District begins work with University of Minnesota expert
For students to succeed in life, they need to not only develop academic skills but also manage emotions. To prepare students fully, schools must help students develop learned optimism and resiliency in addition to core academic subjects.
That was the message Dr. Clay Cook, a University of Minnesota expert in educational psychology, gave Lakeville Area Public Schools administrators, principals, deans and counselors at a workshop in August.
The district’s work with Dr. Cook is being funded in large part by a grant from PrairieCare.
The training is an important step for the district to better meet students’ needs and help them succeed. At a meeting last spring, teachers expressed desire to help students but said they felt their training wasn’t adequate to respond to the range of students’ needs.
According to data from the Minnesota Student Survey, 94 percent of Lakeville Area Public Schools students say they strongly agree or agree that teachers at their school care about them. Around the state, 88 percent of students agreed or strongly agreed that teachers cared about them. The survey found students in Lakeville were more likely to feel their teachers take interest in them personally.
District leaders say they know more needs to be done to help students become as successful as they can be.
“Kids can’t be successful academically if they’re not doing well in terms of their social-emotional health,” said Renae Ouillette, the district’s executive director of Student Services.
When a child is born, instinct governs behavior, Cook said. The part of the brain that governs regulation of behavior, among other things, isn’t fully developed until people are in their mid 20s.
“Academic, social-emotional learning and behavior, and physical functioning are ALL interconnected. We artificially separate out academics,” Cook said. “If students lack skills [in social-emotional learning], we need to teach them.”
Academic learning accounts for about 33 percent of a person having a happy, healthy productive life, Cook said. Developing social-emotional learning and skills helps people harness their academic knowledge effectively.
By teaching students to identify their goals and connecting seemingly esoteric concepts to those goals – such as the Pythagorean Theorem – teachers can make learning relevant, Cook said.
Former students also stressed the importance of the work. Nicolle Weinstein, who is now a senior at the University of Minnesota, said support she received from Lakeville teachers and staff during middle and high school was instrumental in helping her succeed academically and cope with anxiety. She said she sensed, however, that some staff members struggled to help students because they didn’t have sufficient training. In high school, the fledgling Student Support Services program served as a lifeline for Weinstein and others.
She noted another way school staff could help students is by learning more about mental health.
“When it came to mental health [in the past], there were no lessons taught” except for health class, where students researched mental health conditions and gave reports, Weinstein said. “It was never something emphasized that it could happen to us.”
Weinstein went on to found Students Supporting Students, an initiative at the University of Minnesota to foster peer-led mental health support. Weinstein said she also wants to encourage staff to continue their work.
“Each display of genuine care and concern toward a student is lasting and impactful, no matter how small,” Weinstein said. “Staff who allow themselves to show vulnerability and honesty with their students will see students mirror that behavior – and that is how relationships between teachers and students are made.”