Superintendent Ed Graff is leading a push on social-emotional learning in Minneapolis Public Schools. File photo

Superintendent Ed Graff is leading a push on social-emotional learning in Minneapolis Public Schools. File photo

MPS begins push on social-emotional learning

Updated: February 27, 2017 - 2:55 pm

Minneapolis Public Schools is partnering with a Chicago-based organization to develop a framework for improving students’ social and emotional skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and responsible decision-making.

Representatives from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning will meet with district leaders and other stakeholders in February to gauge MPS’ social-emotional learning practices and policies. CASEL will report back to the district on its capacity to do systematic work, its strengths in social-emotional learning and challenges it may face in implementing a plan.

“It’s really designed to just take stock in what they’re doing and help them prioritize plans for forward-looking implementation,” said Melissa Schlinger, CASEL’s vice president of programs and practice.

The visit comes as MPS begins its process of implementing districtwide social-emotional learning practices, a priority of new Superintendent Ed Graff. District leaders will take a trip to Chicago next month to learn more, and the district hopes to scale its social-emotional learning program by April 2018.

Social-emotional learning is the process of acquiring skills such as self- and social awareness, self-management, active listening and cooperation, according to CASEL. Research has shown that the practice increases academic achievement, improves classroom behavior and increases students’ ability to manage stress.

“To me it’s about working smarter, not harder,” said Kate Walker, a University of Minnesota associate extension professor and extension specialist in youth work practice. “The best teachers do this all of the time.”

A 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health found an association between social-emotional skills in kindergarten and key young adult outcomes in education, employment, criminal activity, substance abuse and mental health. In another study, Columbia University researchers tracked six social-emotional learning interventions and found that they gave a return of $11 for every $1 invested.

Graff’s previous school district developed 15 different standards around social-emotional learning, he said when interviewing for the MPS job in May. He said those standards were a basis for conversations about recruiting and training teachers and issues around equity and the achievement gap.

“These are skills that are necessary for every one of our students,” he said then.

Lifelong skills

Walker said social-emotional learning isn’t something schools can do for just 20 minutes a day through a social-skills curriculum. She said she encourages people to think about how to infuse the practice into everyday environments, noting that employers are looking for young people who have these skills.

Schlinger said social-emotional learning helps students developing skills such as understanding their own emotions, mindsets and how they interact with others, conflict management and grit.

She said her organization will try to get a sense of MPS’ ability to undertake a systematic social-emotional learning approach during its visit.

Graff said the district is hoping for a 60-day turnaround on CASEL’s report. The district will also be working to create social-emotional learning standards and partner with families to support the development of these skills.

District leaders have already mapped out MPS’ current social-emotional learning efforts, which include training for staff and use of a curriculum called Second Step. At a January School Board meeting, they stressed the importance of staff modeling these skills in the effort to instill them in students.

“We have to walk the talk of social-emotional learning with our students,” said Julie Young-Burns, leader of MPS’ social-emotional learning team.

Measuring a challenge

Eric Moore, the district’s chief of accountability, innovation and research, said measuring social and emotional traits can be challenging because school environments can adversely impact students. Moore said that students feel more self-worth and persistence when they also feel valued, noting the intersection of equity and social-emotional learning.

“We believe you can’t look at one without the other,” he said.

Moore said his office is looking to make sure metrics are culturally relevant and don’t judge students based on what they have or don’t have. He said the district will talk to families to ensure the social-emotional measures are culturally appropriate and that it’s looking at the impact of race, culture and language on the measures.

“We want to make sure there’s a shared understanding of what these measures mean,” he said.

Clara Barton Open School parent Elizabeth Campbell said she looks forward to seeing the districtwide push. Campbell said social-emotional learning is “the foundation of what they do” at Barton, noting that kids there learn about their emotions and how they affect their work.

Campbell said the school’s focus on social-emotional learning starts in the earliest grades. She told of her experience volunteering in her daughter’s kindergarten classroom during show and tell, where the presenter learned public-speaking skills and the other students learned how to actively listen and ask thoughtful questions.

“A lot of people think of it as these crunchy, hippy, everybody-finds-out-their feelings things,” she said of social-emotional learning. However, she noted it’s more about the ability to understand one’s self and others “so you have citizens who can have constructive relationships.”

Visit http://ecs.mpls.k12.mn.us/sel to learn more about MPS’ efforts in social-emotional learning.