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Schools find 'emotional learning' a path to student success

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Tom Cody leads a social-emotional learning session
Tom Cody with the group Top 20 Training leads a social-emotional learning session at Eastview High School on September 21, 2016 in Apple Valley, Minn.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

It's part motivational speaker and part pep rally as Tom Cody of the group Top 20 Training stands in front of about 200 high schoolers at Apple Valley's Eastview High School. Cody warms up the crowd: "In 1999, this changed my life," he tells the students.

Cody and another trainer tell the Eastview students they're going to learn to be more effective in three areas: thinking, learning and communication. 

During the lesson, the trainers talk about triggers that can make people slip into negative thoughts, which then turn into unproductive behavior. 

The students fold orange sheets of paper and write down their own personal triggers. Every so often they do a call-and-response: "We have the power of choice!" At one point a sunset fills the projector screen with the words "Bring It!" superimposed in red.

The session, which Top 20 Training does in Minnesota and other states, is one example of a concept called "social-emotional learning" that's gaining ground across the country. 

Students brainstorm ways to think positively.
Students at Eastview High School brainstorm ways to maintain positive thinking as part of a social-emotional education session on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News

The idea is that instead of just teaching subjects like reading and math, schools should help students learn skills like managing emotions, empathizing and making decisions. Research shows these "social-emotional" skills can actually improve students' academic performance.

New Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff made social-emotional learning a big part of his pitch to the board during his interview. He pushed the strategy as a way to close academic achievement gaps. Graff declined to discuss his current plans around social-emotional practices.

State education officials are currently working with several other states to share social-emotional learning practices. State officials say they plan to release guidelines for schools in 2018. The Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning is leading the multi-state group.

"People recognize that if you care about academic performance, you have to care about more than just academics," said Roger Weissberg, the group's chief knowledge officer. "Social-emotional" education can mean changes for schools, too, like altering teaching styles and curriculum to make them more engaging, he added.

University of Minnesota culture and teaching professor Vichet Chhuon agrees social and emotional skills are important, but Chhuon said he's worried about the unintended consequences of the trend. He said the skills a teacher thinks a student needs might not be the most relevant for that student. 

"It is a mixed bag, and it's a mixed bag that we have to be really careful about," Chhuon said. "Just because you don't do school 'right' in the ways that are standardized by white, middle class values doesn't mean that you don't have the appropriate social-emotional skills necessary to function well."

Chhuon worried a perceived "deficiency" on social-emotional skills could send even more African-American boys to special education classes, where they're already over-represented.

State officials said school guidelines will emphasize that the skills do look different in different cultures, that teachers should also get social-emotional training and that schools should get feedback from families.

Tom Cody with Top 20 Training said he learned that lesson the hard way at a school on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Cody said he thought he had "superman stuff" and was absolutely positive students would respond to his program.

"But we ran into kryptonite," Cody said.

The students were checked out. The school district's superintendent at the time, Roger Bordeaux, said the students eventually did respond to the training because the trainers changed their approach in response to feedback from adults at the school.

"They've got to be willing to learn a little bit about where they're coming to and then work hard to work their message into that given culture," Bordeaux said. He said he thinks the training has ultimately had a positive effect. He recently moved to a new district and said he's still a supporter of social-emotional learning. In fact, he has some more sessions coming up on his calendar.