Clay CookClay Cook

Back to school with social-emotional learning

Clay Cook’s recipe for student success takes schools from good to great

One in five youth ages 13 to 18 has, or will experience, a mental health condition, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. Studies show that mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, are the number-one cause of illness among youth. Mental health problems also result in significant impairment in social and academic functioning and are associated with a greater likelihood of students harming themselves or others. Untreated mental health conditions are increasingly identified as factors in a range of issues, from school dropout rates to bullying and gun violence.

Yet mental health issues can be prevented and treated, and youth can gain resilience by receiving supports to develop what are now called social-emotional skills—relating to others, managing emotions, maintaining resilience, and solving problems.

“Social-emotional skills enable young people to meet the social and academic demands at school,” explains school psychology associate professor Clayton Cook. “They set up students for successful lives as workers, citizens, and parents.”

Cook sees schools as the epicenter of communities, with great potential to better support the children and families who gather there. Taking a whole-child approach integrates social-emotional supports with academics. This approach also connects mental and behavioral health providers to schools to deliver services in the places where children are most able to access them.

“If you build a community mental health clinic, most kids who need those services won’t get there,” says Cook. “Schools are a major hub and access point. But most schools don’t know how to organize themselves and tailor services for kids. This is where research helps—to know what works and how.”

Cook knows firsthand the challenges young people face in schools and life. He struggled with his own behavior during high school and later worked in schools as a paraprofessional for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. These experiences made him highly effective when he became a researcher identifying interventions that work and putting them into practice in real-life settings.

Today, Cook is an expert in school mental health. He’s the John W. and Nancy E. Peyton Faculty Fellow in Child and Adolescent Wellbeing in the Department of Educational Psychology. Since he arrived in Minnesota in 2015, he has forged a variety of partnerships across the campus and in communities to help children, families, and schools.

IM4 – match, map, monitor, meet

Clay Cook worked with CEHD’s Education Technology Innovations to create IM4, a tool to help promote social-emotional learning. It’s a new web-based application, with expertise built in, that allows educators to more easily identify an intervention with the greatest likelihood of success based on an individual student’s mental and behavioral health needs. Read more about IM4.

Cook is at the leading edge of research in implementation science in the schools—the study of methods that bring evidence-based practices, interventions, and policies into everyday settings to improve important outcomes for children.

He has been working with Lakeville Area Public Schools for the past year to do exactly this.

School as a recipe

There’s a buzz of excitement about Crystal Lake Education Center in Lakeville not typical of a Wednesday evening.

A community advisory committee of teachers, parents, high school students, faith leaders, citizens, and school administrators has gathered for its last meeting of the school year. Their goal: to improve social-emotional learning in Lakeville schools.

Cook is familiar to most in the room. During his presentation, he describes the metaphor of “school as a recipe” for optimizing student social-emotional and academic success. That recipe includes six “ingredients” supported by evidence:

• an environment that’s safe, nurturing, structured and predictable, and reinforcing
• relationships that help all students and staff feel welcomed, valued, and a strong sense of belonging
• knowledge and skills that enable students to achieve academic and life success
• promotion of agency to help students develop a sense of purpose, hope, and future orientation
• a relentless approach to meaningful family and community engagement
• a needs-driven continuum of supports to tailor and align supports to individual students

It’s a recipe that has worked in schools where Cook has consulted across the country, such as the Sumner School District in Washington State. Sumner has been using Cook’s methods for four years and today sustains a whole-child approach.

“With so many young people and families affected by mental health problems,” Cook tells the Lakeville committee, “even schools with a record of success in academics like this one have an opportunity to go from good to great by supporting social-emotional learning.”

Implementation is the hard part

Lakeville Area Public Schools have a legacy of high academic achievement. But school staff have known for years that the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments (MCAs)—though a necessary measure of success for students—were giving an incomplete picture.

“Back in 2009, we were having conversations around mental health, promotion, early intervention . . . but we really didn’t have dedicated research or support to do that work,” recalls Renae Ouillette, executive director of student services and special education and a trained school psychologist.

Ouillette and district student services coordinator Lisa Holien found that Lakeville teachers and student services staff were spending a lot of time providing one-to-one interventions for kids. They recognized that helping students build better social-emotional skills early on would help prevent the need for more intense interventions in the future.

Lakeville’s Lisa Holien, left, and Emily McDonald, right, with Cook.

Getting teachers and school staff excited about social- emotional learning wasn’t difficult. Implementation was the hard part.

“We would purchase curriculum for social-emotional learning in classrooms, and we found that our teachers weren’t using the practices,” she says.

In 2015, Ouillette attended a conference where she heard Cook speak. In his talk, he discussed promoting social- emotional learning in schools using implementation science.

“When I learned the components of implementation science, it made sense that people—teachers, school staff, etcetera—weren’t adopting social-emotional learning as we knew it could be,” says Ouillette. She shared what she learned at the conference with Holien, and the two were determined to find a way to work with Cook.

