Kim Gibbons
Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI)

Entering the 2020-2021 school year, we are in a moment that is overwhelmed by philosophical questions.  How will we meaningfully deliver rigorous instruction?  How do we meet the social-emotional needs of our students?  How do we engage with families and our communities?  How do we do all of this with equity at the center and address the needs of all of our students?  If we are able to step outside of the immediate anxiety of a pandemic, we can read these questions and realize that they were the same that we were attempting to answer before distance learning.  Perhaps the difference is that we are realizing just how urgent these needs truly are.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to join my colleague Dr. Katie Pekel and lead an effort to obtain feedback from educators regarding their experiences and concerns with distance learning.  We conducted a survey that was completed by educators between May 27 and June 28, 2020.  Based upon the 13,077 responses that we received across 409 districts, we found that educators’ primary concern was regarding their ability to build relationships and socially connect and engage with students and families.  Their concerns were specific to distance learning, but the fact is that we have long held an understanding of social-emotional learning (SEL) as an essential effort in meeting the needs of the whole child.  We have inarguably made strides toward embedding SEL in our schools; and yet, this moment is demanding an acceleration of SEL implementation.  Do we operate within a framework that informs how we build a foundation for SEL?  With immediate needs too often come immediate decisions, and without a process and set of thoughtful criteria, we are at risk of being distracted by the promise of shiny objects with little regard for what actually works.  This cycle is the story of our collective inequities, because we know that when we pursue ideas that aren’t based in evidence, those who suffer most are our most vulnerable.  With that in mind, we can see that educational frameworks like a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) are about much more than curricula or interventions; they are about an acknowledgement and respect for the dignity of our students and families.

It is worth mentioning that the implications of social-emotional learning extend well beyond how we instruct our students.  Within CASEL’s district framework rubric for SEL, we see four stages of implementation, and the second stage – before we focus on promoting SEL for students – requires that we strengthen adult SEL competencies and capacity.  We, the adults in the room, cannot assume social-emotional expertise simply by virtue of being an educator.  Engaging in SEL for students requires that we build foundational support, content knowledge, and a culture and climate that values the crucial role that teachers perform (CASEL, 2019).  To be clear, this implementation rubric does not require that districts wait until a foundation and adult competence are entirely realized before taking on any effort toward instructing students.  What we must understand in meeting the social-emotional needs of students, staff, and families is that our efforts are as effective as the system that guides them.

Just as educators alluded to in their responses to our survey, family and community engagement is intrinsically embedded in the pursuit of SEL and student learning.  Recovery and redesign must include student, family, and community voice.  While there is no one-size-fits-all approach for how to establish and maintain those connections, we can again look to evidence-based frameworks for guidance.  The components of MTSS will vary depending upon the source of the information, but a consistent ingredient in any version of the framework is family, community, and school partnerships.  Evidence-based guidance allows schools and districts to navigate the unique obstacles that our most vulnerable and marginalized populations face, and that is especially important when we are attempting to serve our communities at a distance.

If your email inbox is like mine lately, it can be an overwhelming space of information overload.  The problem that remains with all of this information is in deciphering what is evidence-based, what is practical, and how we use this information meaningfully to take an organized approach.  As part of my work at the Center for Applied Research & Educational Improvement (CAREI), my team and I are working to identify what is essential, organize existing information with our own research, and curate a series of resources and professional learning opportunities that will be immediately practical for our member districts.  It is our intention to assist districts throughout Minnesota and beyond in moving past the distress of distance learning and take advantage of the opportunity to redesign how we answer the call of education.

I hope you will consider becoming a member of the CAREI District Assembly for the 2020-2021 school year.  There is no increase to our annual fees this year.  District Assembly membership includes:

  • Four Assembly meetings with an overall focus of recovery and redesign – we anticipate our first meeting will focus on social-emotional learning with specific consideration for the experiences of the pandemic and the sudden onset of distance learning this past spring. Assembly meetings are accessible online as well as in person (dependent upon health and safety guidelines and University of Minnesota policy), so you can participate in the discussion from your office. Bring as many team members as you wish!
  • Tools and resources – policy briefs, implementation inventories and checklists, data protocols, practice guides, and so much more!
  • Our monthly Research Watch electronic newsletter – Each issue highlights a summary of research studies published that will be of interest to you as a district leader. Topical areas include leadership, social-emotional learning, teaching and learning, assessment, and unique learners. We will also continue to produce each edition of Research Watch in an audio/podcast form to allow you to listen in and learn during your daily commute.
  • Members Only section of the CAREI website – includes valuable resources such as the Minnesota Student Survey Data Analytic Dashboard with results from the 2019 administration.
  • 25% discount on CAREI professional learning opportunities and other CAREI services

You can enroll your district in the District Assembly via the CAREI Website:  In addition, please feel free to contact me at if you need help deciphering the research!


Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). (2019). District Resource Center rubric. Retrieved from

Minnesota Department of Education. (2020). Engaging with Families during COVID-19 Distance Learning. Retrieved from

Minnesota Department of Education. (2020). Supporting Students and Families COVID-19 Resources. Retrieved from

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