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A paper airplane's shadow is a rocketship, showing a growth mindset and how SEL and academics go hand in hand.

Rigor and joy: SEL and academics go hand-in-hand

Here's how this Oregon school helped grow students’ hearts and minds by linking SEL and academics


McMinnville School District serves 6,800 students across 9 schools

Biggest challenge

We are a Title 1 school in rural Oregon with over 60 percent of our students experiencing poverty and our best estimate tells us that 36 percent have also experienced some sort of childhood trauma. These obstacles create barriers for our students coming to school ready to learn and thrive both academically and social emotionally. Our teaching staff was struggling with knowing how to meet both of these needs simultaneously, focusing on both SEL and academics. In our field, there is a false dichotomy that educators should focus on either SEL or academics, hence the unending pendulum swing in education. The truth is our kids need and deserve both simultaneously. We needed to foster a growth culture that fostered high expectations and support for the whole child.


The transformational growth that we took on in our building could not have happened without growth mindset. The foundational belief that intelligence is malleable and that each child’s “true potential is unknown and unknowable.” (Dweck, 2006). We began this work by starting with the adults. We examined our own tendencies toward growth mindset messages and fixed mindset messages. We recognized that our systems often reflect past practice and can sometimes be obstacles to growth. We challenged one another to ask deep, difficult questions and foster each other’s learning as we tried new things. We sought to understand growth mindset not as a fad in education, but as ethical responsibility to understand and teach in ways that support brain development for our students.

Related: 5 tips for nurturing a growth mindset

With the support of a literacy-based, growth mindset and SEL curriculum called Growing Early Mindsets (GEM), we were able to clearly demonstrate to students from as early as preschool the importance of pursuing new challenges and ideas. By making an early introduction to their brains and illustrating the growth it was capable of, students started to see their obstacles as opportunities in a way that adults on our campuses struggled to do. This curriculum is based off current neuro-research about developing brains and positive psychology. The curriculum is now part of our preschool, kindergarten and first grade classrooms. Staff at other grade levels have also implemented growth mindset in authentic and organic ways that have completely transformed the dialogue in our building. It is truly possible to stop students in the hallway and ask them how they have demonstrated a growth mindset today and they will answer with stories about perseverance, growing their brain by doing difficult tasks, and embracing challenge. I’ll overhear students chatting about their neurons, their potential and the goals they’re setting to achieve great heights. I can’t say that looking back at our school four years ago.

The greatest thing about growth mindset is that the concept applies to both academic and social arenas. Some of our most powerful stories involve students who have had experienced childhood trauma and struggle with both learning and behavior. Through growth mindset, they understand that they have the potential to grow new pathways in their brains and, with support, strive to take ownership over their own brain development by demonstrating new skills. It has been a cornerstone in implementation of trauma informed practices at our school. Through deep growth mindset implementation, we have been able to move the dial both on student achievement and student behavior in our building. It is a strength-based model that focuses on the effort, goal setting and feedback that propels our students forward.

Growth mindset is now woven tightly into our school culture. Our mantra through this work has been “the relentless belief that every child has an unlimited capacity to learn.” Our school staff is endlessly motivated to continue showing students their full capacities to grow and learn with no limits because of the growth that they themselves exude day-to-day.

Lessons learned

  • When teachers believe relentlessly that every student has an unlimited capacity to learn this impact everything in the school system positively.
  • Our students deserve both social emotional learning and high expectations for academic achievement–both SEL and academics can be done well simultaneously.
  • SEL and academics go hand-in-hand and mutually reinforce the other: Schools can maximize whole child learning by integrating the two instead of polarizing them.
  • Leadership matters immensely. It is our job as school leaders to be role models, but that does not mean we stop learning from how students see the world.

Related: 5 ways we develop SEL in our students

Next steps

  • Replicate success by staying the course, going deeper with growth mindset understanding and continuing to notice fixed systems that create obstacles to student outcomes.
  • Understand the relationship between growth mindset and equity of outcomes for our students who experience implicit bias based on fixed systems.
  • Encourage students to be growth mindset ambassadors for their families, friends and greater community.
  • Acknowledge the impact of home life circumstances on student outlook in a positive, constructive manner.

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