Social-Emotional Skills Build Stronger Communities

Social-emotional skills are top priority at Chicago’s Rowe Elementary — and this matters for scholars’ success, both academically and personally. Learn how it happens.

Strong social-emotional skills have the potential to positively impact the lives of kids, families and whole communities — especially those in poverty. At Chicago’s Rowe Elementary, social-emotional learning (SEL) is fundamental to each scholar’s day, says Ashley Castro, Dean of Scholars at Rowe’s K-5 school.

At Rowe, students, teachers and staff work on self-regulation, a big part of SEL. “Our scholars are learning skills they can take with them forever, into middle school and high school and beyond,” Castro says. “If they learn to self-regulate now, when they become older, they will make better choices.”

Each day, Rowe Elementary teachers use the Second Step curriculum for a holistic approach to SEL in classrooms. In addition to the curriculum’s four units on skills for learning, empathy, emotional management and problem solving, Rowe added a focus on bullying prevention. “The entire school begins their day working with this curriculum. It covers reinforcing language, vocabulary and videos, even home links that can be sent to families,” Castro explains. “Parents can have access to the songs, content and videos and use a portion at home.”

SEL is an anchor for discipline at Rowe, and supports the school’s restorative justice practices. “We know that skills need to be developed in order for discipline to become compliant,” she says, adding that teachers can’t assume students have the necessary skills to maintain appropriate behavior if they haven’t been taught.

Through positive reinforcement, teachers recognize when students use the skills they are learning — and are specific about what they observe. “Instead of saying ‘you are on task,’ we can say ‘I see your eyes are focused, your body is still and your ears are listening,’ and students earn points for building and using these skills,” Castro says. “It’s definitely related to our school culture and an anchor for discipline because we want to make sure they develop these skills for school and for home.”

The more educators understand the interplay between social-emotional skills and behavior, the more they can individualize their responses to students’ behaviors. “We know there is a direct correlation between academic success and SEL. When scholars are able to focus and regulate their emotions, we can slow things down for them so they can problem solve,” she explains.

In order for social-emotional instruction to thrive, teachers must embrace and model skills, Castro admits. “Scholars with high trauma are more likely to come from impoverished communities and one of the reasons I love what I do is because SEL helps us remove layers from behaviors. Nationwide, Latino and African American scholars are mislabeled with learning disabilities and ADHD and many teachers don’t know what to do,” she says. “Here at Rowe our teachers know what to do. They help kids feel safe and when families and kids feel safe, we can connect with them and problem solve.”

Successful emotional regulation is contagious and has the ability to impact the entire community. “Culturally, our parents are focused on behavior. SEL is changing the game for that,” Castro says. When scholars can encourage their parents to take a “belly breath” when they get angry, she knows Rowe is doing something right.

“It becomes an eyeopener for parents,” she says. “Culturally, we are reaching families in new ways. SEL is still kind of young in our country and not all schools are approaching it with fidelity, but our families say they’re at Rowe because we have interventions in place and they work. They come way out of their district to attend Rowe because they feel that difference.”

Learn more about Rowe Elementary at


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