When eighth-graders rush into Seth Brown’s math class at Wayzata West Middle School in a week, they’ll drill into finicky equations, but they’ll also learn how to focus before lessons, tweak their attitudes and accept their mistakes.

They are not just students of math, but of “social-emotional learning,” an approach to education that is gathering support around the country and in Twin Cities classrooms.

Social and emotional learning balances academic achievement with “softer” skills: self-control, self and social awareness, relationship building and decisionmaking. Supporters say it’s a necessary antidote to the pressures schools put on children.

“We kind of stress them out,” Brown said.

Twin Cities educators who have joined the movement say they can see improvements in both classroom behavior and school performance when they teach to “the whole child.”

“It’s the foundation of what we do in education,” said new Minneapolis superintendent Ed Graff, who earned a national reputation for championing the approach in Alaska.

Minnesota is one of eight states working with a national group to help make guidelines for schools and districts around social and emotional learning strategies. While the movement has its skeptics, it is surfacing in districts across the metro area in various forms, ranging from personalized learning to stress reduction.

A middle school in Wayzata is training teachers on the concept of mindfulness, which is awareness of emotions and surroundings, and hopes to implement it on the student level.

One Chaska high school is emphasizing “grit,” the perseverance that can help kids overcome academic struggles. One of Bloomington’s high schools is conducting surveys to see whether academic motivation can be linked to any of the social-emotional practices.

Graff, who’s in his second month as the Minneapolis schools chief, has a team working on putting the ideas into practice. Social and emotional learning are critical to the better student outcomes and equity sought in the district’s strategic plan, he said in a statement.

The efforts in Brown’s Wayzata middle school classroom pay off, he said.

“I’ve been finding that I’m actually getting better results emotionally from students as well as, I think, mathematical discussions,” he said.

National, statewide push

Social and emotional learning concepts have been around since the 1950s and ’60s, according to Geoffrey Maruyama, the department chair in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Educational Psychology. One early example was the cooperative learning used by Twin Cities-based educators David and Roger Johnson, which was based in student interaction in classrooms.

Social and emotional learning saw a resurgence in the early to mid-1990s when a national group supporting the concept was founded, said Lara Westerhof, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota doing her dissertation on social-emotional learning.

But it gets a mixed reception. People argue that schools’ passion for the “grit” idea could hurt students from tough backgrounds. Their home environments demand so much perseverance that they don’t need more resources spent on it at school.

One study from researchers in Chicago in 2011 found “positive effects” on social-emotional behaviors, attitudes and better grades and test performance. Other research suggested that social and emotional learning overlooks culture.

Westerhof said she hasn’t seen evidence that social and emotional learning skills are decreasing the gap by helping students of color more than white students.

Grit and personalization

A visit to Chaska shows social and emotional learning at work in different ways.

At Integrated Arts Academy, words like “grit” and “personalization” are part of the core values. Integrated Arts is a choice high school in the Eastern Carver County district where teachers encourage students to pursue a project they’re passionate about and then push them to their fullest potential. There’s no slipping through the cracks, students and teachers said.

“You can’t just hide here,” said Patrick Delaney, who starts his senior year there Monday. “It’s just the way it is.”

Nearby at Pioneer Ridge Middle School in Chaska last week, some teachers got training on a flexible scheduling system that will give students more autonomy in their class choices this school year. They’ll be able to pick which subjects they want to take, when they want to take them, and have different offerings such as seminars, discussions and coaching workshops.

Around them, classrooms were personalized not by subject, but for each learning type. There’s a room with comfy chairs for collaboration and one with desks for direct teaching.

“Rather than doing [something] out of compliance to please a teacher, we’re really trying to stress the ‘why’ in knowing it, and then helping and supporting them and getting them engaged to choose to want to do that,” said Dan Thompson, teacher and flexible learning coordinator.

Culture among students has changed for the better since more personalized learning was implemented a few years ago, Thompson said.

Carly Bailey, a sixth-grade science teacher, added that students are seeking assistance.

“Before, it was just, ‘I’m supposed to do my work sheet and move on,’ ” she said. “Now, they’re asking us to help them learn.”