12/17/2009 04:23 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Antidote to an Enraged Society

"Our problem?" Board Chairman Timothy Shriver asked the others gathered for the day-long forum hosted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in Washington, DC, last week. "Our children are growing up in a world of violence, division, alienation and stress. I think we're all feeling -- at least I know I am -- frustrated, concerned, vulnerable."

As I recently wrote about, the forum aimed to figure out how best to get "social and emotional learning" (SEL), which uses specialized curricula to impart social skills and emotional management techniques to students, included in national education policy. But throughout the day at the forum, the conversation consistently reached beyond the country's classrooms to focus on the bigger picture.

The participants referred frequently to the conflict-ridden culture our children live in and learn from. It was clear that many of them envision their reform movement as one that has the potential to change not just the face of our nation's schools, but the very character of our culture.

"We are promoting conflict in every aspect of our society," said Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH), who had come to announce the Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Act of 2009, which aims to promote SEL and to get SEL standards included in the reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

"On TV, let's get the extreme left and extreme right ... to start yelling at each other," he said. "I've been on these shows, I know what they want. I've stopped going on a lot of them because I don't have any interest in participating in screaming at somebody. That's the society our kids are coming up in ... constant stress and anxiety and conflict and fighting."

Social and emotional learning, he said, "is the antidote to that."

Onto Something Good

So how does a movement out to change the nature of society get going?

First, it takes research -- a lot of research -- and then money. Throw in the support of some influential people, such as leaders in science and education policy, iconic doctors and congresspeople, and you're cooking with gas.

While SEL advocates have long known they are onto something good, they have had to work painstakingly for a decade and a half to build the base of evidence needed to support their message in prime time.

On studying schools and districts that incorporate SEL, researchers found that giving students skills in social interaction, emotion management and conflict resolution improves their academic achievement, attention spans, judgment, behavior and levels of emotional distress.

Schools that make SEL a key part of their curricula report better retention rates, an increased sense of safety and strong connections among students and teachers. Kids experiencing SEL learn that education is about something deeper than amassing facts, and the school atmosphere reflects that change in perspective.

Researchers also examined the brain chemistry that makes childhood such an important window for the development of these skills. SEL's proponents speak just as fluently about neurological function and brain development as they do about classroom management and standardized testing.

When the data was thorough enough to make a strong case for an education policy reform effort, the question then became "what next?" How do you go from making a good case to getting a proper movement off the ground?

The Start of a Movement

Fortunately for CASEL, philanthropists Peter and Jennifer Buffett, in the process of deciding on giving priorities for their NoVo Foundation, discovered the organization and liked what they saw. The Buffetts' programming style -- following a line of logic from a base idea and investing in targeted ways along that line -- has recently earned them a place on Barron's list of 25 most effective philanthropists.

They are basing NoVo's giving on the idea that the world should move away from competitiveness, domination, exploitation and incessant action and instead promote nurturance, cooperation and a process-context-orientation. To further that aim, they have invested heavily in programs and individuals that promote a balanced culture. Empowering women and girls around the world is one critical step. And now they are building a comprehensive social and emotional learning initiative.

Over months of dialogue, the Buffetts and CASEL found themselves a good match, and in March of this year, NoVo announced a $6 million gift, an investment intended to position CASEL to take its message to the national stage.

"We pushed, as NoVo Foundation, we invested in CASEL," Jennifer Buffett told me. "And we said, 'We think the time is now, before we lose our society and we lose a generation of kids. Are you ready to step up?' And they said 'yes.'" Together, CASEL and NoVo create a partnership to be reckoned with. "I think we have the ability between us and them to get real about this," Buffett said.

Getting Real

What does getting real about a nascent movement look like?

It looks, in this case, like a room full of intellectual leaders, such as Edward Zigler, professor emeritus at Yale University and a giant of the child development field; education professors Linda Darling-Hammond from Stanford and Roger Weissberg from University of Illinois at Chicago; and Daniel Goleman, psychologist and New York Times-bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence.

It looks like a forum attended by famous friends, such as Peter Yarrow, of the folk-music group Peter, Paul and Mary, who is taking a new musical anti-bullying initiative to Israel and the West Bank; Goldie Hawn, whose Hawn Foundation promotes a restructuring of classroom education; and Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, the pediatrician who taught a generation of parents how to nurture their infants.

It looks like Congressman Ryan, Congressman Dale Kildee (D-MI) and Congresswoman Judy Biggert (R-IL) bringing H.R. 4223, the Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Act of 2009, before the House, thereby officially putting SEL on the national education map.

And it looks like someone who can support the movement in a serious way speaking emotionally about the need for something new. "I think people are really exhausted," Jennifer Buffett said, in reference to the never-ending attempts to shore up the drowning US school system.

"We've tried a lot of things and they aren't working. We're failing kids even more and the school environment is about to crumble and is crumbling for teachers and educators. So I think in the failure of those approaches there's an opening for something new and different and out of a whole different school of thought," she said.

Is this different school of thought the antidote to the bigger picture? Can changing the way our students learn really heal an enraged society?

"We had a philosophical realization about the world being out of balance," Buffett said. "We thought, 'Where do we learn these [out-of-balance values] and where are they affirmed?'"

Her answer? "Education."