The Foundation for Democracy: Promoting Social, Emotional, Ethical, Cognitive Skills and Dispositions in K-12 Schools

Jonathan Cohen, Terry Pickeral, Peter Levine


The Organization of American States’ (OAS) Inter-American Charter (2001) declares that “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it” (preface).  As the Charter also recognizes, one important means to promote and defend democracy is to teach it in schools. We will examine how schools can promote democratic knowledge, skills and dispositions, using examples from the United States that can be considered, adopted and/or adapted in nations throughout the Americas.  Civics education in the United States has tended to focus on civic knowledge (how government works, voting policies, etc.) rather than skills and dispositions. In this paper, we briefly review the evolution of how educational and political leaders have considered the relationship between social, emotional, ethical, civic and intellectual skills, knowledge and dispositions and democracy. We suggest a model of essential social, emotional, ethical and cognitive skills and dispositions that provide the foundation for participation in a democracy. We then outline two essential goals that K-12 schools need to consider to effectively promote these capacities: How and what students and adults learn? And, how school communities work together to create safe, caring, and responsive and participatory environments. We suggest that measuring and working to improve school climate is the single most powerful K-12 educational strategy that supports schools’ intentionally creating democratically informed communities which foster the skills, knowledge and dispositions that support students’ healthy development and capacity to learn and become engaged and effective citizens.