Central to our work at Breakthrough Collaborative is our commitment to affirming the lived experiences of our communities, particularly those who have been historically marginalized and underrepresented. Over the decades, we have strived to refine and evolve our work in response to what best serves our students, Teaching Fellows, Instructional Coaches, and staff. Last year, with support from All Points North Foundation, we began a new chapter to rethink how we approach social-emotional learning (SEL), starting with our students’ voices and experiences as the foundation of our work.

We developed the Human First Framework (HFF) to amplify our students’ inherent strengths and support their growth as leaders and changemakers. The HFF is a culmination of our research on the merits and critiques of SEL, our own reckoning with how we have previously approached social-emotional learning, and most of all, our belief that our students’ aspirations and assets are critical to how we think about SEL.

We don’t need to change or manage our students, but instead highlight and elevate their inherent strengths and assets. We need to shift the burden off students and identify what types of support we can provide to help them thrive.” – Alex Serna, Chief Program Officer at Breakthrough Collaborative

Continuously Learning and Evolving:
Where we were

There has been an outpouring of various SEL programs over the years, all with potential to build relationships, unpack biases, and provide students with emotional support. However, SEL programs are too often grounded in the norms and expectations of white culture. Critics of traditional SEL suggest that social emotional well-being of marginalized communities has more to do with unjust systems than their individual social-emotional skills. Recognizing that 92 percent of Breakthrough students are students of color, we knew that we could not simply move from one SEL framework to another without first examining why social-emotional learning was important to us and our students. 

Breakthrough’s approach to supporting young people has always been holistic. Our scholars are not simply test takers or future graduates, but human beings whose agency we honor as they determine and chart their own path forward. In this way, we have encouraged students to explore their identities, supported them in fostering relationships with peers and adults, and built communities filled with joy. Social-emotional learning has been at the heart of what we do. 

However, we also reflected on our failure to explicitly acknowledge the impact of historical and systemic injustices on our students and communities in our efforts to implement social-emotional learning. We found in our examination of our previous framework that we needed to better address the developmental and cultural needs of our students. Therefore, we concluded that our new framework should not only integrate culturally responsive thinking with SEL, but also start with our students’ experiences and needs as its foundation.

Where we are going

The road to developing the Human First Framework is a story of listening, learning, and evolving. We knew SEL at Breakthrough should go beyond isolated skills and fully see our students, so we held conversations with students from 10 affiliates about their hopes and dreams. Building on the research of Dr. Camangian and Dr. Cariaga, which called for the humanization of SEL and our students, we integrated all we learned about students’ aspirations, challenges, and support systems into our framework. This includes our students’ stories, their dreams to “leave a mark” in the world and drive the “why” of our framework. In a society where students feel their identities, community, and agency are not always valued, we hope that Breakthrough continually evolves as a space that supports our students to authentically appreciate themselves, each other, and their power to make systemic change. 

The Human First Framework outlines three competencies we believe align to our students’ lived experiences and our goal to amplify our students: 1) Knowledge and Love of Self, 2) Solidarity, and 3) Self-Determination. Below are some major takeaways from our conversation with our students and how they connect to the HFF. 

Knowledge and Love of Self  “Students know themselves and their place in society and become subjects of their own realities.”

Many students saw their personal mindsets, especially self-doubt, as barriers to success that they had to overcome through their own hard work. We hope to create a space for students to talk about their self-doubt in the context of their identities, perceived places in society, and unpack the influencers that may contribute to these mental barriers.


Solidarity “Students understand how they and their peers exist in relation to systems and learn how to trust and support one another through collective accountability.”

As members of marginalized communities, our students face personal and societal pressures to meet the conventional definitions of success. However, their community, whether at home, school, or Breakthrough, was their most commonly named support system. We hope Breakthrough is not only a joyful space for our students, but also their champion and advocate. 

Self-Determination  Students cultivate cultural and collective self-esteem and then direct that pride towards activism and change.”

Our students want to make a difference. They are proud to share their dreams and are working incredibly hard to reach them. We hope to create opportunities for them at Breakthrough to learn about themselves, each other, and the world to become informed and transformative leaders.

Moving forward

The Human First Framework is just one of the many steps in Breakthrough’s vision to advance educational equity. This past year, we have developed a research brief outlining the framework’s purpose, as well as student-centered guidance for affiliates to support their implementation plans. In the subsequent phases of our work, we will launch a student advisory curriculum based on programming from national expert, Partnerships in Education and Resilience (PEAR). We also have plans to develop a framework and professional development for Teaching Fellow and staff that is aligned to the HFF. As we live out the commitments we made in the Human First Framework to center our collective humanity in all we do, we will continue to listen, learn, and evolve. This work isn’t easy. It makes us think critically about ourselves, our systems, issues of power, and inequity. But it is necessary.

Learn more about All Points North Foundation here: https://bit.ly/3AkrZmP