How Distinctive Schools is Building a
Positive Learning Culture with Systemic SEL

While elevating academic achievement is the core focus of any school, Distinctive Schools in Chicago and Detroit recognizes the importance of prioritizing the social-emotional needs of all students and staff to build safer, more equitable, and better-connected communities. Their commitment to supporting the social, emotional, and academic development of students has become a central pillar of the Distinctive Way and is integrated into their strategic plan.

“You can’t be an organization focused on culture and not value social emotional learning.”

Anthony Claypool, Network Director of Data & Assessment

A Systemic Approach to SEL

To ensure that the social emotional needs of their community are being met, Distinctive Schools integrates Move This World’s foundational SEL curriculum throughout the network – administrators, educators, building staff, and families are engaged in SEL programming. Distinctive Schools has embedded social emotional learning into their network-wide strategic plan, schools integrate SEL into MTSS and PBIS frameworks, and educators implement classroom practices regularly. From the district level to the individual student level, SEL is core to the operating system of Distinctive Schools.

Making SEL an essential practice

At CICS West Belden in Chicago, regular practice of Move This World creates opportunities for students to reflect and grow. “Since beginning Move This World, our Emogers (emotion managers) are posted in the classroom as they guide us through the day’s video, activity, and beyond,” fourth-grade teacher Meghan Camacho explains. “We do Move This World four days a week, and it allows for independent and whole community conversations and growth. We use the day’s video and activity for our morning journal, as well as discussions throughout the day, week, and year.”

That evolving, proactive approach to SEL empowers educators to go beyond improving individual student outcomes and focus on lifting the entire community by strengthening relationships and teaching students strategies that they can independently use to manage stress, set and work towards goals, celebrate accomplishments, and overcome challenges. With these skills, students are able to support one another and build a stronger school community. “Over my past six years of teaching, I have seen the difference SEL can make in student/teacher and student/student relationships,” Camacho says. “When these relationships are strong and continuously developing, learning occurs on a much deeper level and students become more confident in who they are as a person and learner. It has also helped me become a more empathetic teacher who has learned to stop for the teaching and growing moments rather than sticking to the curriculum task at hand.”

It Takes a Village: Systemic SEL Implementation

Free toolkit download

There is no one person or designated class responsible for supporting the social and emotional development of students. All influencers in a school community play an important role. Download ready-to-use resources for implementing SEL at the district, school, classroom, and community level.


More than lessons

Distinctive Schools’ leadership know that if they were going to make SEL an ingrained part of school life, they needed to implement their program in a seamless and authentic way that was responsive to their community’s needs. Chrysantha Norwood, a sixth-grade teacher at Distinctive College Prep: Harper Woods, describes how her school’s enthusiasm for SEL is embedded in their day-to-day operation, “In our school, SEL looks like a practice that is evolving to meet the needs of the students we serve and the needs of our team. SEL looks like an integral part of our school culture that is embraced and encouraged, not just ‘SEL sessions or lessons.’”

A Foundation for Future Success

Creating a culture of wellness and connectivity is a huge undertaking at the school level. It becomes an even greater challenge to build one across an entire school network with campuses in two states. But Distinctive Schools’ Regional SEL Director Sarah Gaw champions the importance of prioritizing this work, “SEL is important to me because of the influence SEL skills have on the individual lives and futures of our students. It’s the vehicle in which our students’ hopes and dreams can be reached. I often tell students that even if you’re the smartest person in the room, if you can’t work well with others and navigate through challenging situations, your knowledge, and other skills won’t be used to their full potential. To me, SEL skills are absolutely essential for the future of our students.”


Learn more about SEL at Distinctive Schools:

On-Demand webinar: Data-Driven SEL: Moving This World in Distinctive Schools

Meet SEL Ambassador Sarah Gaw from Distinctive Schools

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