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Can edtech enable Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Teaching soft skills, commonly referred to as Social Emotional Learning (SEL), is increasingly important in an educational environment, determined that students are graduated from both K-12 as well as higher education primed and ready for a dynamic and changing future job market.

SEL typically aims to encourage students to better identify and understand their emotions, and to develop healthier, more productive communication skills. However, encouraging and inspiring SEL (I use the word “teach” sparingly, as these are not things can necessarily be taught), also has demonstrable effects on academic achievement and behavior.

On Social Emotional Learning

In 2011, the journal Child Development published a meta-analysis of over 213 evidence-based SEL studies, and found that: participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement.

Another beneficial outcome is the consistent finding that teaching SEL improves a teacher’s own social-emotional skills. In fact, the manner of teaching SEL, or what psychologists call “modelling”, is practically the lesson in itself. If teachers can communicate to their classes, that they themselves are on this learning curve, and behave with empathy, honesty and clarity students tend to realize that “everyone is human”. Mandi Ruud, a middle school teacher, not only modeled SEL skills for her students, but also asked her students for help in cultivating these skills:

“SEL helped me realize that I needed to improve my social-emotional skills, too. So I told my students that becoming socially-emotionally intelligent is a lifelong goal and that perhaps we could work on these skills together—help keep each other in check. And they really do call me out sometimes. If I’m getting a little frustrated, they’ll say, ‘Ms. Ruud, you don’t get to talk to us like that because that’s not nice.’ And I tell them, ‘You’re right. That’s not fair of me.’ So we work on how we talk to each other and our general empathy towards others.”

Many teachers report that rather than dedicating time to SEL, it is more efficient — and effective — to adopt SEL techniques into all lessons, whatever they may be teaching, be it History or Math. Watch a short introduction by Cathy Humphries, 9th and 10th grade Math teacher, on how she infuses her Math lessons with additional prompts to self-evaluate, communicate, stay calm when stumped or challenged, recognize where knowledge is lacking, and seek help from others.

Can edtech enable Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

In this context it may be hard to imagine that edtech can add to or even improve SEL teaching — as it seems to be a wholly “human-human” interaction. Let’s explore:

Project-Based Learning

For starters Project-Based Learning (PBL), is a really great way to “teach” SEL. Take for instant the Howe-Manning 6th grade project, that asked student groups to research the Syrian conflict, with a focus on the placement and conditions of refugees, then work with design technologies to design an ideal refugee shelter. Students had to take a number of social, geographic, political and climatic issues into consideration during their problem solving.

Clearly technology and PBL blended together to create a deeply effective SEL lesson, where empathy as well as teamwork and communication were placed at the center of the lesson.

Read more:The key ingredients for successful project-based learning

Smart use of data

A fascinating case study involving one of California’s largest and poorest school districts Fresno Unified School District involves the smart use of data to understand the social and emotional challenges facing their students. With 80% of students (across 106 schools) living in poverty, the community places education at the heart of their dreams for a better future for their children. This is expressed in the district’s five-year stated goal that: All students will demonstrate the character and competencies for workplace success. SEL plays a significant role in achieving that goal, with the district:

  • Collecting SEL data through student and teacher self-report surveys
  • Implementing new SEL curricula and professional learning opportunities
  • Expanding the capacity and resources available to key departments and staff
  • Leveraging team-based, peer learning structures that build a bridge between the district and its school-level champions
  • Sharing school-level data both internally and externally to create a culture of support and transparency

Both Fresno and other proximal districts partnered with a tech provider Panorama to help them collect and analyze survey data, and to develop interactive SEL reports. This data analysis and reporting became the fulcrum upon which the districts developed and responded to specific behavior challenges and trends, feeding the information into school-level teacher clusters called “Climate and Culture Teams”. With individual team logins across all of the participating schools, teams can track and respond to granular data that reveals behavior, attendance and any other climatic or emotional issues facing the student body - and by extension the teaching staff.

Special Needs

Technology has also assisted to teach students on the autism spectrum. Understanding that all students in this regard are unique, socialization and emotion recognition remain a broad challenge for the over 3.5 million US families affected.

Brain Power have developed EmpoweredBrain, a Google Glass adaptation that shows students a different perspective on their own world. Using a gamified system the software enhances a student's capacity and willingness to make eye-contact, recognize emotions, manage their behavior and initiate engagement.

Read more:How AI is changing special education


It turns out that even when dealing with the development of soft skills such as those described by SEL, edtech has a role to play. I especially like that fact that technology can bridge the gap between special needs students and the rest of the world, helping them to become better communicators, participating more fully in their families and social circles.

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