Social and emotional learning is a top priority in the education system. Another top priority, elevated by the pandemic and the need for virtual learning, is access to technology and implementation of technology in sustainable and equitable ways. An emerging innovation in the field is the merger of these two things to create digital programs that provide SEL and mental health access to more people.
Most US educators look to the five competencies as put forth by CASEL as the guidepost to building SEL skills with their students. Using technology to teach SEL skills is especially helpful, as it enables educators to build these competencies through a developmental lens. For example, when working with a five-year-old you might set a goal that by the end of kindergarten they are going to be able to share feelings in a range of contexts (speaking, writing, drawing). For a teen, you might focus on developing healthy boundaries in relationships with peers, parents, and significant others. With the introduction of a digital solution, it’s easy to build in skills that students can access based on age, immediate need, and longer term goals.
Self-management of stress and emotions, cultivating healthy relationships, and awareness of and communication about emotions—all of these skills are learned behaviors, meaning students aren’t born with the capacity to engage in them. Yet all students need to learn them in order to thrive in school and beyond. Introducing these concepts in the early childhood years, when kids are first entering a structured education environment, sets the tone that SEL, mental health, and technology are a priority. SEL helps kids build the cognitive, physical, and social skills needed to be successful with relationships, with academic learning, and with making healthy choices. Digital programs present the perfect opportunity to teach these SEL skills in a classroom setting.
Schools are in a unique position to implement SEL support for children and adolescents. Schools can take a preventative approach to SEL and provide programmatic support to all students instead of only those with identified or diagnosed conditions or learning disabilities. This may follow a few different implementation methods, depending on the needs of the school: (1) self-guided support for the entire student body; (2) counselors prescribing tools to high-risk students to give them on-demand support between appointments; (3) integrating SEL into the curriculum during homeroom, health class, or even PE class. When all students are encouraged to participate in SEL programs, they learn resources for coping with daily stressors to avoid reaching the point of burnout or feeling overwhelmed, and gain skills they will need beyond school, both in their family life and career.
Going beyond SEL skill-building, digital programs can address a wide range of mental wellness topics, including grief and loss, anxiety, depression, career development, financial wellness, and more. Students are dealing with all of these as a result of both the pandemic and their emerging adulthood, so they need resources that provide them with education and support. Focusing on emotional well-being/mental health is in service to having healthy, positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and contributing to the community. This is not a compliance-based approach to learning. The goal is to build student skills, knowledge, and attitudes so that they can generalize the skills, apply them in the classroom and at home, and be empowered when we send them off to college, trade school, or their first job.
Technology is here to stay and, due to the portable nature of modern devices, it travels with students, so let’s make sure it is used for good. Recent studies show that children under the age of five are accessing content through devices. Young children are developmentally capable of navigating apps, making content selections, and interacting with games and activities. When it comes to teens, there is a preference for using digital programs as a first step to getting comfortable with and learning about mental health. This leads to increased willingness to speak to an adult if needed. Using technology to teach and reinforce social and emotional learning with students gives them the opportunity to practice anywhere in their ecosystem, before the point of crisis, addressing youth well-being from a public health perspective.