“As an initial step, we invited Clay to meet people throughout the district who were passionate about the whole- child approach and concerned that we weren’t addressing it as best we could,” Holien remembers.

“When we had the opportunity to hear Dr. Cook speak, it was a lightbulb moment for us to expand the narrative around what student success is,” says Emily McDonald, assistant superintendent and director of teaching and learning for the district.

After meeting with Cook, the student services team applied for a grant from PrairieCare Child & Family Fund, a charitable nonprofit organization that supports mental health innovations in education, services, and research. Lakeville Area Public Schools were awarded the grant and used part of it for Cook to train staff in social-emotional learning and help establish recognition of SEL as essential to the district’s academic mission.

Social-emotional learning for everyone

Aren’t our politics emotional enough? Not exactly. We’re not born with the ability to engage civically—we have to learn! And, as Clay Cook described to CEHD alumni at a program last fall, among the essential mental equipment of good citizens everywhere is what psychologists call emotional intelligence, or EQ.

Read more.

Nurturing the whole child

When Michael Baumann joined Lakeville Area Public Schools as superintendent in 2017, he brought 20 years of experience as a professional of cer in the United States Army before beginning his career in education. His transition plan for the district is called, “Educating every child today. Making strong leaders for tomorrow.” That philosophy fuels his passion for the whole-child approach.

“As superintendent, I think of my role in social-emotional learning as that of a gardener,” says Baumann. “If we want to grow a strong crop of kids in our district, we need to remove the weeds—or potential barriers to their growth—and nurture them with the right support.”

During the 2017–18 school year, teachers and student support staff from all 15 of Lakeville’s schools attended training sessions led by Cook. Afterward they were surveyed to measure their readiness for social-emotional learning programming. Results showed overwhelming support for social-emotional learning.

In addition to assessing readiness of school staff, Cook and the student services group held regular discussions—like the one at Crystal Lake Education Center—to build advocates for social-emotional learning in the school and surrounding community as well as to test potential implementation strategies.

Clay Cook  (top photo) took part in a May meeting of Lakeville Area Public Schools community advisory committee for social-emotional learning, which included students, too.

Cindy Haux, a parent of two Lakeville high school students who have struggled in school, is a member of the community advisory committee for social-emotional learning. As someone who has also suffered from anxiety for many years, Haux is all too familiar with the challenges of growing up with mental illness.

“We are working to help each child and their family to be supported and encouraged in schools and in homes,” is how Haux describes the committee’s work.

During the 2018–19 school year, Lakeville Area Public Schools’ focus will shift from developing the training curriculum and assessing readiness to establishing teams at each of the school’s buildings to support social-emotional learning. Cook expects the process will take roughly three to five years to fully implement, establishing the district’s internal expertise.

Supporting schools for the long term

Cook aims to increase school districts’ capacities to use the science of implementation to continuously improve and refine social-emotional programming over time, long after his role ends.

That’s what has happened in Sumner, Washington. Whole-child program administrator John Norlin says Cook’s implementation approach helped Sumner build a program that’s made to last.

“Clay’s philosophy of ‘move slow to move fast’ was great advice for us,” says Norlin. “He knows that you should never look at this as a one-year project that is going to make change, as there is no research to back that up.”

In Lakeville, Superintendent Baumann sees that approach as critical to the success of all future initiatives—not just social-emotional learning programming. Implementation science bears similarities to the craft of the military, he notes.

“You train everyone to the same standards of process, and this allows you [to] plug and play those standards to help you implement other initiatives,” says Baumann.

Parent Cindy Haux believes it’s worth the wait, even if her own children
graduate before it’s fully in place. “If, in the end, teachers and staff in our district have the confidence to approach kids and parents when support is needed,“ she says, “we will have made a meaningful difference.”

Innovations in Implementation Science

Bridging the Science-to-Practice Gap to Increase Children’s Access to Quality Mental Health Services | Oct. 4–5

Learn about innovative research in implementation science from top researchers in this multidisciplinary and internationally recognized eld. Implementation science is designed to address the longstanding science-to-practice gap across social service sectors—health care, child welfare, juvenile justice, and education. It aims to help practitioners and researchers more effectively implement evidence-based practices into real-world practice. This is the third-annual symposium sponsored by CEHD’s Institute for Translational Research on Children’s Mental Health, useful for researchers, professionals, and practitioners alike.


Read more about Clay Cook in “Lifting students up” and view his faculty page.

Learn more about the school psychology program.

More info about social-emotional learning

This year the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) released a set of social-emotional learning competencies and benchmarks for schools, developed by a team that included Clay Cook’s colleague in educational psychology, professor Michael Rodriguez. MDE also released implementation and professional development guidance, developed by a team led by Cynthia Zwicky in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and assessment guidance, developed by a team led by Rodriguez. Read more about MDE’s social-emotional learning competencies, benchmarks, and guidance and more about SEL from Rodriguez.

Story by Sarah Jergenson | Photos by Greg Helgeson | Fall 2018