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District 54 social-emotional learning lessons support the whole child

What does it mean to act with integrity? Darci Scafidi’s fourth-grade students at Nerge Elementary School have some ideas.

“Maybe it means you’re good – you help people and people trust you,” one student said.

“Your behavior matches with your values,” another student added.

Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is looking, Scafidi told her class.

A student talks to her teacher about integrity“Can you be trusted? Are you the same when a substitute teacher is here? Are you the same when your parents leave the room? What if you found a $5 bill at the grocery store?” she asked her class.

She pointed to key terms hanging on a wall in her classroom, noting that she put integrity at the top “because it is one of the most important things about you.”

Her students completed this social-emotional learning (SEL) lesson by writing about a time when they acted with integrity. One girl shared that she apologizes when she and her sister argue. Another wrote that someone accidentally dropped money in front of his lemonade stand and he followed the person to return it.

A new curriculum

This lesson was developed by District 54’s Social-Emotional Learning Task Force, a 98-member group with employees from all grade levels and all 28 schools. District 54 has always taught social-emotional learning skills, but this year all students are participating in weekly social-emotional learning lessons focusing on concepts such as integrity, mindfulness, how failure leads to success, fairness, honesty and self-management.

“Our new approach to social-emotional learning stems from our commitment to supporting whole child academic and social-emotional success, and our belief that each child deserves to be Healthy, Safe, Engaged, Supported and Challenged,” Superintendent Andy DuRoss said. “We know when we are positive, our brains are more engaged, creative, motivated, resilient and productive. This is what we want for our students.”

District 54’s curriculum aligns with the Illinois Social-Emotional Learning goals:

  • Develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success;
  • Use social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships; and
  • Demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school and community contexts.

“It’s wonderful that now we have very specific ways to instruct and to practice those standards,” said Judy Johnson, a social studies teacher at Keller Junior High School. At the junior high schools, SEL is taught during Advocacy/Advisory classes.

The core principles of positive psychology and research related to resilience also were central to the development of District 54’s SEL curriculum. One of the first SEL lessons in kindergarten covers the role the amygdala plays in our emotions, and how people are in charge of their own happiness.

From self to humankind

The curriculum for each grade begins with studying the self and by the end of the year will expand to include the betterment of humankind.

A student hands a classmate some PlayDoughIn her first-grade classroom at Stevenson Elementary School, Constance Theodorakakis began a recent SEL lesson on sharing by handing out jars of Play-Doh. To emphasize sharing, she purposely didn’t have enough jars for everyone.

“While you do this, I want you to think about what does it look like to share? What does it look like to take turns?” Theodorakis said.

Some students worked together, while others divided up the dough. Creations included snails, balloons and smiley faces.

“Can I have a little more red? I need a little more for my pepperoni,” one student asked a classmate.

Another student exclaimed “We’re sharing!”

Theodorakakis asked the students how they knew how to share and take turns, and what they noticed about sharing.

“We shared so that nobody would feel left out,” one student said.

They talked about sharing and taking turns not just in the classroom, but in gym, music, art, recess and at home. Theodorakakis said she regularly talks about the students’ various communities (their class, school, family village, etc.).

Building relationships

Research has shown that of the many factors impacting student success, the teacher-student connection is one of the most significant. Social-emotional learning creates a rich dynamic to these relationships, said Dr. Erin Knoll, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning. Adolescents, in particular, are vulnerable to increasingly numerous stressors and pressures such as those presented by social media. These lessons provide staff with a framework to connect with and help their students.

Johnson said her students have been willing to open up and discuss difficult topics during the SEL lessons.

“During a lesson about saying hurtful things, one child broke the ice and we had a great discussion,” she said.

Theodorakakis said the new SEL framework makes it easier to incorporate the concepts throughout the day. For example, she has made connections to the SEL lesson during guided reading.

Students build paper airplanes during a social studies lessonJohnson recently incorporated positive psychology principles into a social studies lesson about labor unions and worker rights. Students were working in paper airplane “assembly lines,” and they were incredibly engaged as they experienced the impact of a positive versus negative environment on their motivation and outcomes.

“That was a peak moment,” she said.

Studies have shown that social-emotional learning improves academic achievement and increases prosocial behaviors for all students. SEL also helps students who have experienced Adverse Childhood Events (often called ACEs), which include abuse, neglect, loss of a parent, peer rejection and poverty. SEL fosters a caring school culture and classroom climate, and helps to strengthen resiliency in students.

“We want our schools to feel optimistic and positive to students, staff and visitors,” Knoll said.

Keller student Rylee said students in her Advisory class enjoy sharing their experiences during the SEL lessons. Two of her classmates, Jake and Caden, added that students can help model the SEL ideas during school or outside of school by showing gratitude, saying hello and making the most of each moment.

The SEL Task Force also outlined critical teaching practices that ensure support of the whole child. These include building trust, community and relationships; modeling skills and behavior such as active listening and empathy; bringing personal meaning to the SEL lessons; intentionally weaving SEL throughout the day; and keeping instruction and interactions student-centered. A Home-School Connection sent to parents also helps families reinforce the concepts at home.

Theodorakakis said her students have come together as a team. They know that they belong. They are able to connect with and communicate about their emotions.

“All of the materials and the trainings have been so helpful,” she said. “We know all students come from different backgrounds, and this enables us to really meet the needs of the whole student.”

Click here to check out some social media posts from around District 54 spotlighting Social-Emotional Learning!