A mirror hangs on one of the walls in Prisma Penzo’s classroom. The words “I am” outline the top of it. As students see their reflection, they are instructed to complete the statement with a positive affirmation. Words like “I am smart,” “I am responsible” and “I am beautiful” ring throughout the classroom.

This activity is one of many utilized by the district’s 38 student champions employee positions – like Penzo, who serves at Brown Elementary School – to help students process their feelings. Funded by federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds, the student champions positions  were created to address the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social and emotional trauma students may have faced during the pandemic.

As ambassadors of social-emotional learning, student champions provide appropriate and needed resources to students, campuses and families in need of support or resources in a variety of ways. This could be one-on-one sessions with students in distress, small group discussions and whole classroom instruction. 

“We are at critical times where social-emotional needs are so important to prepare students for learning,” says Lily Zani, social emotional learning strategist director for the district. “If we don’t serve their needs, it’s going to be challenging for them to learn. We are coming in to lead with love and be changemakers.”

In addition to the positive affirmations in the mirror, other SEL activities include the use of a calming corner where students can pause and reflect on their behavior and a mood meter to help students become self-aware and communicate their feelings and emotions.

“Let’s normalize all feelings,” says Penzo, who taught for 13 years and was named a District Teacher of the Year finalist last school year.

Every campus in the district has a student champion with a background in teaching and/or social work. Some are counselors or behavior specialists, most have a master’s degree. Although the strategies used by each one may differ, the end goal is the same – serving the whole school community and providing the necessary support to ensure student success.

“I hope to impact students by teaching life skills that will lead them to be productive citizens,” says Penzo. “I want our students to know that I am here to love on them, validate them and build relationships with them. I want our teachers and staff to feel supported by co-teaching with them and providing any resources/materials they may need for SEL implementation in their classrooms. I am excited to continue making a difference in our students’ lives and am grateful for the opportunity to serve as a Student Champion.”

If you feel like your child could benefit from social-emotional support, please contact the student champion at your child’s school. You can also follow the program on Twitter at @SEL_IISD to see student champions in action.