of the staff. Then it takes a couple of years after that before you start seeing clear and distinct changes in the student.

As far as the support research, there have been a couple of meta-analyses looking at social-emotional programming across the country. The outcomes have been stating that there’s a clear improvement in connecting to school and a reduction of problem behavior. Most importantly for the US educational system is that there’s a clear improvement in both grades and test scores. So, by doing social-emotional programming, social-emotional instruction, and building social-emotional skills in a climate of caring and support, you’re improving student’s abilities to not only learn, but also to perform.

In terms of those skills, how do they also prepare students for life after school?

We’re really talking about five areas that function: the ability to identify and understand your emotions and feelings; the ability to express your feelings and manage your impulses; the ability to understand the feelings of others, empathize, and take their perspective; the ability to build relationships and to integrate divergent or different points of view; and finally, the ability to effectively make choices and decisions, to problem solve, motivate, and activate hope and optimism.

The overarching foundation for some of these things is helping students become mindful of their own experience and find a purpose in both what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

I know some educators perceive SEL as being a quick fix, where, as you’re saying, obviously it takes a number of years. Can you talk about where that perception comes from and how you address that?

I haven’t experienced educators seeing it as a quick fix, but I see educators experiencing it as not their job, and I see educators experiencing it as an unwelcome friend who they’re going to give limited attention to. What we’re realizing is that when people try to do social-emotional learning programming, sometimes they’ll do it as an add-on and they’ll do 15 minutes a week, or 15 minutes twice a week, and that’s not the most effective way.

This sort of programming needs to have three elements to it: there needs to be specific skill building, there needs to be integration into the curriculum, and there needs to be school-wide programming so that you’re building a climate and culture of social-emotional progress.

When I work with schools, I tell them to think of it like teaching reading. We would never think to teach reading 15 minutes a week and let the student go the rest of the day without any reading support or encouragement. Reading is taught all day, every day, and that’s the same with social-emotional learning. We encourage teachers to look at their lesson plan and find opportunities to encourage, support, and practice social-emotional concepts that the student has learned either in previous grades or in their skill program.

So, it’s really important for teachers to recognize that they have to understand the verbiage and terms being used. They have to apply them and encourage students to practice in their new classrooms. We also have to establish a classroom that’s supportive of social-emotional content.

How has the perception and popularity of SEL changed over the past decade? I’m sure you’ve seen a huge change over the past 30 years since founding the institute.

Boy isn’t that the truth. It’s really gained traction. For years it was a best kept secret. This is a methodology of educating our students which has no downsides. It improves everything you want to get better and it reduces everything you want to reduce happening. So, it’s just a question of SEL slowly becoming more accepted because it wasn’t the norm 30 years ago. We had “The Three R’s” 30 years ago and schools were about teaching those basic academic skills. With technology, science and the recognition that the world is becoming a smaller place where we have to embrace other cultures and recognize other points of view, I think people are beginning to recognize why SEL is so important. We’ve also been able to demonstrate how it really supports everyone’s aspirations for education by helping students learn better, develop better communities, be more respectful, more civil, and to interact in ways that support the entire citizenry.

You once wrote about bully-proofing students through teaching social skills. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Bullying continues to be the secret violent problem that exists in schools. It’s one of those things that we’re trying to address by helping to develop a school community and a culture of safety and respect. So that’s part of it and that’s where social-emotional skills fit in school life.

With regard to working with students, it’s important to build their social-emotional skills, recognize their voice, and for them to recognize how people need and want to be treated. By encouraging courage in their willingness to intervene and stand up for people who are being harassed or bullied, by not encouraging silence or worse, joining in, and recognizing that we as students in this school or in this community won’t allow that, you’re continually building that culture of intolerance of harassment, of bullying, of teasing and really encouraging support and embracing diversity.

I’m sure it’s more important now than ever in the digital age we’re in with cyberbullying and bullies able to reach students in their homes through the internet.

Exactly, and they can do it anonymously, which is even more difficult. It used to be that the bully had a face and now sometimes bullies don’t. Sometimes it can be even more hurtful and create more of a sense of powerlessness on the part of the kid being bullied, which is why building anti-bullying culture is the key element here. But when I go into schools and do anti-bullying programming, it’s also about establishing a clear policy on the part of the school, not only an intolerance of bullying, but what the response will be if, in fact, bullying occurs.

Another thing that you’re known for as well is that you focus on humor and the therapeutic value of humor. How does that relate to your work with SEL as well?

If you think about social-emotional learning, it’s about self-management and relationship building; those are two of the primary goals for SEL.  If you think about humor, “there’s nobody that doesn’t like to laugh”. It’s one of those innate, probably Darwinian, parts of our psyche where it’s innately pleasurable. In addition, uses of humor reduce anxiety, build relationships with both teacher and student and student to student, all of which will improve learning and free up the brain to be more creative, which allows for better problem solving. It’s engaging with others, which is about building relationships, so there’s really nothing about social-emotional learning that isn’t supported and enhanced by healthy humor.

When did you start bringing humor into your practice?

Probably about seven years old. In my family laughter and joke telling was valued. My silliness was appreciated so I have my parents and sister to thank for that. Professionally, it was always an interest of mine. I always felt that humor, laughter, and play was a way around defenses. It was a way to get beyond someone else’s concerns, difficulties, and problems in relationships. So, it was an efficient way to build a therapeutic relationship and clearly an efficient way to fill an educational void.

In your 30 years of working with the Institute, what is one of your biggest takeaways from the process of implementing social-emotional learning in schools?

The really big takeaway for me is that if everyone worldwide mastered social-emotional practices, the likelihood of war would decrease dramatically. That’s probably a little more macro than you’re hoping for, but, with regard to my experience in working in school systems across the world, what’s clear to me is that everyone benefits when social-emotional competence is improved. People are better students, teachers are better teachers, parents are better parents, managers are better managers, bosses are better bosses, leaders are better leaders.



One thought on “An Interview with Dr. Ed Dunkelblau

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.