District 54 schools bringing happiness principles to life

  • Every student at Dooley Elementary School received a gratitude letter from their families during an all-school assembly in early January.

    Every student at Dooley Elementary School received a gratitude letter from their families during an all-school assembly in early January.

Updated 2/12/2019 7:45 AM

It's lunchtime, and members of the third- and fourth-grade Pawsitivity Club at Campanelli Elementary School have just snuck into a classroom to deliver bookmarks with encouraging messages, orange pencils and stickers for every student.

Before tiptoeing back down the hall, club members signed their names inside a heart on the classroom's dry-erase board and decorated the door with streamers and a sign proclaiming the class "Pawsitively Awesome."


"We're trying to make people happy and spread joy throughout the school," said Sara, a third-grade student and Pawsitivity Club member.

Because so many students wanted to join the Pawsitivity Club when it was announced a few months ago, there are multiple groups surprising classes.

"We had thought we would just have a club in kindergarten through second grade, but it took off and now it's building-wide," said Courtney Raschk, a first- and second-grade teacher and Pawsitivity Club sponsor at Campanelli School.

Campanelli's Pawsitivity Club is just one example of how District 54 schools are bringing to life the positive psychology work developed by Harvard researcher Shawn Achor, which is centered on how happiness and optimism fuels performance and leads to success.

The happiness principles were first introduced to District 54 staff during a Happiness Summit to kick off the 2017-18 school year featuring Achor as the keynote speaker. All staff read Achor's book The Happiness Advantage and learned how the tactics outlined in his work can help train their brains to be more positive and optimistic.

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Learning about happiness

As part of the district's commitment to supporting whole-child academic and social-emotional success, this school year District 54 students are also learning and practicing happiness tactics defined in Achor's work.

The core principles of positive psychology and research related to the impact of a positive mindset on a person's resilience -- their ability to rebound from negative or stressful experiences -- were central to the development of District 54's new Social Emotional Learning curriculum. Social emotional learning deals with a student's ability to manage their emotions, demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behavior, maintain positive relationships, control stress and develop other interpersonal skills to achieve success not only in school, but also in life.

"Happiness means you are happy and your brain feels excited and better," said Lorenzo, a first-grade student at Dooley School. "I show happiness by smiling at people. If I'm frustrated or stuck, I know I feel better when I ask others to help me. That makes me happy and them happy."

District 54 students and staff are bringing the principles of positive psychology to life in a variety of ways.

For instance, at Dooley, every Wednesday a different classroom is decorated with orange items including streamers and frogs, and Student Ambassadors cheer as the students walk in. In addition, "buddy classrooms" perform random acts of kindness for each other, students hang up inspirational notes throughout the building, and on Fridays students reflect on their "Peak of the Week," which has encouraged them to look for positive things to share, said Katie Massingill, a Dooley fifth- and sixth-grade teacher and Happiness Team representative.


"It's really built a community in the classroom," said Stephanie Fry, a Dooley third- and fourth-grade teacher and Happiness Team representative. "A lot of things we're doing this year with the students are things we did last year with staff, and they're making the connections."

Students have also been carrying over the principles to other aspects of their school day.

"The other day we were writing about what our snowmen would do at night, and one of my students wrote that his snowman would do the Fun 15," said Alyssa Gordon, a first- and second-grade teacher at Fairview Elementary School and a Happiness Team representative.

"We were brainstorming ways to make 2019 even better than 2018, and students were using the happiness tactics while goal setting for the new year," added Melissa Garcia, a Fairview third- and fourth-grade teacher and Happiness Team representative.

All-school 21-Day Challenges, in which every student and staff member practices a happiness tactic daily for 21 days, celebrate and reinforce the principles.

"To me, happiness means being kind and making others feel good. Happiness Advantage has impacted me by not being so negative each day," said Dennis, a Dooley sixth-grade student. "I had a lot of fun learning each of the tactics. The tactics made me feel relaxed in and outside of school."

At Fairview, student leaders and staff introduced one happiness tactic weekly leading up to their 21-Day Challenge this fall. Younger students participated in the challenge as a class, while older students took part in individual challenges. Fairview held a Spirit Week honoring each tactic to wrap up the challenge. The school will participate in an all-school Random Acts of Kindness Challenge and charitable fundraiser during the second annual District 54 Happiness Month in March 2019.

Campanelli kicked off its 21-Day Challenge after winter break with Camp Happy, during which students rotated through stations to practice different happiness tactics.

For instance, in Courtney Sherman's second-grade class, students wrote about a happy memory; learned about the importance of showing gratitude and wrote down what they are thankful for; practiced meditating; and completed three acts of kindness.

"The students chose acts of kindness such as reading a book with a friend, high-fiving 5 friends, drawing a picture for a friend or writing a thank you note to someone," Sherman said.

Other Camp Happy activities included writing a kind note to put on a classmate's locker and playing Acts of Kindness Bingo, in which squares included "offer to help someone who is struggling with something," "make a thank-you card for a custodian" and "hold the door open for someone."

Family involvement

Schools have been engaging their families around District 54's happiness work, as well.

This fall every District 54 family received a book called The Orange Frog Family Guide, a parable by Achor which illustrates the happiness principles for younger readers. These books, which include District 54 study guides, help parents and students learn about the happiness principles together.

Principals have included information about the happiness principles and tactics in their weekly newsletters to families, and some schools have hosted evening events for families to learn about and experience the tactics. PTAs have supported the work, and students have been sharing their knowledge at home.

"One first-grade student said, 'my mom was upset about something, so I told her to take a deep breath and close her eyes and she felt better.' A parent of a second-grade student told me her son comes home and writes nice notes and sticks them all over the house, and he does the same thing at school," Gordon said. "Seeing the kids carry it out is just amazing."

During an assembly at Dooley last month to kick off the school's 21-Day Challenge, every student received an envelope with a surprise inside: a gratitude note written for them by their families. Dooley will also have a happiness table during parent-teacher conferences where families can learn more, which they also did this fall.

Big Potential

This school year District 54 staff have taken the happiness principles to the next level with their colleagues.

In summer 2018 every District 54 employee participated in a day-long training around Achor's new book, Big Potential, which emphasizes the importance of working together and supporting one another to sustain happiness and success.

"Last year it was really about how we elevate our own personal happiness in order to make others happy. Now that we've learned and are applying those tactics, we wanted to focus on our collective happiness as a team," said Dia Rizmani, a District 54 instructional mentor and one of the district's Big Potential trainers. "We have strong Professional Learning Communities and collaboration, so it's about infusing happiness into the hard work we're already doing. We want everyone on the teams to feel supported, which will ripple out and ultimately impact students in a positive way."

At Dooley, staff have had many opportunities to come together with their Big Potential teams this year, whether for a team activity or to reflect, and the focus has been on leading from every seat, Principal Holly Schlicher said.

"It's really built a sense of community because we're working with everyone in the building -- custodians, instructional assistants, secretaries -- and getting to know them on a personal level," Fry said. "There's a new energy in the building, and it has brought the whole staff together."

Superintendent Andy DuRoss said the positive culture in District 54 has exceeded his expectations.

"Our employees come to work motivated to make a difference in the lives of our students by helping them achieve academic success and supporting their social-emotional needs, as well," he said.

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