Providing the ‘organizational love’

Minneapolis Public Schools is beginning its effort to systematically ingrain social and emotional development into schools across the district.

District leaders are working with the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) on a program for “social-emotional learning.” The idea is to meet students’ non-academic needs in part through social skills curricula but also by building strong relationships and welcoming school climates.

“We could have the most outstanding curriculum, the most amazing technology and phenomenal teachers and principals,” said Michael Thomas, the district’s chief of academics, leadership & learning. “But if our kids don’t feel safe, welcomed and/or are able to identify a positive supportive relationship … none of that will matter.”


Social-emotional learning has been a priority of Superintendent Ed Graff’s since he took over in summer 2016. The district is kicking off its program by focusing on 10 schools in Minneapolis.

Thomas recently sat down with the Southwest Journal to talk about the effort.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Southwest Journal: Why is the district making this push on social-emotional learning?


Thomas: When you think about, just going back to psychology, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If some of our basic human needs aren’t met, we’re not going to thrive as people. And the same holds true when you think about our schools. … So when you think about social-emotional learning from a school district standpoint, it is that organizational love, support and our ability to hold warm, welcoming spaces for our kids.

We’re also looking at SEL to be around the adults in our system, and quite frankly, that’s going to need to start first. The culture that we create is the culture that we emulate, so our kids need to see how we can interact differently (and) have relationships and healthy discourse.

Will the district use a curriculum to get staff thinking in that mindset?

What we are utilizing is the SEL coaches through our partnership with CASEL to provide professional development to staff here at (the Davis Center, the district’s headquarters). So for example, we’re starting with our academic leadership team. We have the coaches who have spent an entire day training all the department heads around SEL practice, how to observe for it, strategies for it, so that they can go out and support principals in doing the same. We’ve got 10 cohort schools, but then we have 60 other principals or so that aren’t part of the cohort that still need that support.

You have talked about three “signature practices” within SEL. Remind me what those three core practices are.

You’d have some sort of welcoming ritual. The welcoming ritual is a way to build community so that everybody’s voice is at the table or in that space. Then you’d have an engaging activity throughout the instruction or throughout the meeting. … And then you’re going to have an optimistic close.

Does that structure apply to just staff meetings, or could it be used in, say, science class?

The three signature practices are transferrable to any context. … Those are just good common practices to an effective meeting or effective instruction.

Over time of effectively implementing SEL, we should be able to observe a teacher doing an opening ritual, an engaging practice through instruction and an optimistic close. You’ll see it in a variety of different ways.

Many of our teachers are doing exit tickets. That’s a process of an optimistic close. Or you might have kids going around the room and saying, “What’s the best thing you learned today for this lesson?”

Beyond the three signature practices, there are also CASEL’s five core competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making).

Those are attributes within the CASEL framework that are skills that can be directly taught. So again, this is where, particularly at the secondary level, you’re going to see our advisory period utilizing curriculum that will really begin to hone those core SEL attributes or skill sets. You’re going to see at the elementary level, where they’re going to be using ways of building community to start their day.

A prominent one you’re going to see is Responsive Classroom (a social skills program). … You can also just have your general classroom guidelines or school-wide code of conduct. Those all reinforce the same SEL attributes.

I would assume a lot of schools are already doing a lot of these practices.

That’s a good point, and that’s something we wanted our principals to recognize. … But how we systematize it, that’s the important thing. And when you think about a district like Minneapolis, where you have such a high mobility rate, that’s where having some consistencies of practice are going to be critically important. It doesn’t have to be cookie-cutter, but kids have to understand that social-emotional learning is going to be that umbrella over all of our schools.

We want these 10 cohort schools and eventually all our schools to meet self-awareness, self-advocacy, et cetera, standards. … Our cohort one, the big lift that they have is to help declare and define what those SEL standards should be within those domains.

Other than Responsive Classroom, could you point to other practices someone may see if they walked into a school incorporating SEL?

That’s going to be dependent on what the building principal puts in play. … In terms of outcomes, I would expect that this spring we should be able to see some indications around our student survey data that shows that the climate within our schools might be changing from a student’s perspective. … I want to see some of those culture, climate measures that we have really showing indications of shifting a more positive direction.

But again, how they do that, I’m not going to dictate that. That’s the art of leadership. … I think you could talk to our 10 school principals and they’ll all give you a different approach as to how they envision getting to some of those outcomes. And that’s where I have the trust that we’ve got good leaders.