Nurturing the Whole Child: Applying Social and Emotional Learning to Promote Safe and Supportive Schools in Minnesota

Access the social and emotional learning resources discussed in this article on the Minnesota Department of Education website.

“Who can tell me one of their goals, hopes, or dreams for this year?” The teacher surveys his third-grade class and calls on a girl eagerly waving her hand. “I want to save up enough for a bike,” she exclaims. “That’s a big goal,” notes the teacher. He points to a simple stairway he has drawn on the board. “What steps can you take to achieve your goal?” The girl stares at him wide-eyed. Using prompts and questions, the teacher guides her in identifying specific steps she can take toward her goal. He then repeats the process with another student.

These students are learning an essential life skill: the ability to set, monitor, adapt, achieve, and evaluate goals. The skill is one of several learning goals in the new Social and Emotional Learning Framework under development by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).

This framework outlines five competencies for social and emotional learning (SEL): self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These core competencies are based on a framework developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a Chicago-based nonprofit and a leader in the SEL field.

Social and Emotional Learning: Five Core Competencies
The ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions and thoughts and how these influence behavior.
The ability to successfully regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations.
Social Awareness
The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
Relationship Skills
The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups.
Responsible Decision-Making
The ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms.

Source: Core competencies adapted from the Framework for Systemic Social and Emotional Learning, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, Copyright 2017. Used with permission.

Minnesota’s new emphasis on SEL stems from the state’s Safe and Supportive Schools Act, passed in 2014. This law requires that Minnesota’s 380 public school districts and 165 charter schools strengthen their anti-bullying policies and foster safe school climates—including integrating SEL across all grade levels.

A growing body of research shows that SEL—teaching students to manage their behavior, interact well with others, and resolve conflict—decreases bullying and promotes more positive school climates and learning conditions.

Although many Minnesota school districts are incorporating SEL into early grade education, finding the staff and resources to integrate SEL across all grades poses a real challenge.

The Midwest Comprehensive Center (MWCC) and the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders (GTL Center) are partnering with MDE’s School Safety Technical Assistance Center to develop a suite of SEL resources and tools for districts, including the new K–12 SEL framework.

Minnesota SEL Framework: Example Learning Goal, Benchmarks, and Sample Activity

Competency: Self-Management

Learning goal

Grade band


Sample activity

Demonstrate the skills to set, monitor, adapt, achieve, and evaluate goals.

K – 3

  • Describe personal goals, hopes, or dreams with assistance from
    an adult.
  • Describe and implement simple steps necessary to achieve short-term goals.
  • Adapt for and overcome obstacles by demonstrating perseverance and identifying resources to achieve goals.
  • Celebrate steps achieved and skills demonstrated.
  • Stairway activity: Have each student create a personal goal, hope, or dream for the school year and then display it in the classroom along with the steps the student will need to take to reach it.
  • Coach students on positive
  • Celebrate each step accomplished in the stairway activity.

Note: The Minnesota SEL Framework is still under development, and this content may change.

Source: Minnesota Department of Education, 2017.

To include a mix of voices in developing the framework, the MDE SEL team formed a working group of some 35 members, including principals, teachers, counselors, social workers, parents, students, researchers, and advocates. Over a 10-month period beginning in 2015, the group met every other month, with each meeting focused on developing learning goals for one of the five SEL competencies. To prep for each meeting, MWCC supplied the group with resources about the selected competency, including research, best practices, and standards that other districts, states, and agencies had developed.

Ensuring broad participation is key to Heather Hirsch, the school climate specialist for the School Safety Technical Assistance Center. “In a state as geographically spread out as Minnesota and with so many different school districts and charter schools, we felt we needed a diverse group,” said Hirsch. “It provided for great discussion.”

Building a Knowledge Network

This inclusive and collaborative approach has enriched the process and yielded a few surprise benefits. Early on, Nick Yoder, Ph.D., a senior technical assistance consultant with MWCC and the GTL Center, connected the Minnesota SEL team to various content experts and organizations that could provide valuable input—most notably, CASEL.

“One of the really exciting things that have come out of our partnership with the MWCC was our connection with CASEL,” noted Hirsch. “Through that, we were … [able to] get significant additional technical assistance and guidance and connections to other states who are doing this work.”

“They really wanted to dig deep and collaborate with other states around SEL,” said Yoder.

In addition, MWCC brought in the Great Lakes Equity Center to provide a cultural review and ensure the SEL framework serves the state’s diverse population. “Those have been really key outcomes,” noted Hirsch. “We have been able to come together and move a lot quicker than had we been doing it completely on our own.”

Looking Ahead

With the SEL framework near completion, the MDE team now is developing SEL guidance on topics such as professional development, assessment, and out-of-school time programming. In addition, MDE is developing crosswalk documents aligning the framework to state standards. The team plans to gather feedback on the resources from districts across the state.

“The schools we’re hearing from, they’re excited,” said Hirsch, “they want to be part of the process.” The SEL resources, which will be optional for district use, are slated to be released online in the 2017–18 school year.

When asked about her goals, Hirsch replies, “Ideally, in five years, I’d love to see half the districts in the state using some portion of our guidance.” With help from partners like the Midwest Comprehensive Center and Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, MDE is well on the way to achieving this goal.

Nick Yoder Headshot
Principal TA Consultant