From Research to Reality: Digital Education Supporting Students' Social Emotional Learning with Evidence-Based Practices

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Brief Abstract

Digitizing a curriculum rooted in managing emotions, cultivating empathy and developing relationships seems counterintuitive. However, by combining the body of SEL research and best practices from accredited organizations with rich media, you will learn how a digital solution to SEL offers an innovative and flexible resource to guide social-emotional growth. 


A former Adult ESL teacher and Gate Millennium Scholarship Fellow, Yovhane Metcalfe oversees the research and development of the award-winning online curriculum and solutions at StrongMind. Prior to joining StrongMind in 2017, Yovhane served as a K-12 Policy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education and as a peer reviewer of ESSA state plans with the U.S. Department of Education. Before this, Yovhane rated over 2,000 district and charters schools annually and developed the first school accountability model for online schools as the Arizona Department of Education’s Chief Accountability Officer.

Extended Abstract

Why This is Important

The events of the last year have reawakened schools to their responsibility to cultivate social-emotional health alongside the academic growth of their students. Over the past several years, the pressure to perform well in school combined with various social anxieties, often made worse by social media, have caused cases of anxiety and depression to steadily rise among students. In response, there has been ongoing momentum behind the development of specialized curricula specifically designed to encourage social-emotional learning (SEL). The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning define SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

Lending credence to the idea, an ever-growing body of research is supporting the positive correlation between SEL and academic achievement. A 2008 report of 317 studies involving over 300,000 K-8 students showed that properly implemented and executed SEL programming “improved students’ achievement test scores by 11 to 17 percentage points.” Furthermore, developing social-emotional skills among students has proven to lower conduct (i.e. behavioral) problems and emotional distress.[1]

Unfortunately, 2020 was a year of tremendous emotional distress. Coping with the isolation, confusion, and unrest and managing academic responsibilities has only reinforced the demand for SEL curricula. When the pandemic forced school campuses to close in 2020, providing traditional in-person SEL support to students was also closed to educators. Yet, even before the sudden transition to emergency remote learning, providing sustainable and integrated SEL instruction proved difficult for most teachers and schools. In one particular survey, 59% of teachers felt there was not enough time to fully integrate SEL into the daily curriculum. Furthermore, 55% felt there are not enough SEL curricula or programs available. The need for SEL is abundantly clear to educators, parents and students, yet how to incorporate this need into the educational experience remains elusive. 

Like so many times in the past, we can turn to technology to resolve these challenges. Digital education solutions exist to streamline, facilitate and expand the impact teachers have on their students. At first glance, digitizing a curriculum rooted in managing emotions, cultivating empathy and developing caring relationships seems counterintuitive. But, by combining the body of SEL research and best practices from accredited organizations, user experience feedback, and rich media, a digital solution to SEL offers an innovative and flexible resource to guide social-emotional growth. However, simply delivering an SEL curriculum is like asking a hammer to build a house on its own; the hammer is only useful when paired with an experienced builder. Likewise, a digital SEL curriculum is only impactful when in the hands of a teacher. 

Still, cultivating academic and social-emotional development is ultimately constrained by the number of hours in a school day and how often a teacher can dedicate time to instruction in each area. A digital SEL curriculum facilitates this process by offering teachers the flexibility to deliver social-emotional learning objectives based on the needs of the entire class or the individual. Rather than constructing a one-size-fits all model, a digital SEL program must be designed to help individual students build upon their existing strengths and develop in areas in need of growth. This is accomplished by providing a unique SEL experience for each student in a way that only a digital solution can offer. Teachers remain integral to identify social-emotional learning opportunities and can provide responsive intervention in fully digital or hybrid setting.

What to Expect

Educators, administrators and district leaders that attend this session can expect to learn highly interpersonal nature of social-emotional learning is translated to digital format that is flexible, accessible, and engaging to students.

This session will bring together the key stakeholders that have pioneered new digital solutions in SEL, beginning with a brief examination of the latest research and best practices that serve as the foundation for effective social and emotional learning. With the need for comprehensive SEL self-evident to educators, the panel will turn to address the more salient question of what challenges schools face when implementing an SEL curriculum by exploring survey data from over 500 middle and high school educators.

After examining the research contributing to successful SEL, the perspective will shift to development, particularly how instructional designers and graphic artists translate evidence-based best practices to a digital medium. The audience will learn how a digital SEL resource was conceptualized to reduce the burden of implementation on schools while remaining personalized, flexible and accessible to teachers and students. More importantly, the panel will demonstrate how digital SEL can engage students through rich media, gamified learning and interactivity. At this time attendees will be able to access and experience a digital SEL module while panelists discuss how bite-sized learning modules can be deployed in a hybrid or fully online environment. 

Finally, the audience will hear the first-hand experiences from educators piloting digital SEL at their school, describing the positive impact on students and sharing some lingering challenges. Furthermore, viewers will learn how user experience data continuously drives insights and collaboration between educators and providers. Prior to the end of session, the panelists will be open to questions from the audience.