Game-based Learning

Nonprofit developing a video game app for fun, easy access to social emotional learning tools


Educator Charisse Beach is familiar with mental illness diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, psychosis and ADHD. While working in an alternative school in Joliet, she saw the effects of undiagnosed mental illness on students and teachers as they each struggled with behavioral issues, poor attendance, and low academic performance. She taught students social emotional learning (SEL) techniques aimed at violence prevention, improving communication, and helping them make better decisions. When that state-funded school closed amid a budget crisis in 2010, Beach took a job as an assistant principal at a traditional school in Joliet Public School District 86. After working with students there, she saw many of the same behavioral issues as she did in the alternative school.
“The names and faces may change but the situations tend to parallel,” said Beach, who applied the same SEL strategies but realized teachers and students needed more support. In 2013, she wrote a book called “At-Risk Students: Transforming Student Behavior” as a teaching tool. “I didn’t write my book as a clinician. I wrote it as a parent because it was my personal experience. That’s where Youth Transformation Services (YTS) began.”
In 2015, she founded YTS, a Joliet-based nonprofit that teaches at-risk youth SEL techniques and strategies to empower them to make positive lifestyle choices, improve communication skills and prevent violence and personal setbacks. Beach, chief executive officer, and her son, Robert Beach, is the chief operating officer specializing in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, bring a dual understanding to the mission.
“I work with social emotional learning because that’s where I’ve seen the gap among students who are not able to focus in class, either because they choose not to or because they feel inadequate,” she said. Being out of school at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on students, particularly those dealing with mental illness, Beach said. “One of the big issues was depression. Kids who may have been on the edge, COVID took them over the top. The withdrawal remained after we were back to in person learning. They lost trust.”
Now that she’s retired, Beach has taken on the title of behavioral interventionist and is drawing on her contacts in public schools in Cook, Will, Grundy and Kendall counties to introduce a video game app being developed for students in third through eighth grades that teaches SEL skills in a fun environment. The game is called “Jump Anywhere in the World.” Its protagonist is a kid being bullied in the classroom by another student who is throwing erasers that strike a globe on the teacher’s desk. The protagonist dreams of getting away, and is transported to another continent, where they are faced with life decisions such as whether to help a person or an animal along their journey. The game will have seven levels and will only be available on smartphones.
YTS has been approved for a $25,000 loan from Northern Illinois Community Ventures (NICV) to complete development of the game. NICV is an economic development program established to help small business startups and businesses owned by women and minority entrepreneurs access the capital and technical support they need to grow and thrive. NICV, under the umbrella of Northern Illinois Community Initiatives (NICI), a foundation created by Nicor Gas, is conducted in partnership with Allies for Community Business (A4CB), a community development financial institution based in Chicago. NICV will invest $250,000 a year over the next four years in target communities of south suburban Cook County, Joliet, and Rockford.
“There aren’t enough mental health practitioners, particularly in schools, to address the growing number of students who are struggling today,” said Tovah McCord, executive director of NICI. “More and more, digital tools are being developed and used to fill the gaps and provide affordable, immediate access to care. This SEL gaming concept is brilliant, and we’re thrilled to support it.”
Beach said the game is designed to offer another layer of support for conflict resolution, but it’s not one-size fits all. She said she does not believe it is advanced enough for high school students, yet. She is currently working in four District 86 schools but, ultimately, she said she would like to offer professional development for educators throughout Northern Illinois to teach them tried and proven methods that have worked for her in the classroom. “All public schools are teaching some form of social emotional learning, but they’re doing it with books and activity sheets,” she said, adding with the mobile app, students would be able to implement those best practices on their own, “while having the time of their life.” The gaming app is set to debut in March 2024. 


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