Conversations among educators and policymakers about how to incorporate social and emotional skills into classrooms often do not address the need to support students who require extra help with these skills.
This is short-sighted and likely to reduce the effectiveness of classroom lessons and school-wide interventions.
Many of these students are included in mainstream classrooms, and it’s clear that the curricula designed for their peers must be adapted for them, as would be the case with any academic curriculum.
Fortunately, there is an effective strategy for personalization as well as an effective delivery system: technology.
Technology changes what is possible. Students who have suffered traumas or have learning difficulties for a variety of reasons often need specialized support.
Technology allows for personalization of content, learning style and pace. In addition, many students are proficient at using technology, which can build on their interests, talents and skills.
As an example, the Ripple Effects digital platform begins by giving students a choice of over 400 “real-world” topics to explore, ranging from anxiety to violence in the home. Not every student’s barrier to learning is the same; allowing students to build social and emotional skills around issues salient to them is critical.
Rather than having a prescriptive scope and sequence, students choose among 13 modes for learning five social-emotional competencies, all centered on their topic of choice. Giving students choice around how they can best learn critical life skills simultaneously builds agency and empowers those who are struggling.
“Not all students can have one-on-one, in-person support, and not all students want that,” says Kathy Hall, principal of Perry Elementary in Ohio and a Ripple Effects implementer. “Students like the privacy in Ripple Effects … it helps them excavate the real issue [they’re struggling with], which we may not otherwise know about.”
Technology also allows students to move at their own pace without shame or judgment. Struggling students often can’t keep up with their classmates. With personalized technology — like Ripple Effects, BASE Education and other tools — students learn at their own speed and compare themselves only to themselves.
Consequently, they are able to improve and feel good about their learning, which are key parts of curiosity and a growth mindset that are so valuable, yet often so difficult, to instill in struggling students.
We now know that formative or “real-time” assessment can support student learning better than traditional evaluations. Educators and counselors are able to see where students are struggling in the moment and offer needed support to keep them on track.
Digital social-emotional learning interventions, such as Centervention’s Zoo U for grades 2-5, identify where students are struggling, which helps educators tailor in-person or digital interventions to students’ needs. Technology also offers the ability to monitor student progress to ensure those supports are working.
Technology implicitly affords scale. In large urban districts, like the Los Angeles Unified School District or Chicago Public Schools, poverty, violence and trauma can be barriers to learning for thousands of students. Technology can support teachers in reaching, engaging, motivating and understanding more students. And it can help more students practice solving problems in safe spaces.
“In the real world, there’s punitive damage when kids say or do the wrong thing. Kids are not going to get detention in a game world. Instead, they get to go back and learn to make better choices,” says Yvonne Ammons, a guidance counselor in Bay County, Florida, and Zoo U implementer.
There’s no doubt about the importance of social and emotional competencies in college, civic, career and life success. Failure to prepare any student with these skills is a violation of equity considerations in education. Historically, there have been few personalized, data-driven and scalable approaches to providing these services, but new technologies are changing the landscape of what’s possible.
As we work to provide all learners access to educations that prepare them to thrive in the twenty-first century, personalized social-emotional supports must be part of the conversation. Efforts are afoot to support the integration of social and emotional learning into all grade levels, such as RAND’s recent synthesis of research on evidence-based interventions.
We urge these and future initiatives to include a meaningful focus on targeted supports for struggling learners, as well as on the role of technology in supporting these students.
David Osher is vice president and Institute Fellow at the American Institutes for Research, where his work focuses on social and emotional competence, conditions for learning and development, and improving opportunities and outcomes for children who experience a variety of disadvantages.