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Personalized Learning and SEL: Why Meeting Students Where They Are Matters

A small set of developers is harnessing the unique qualities of gaming to individualize kids' social and emotional learning.

November 11, 2015
Jessica Berlinski
Chief Impact Officer, Personalized Learning Games

CATEGORIES Research & Studies, Students

Educators know the benefit of differentiating instruction to the specific needs of the learner in academic subjects: Students are more engaged in their learning, and test scores go up. Now study after study is showing that social-emotional-learning (SEL) skills, such as empathy, self-regulation, and cooperation, may be even more valuable for students' short- and long-term success than academic content knowledge. A recently published 20-year study found that kindergartners who displayed pro-social skills were more likely to have graduated college, found full-time jobs, and refrained from abusing drugs and alcohol by the time they reached age 25. Educators are taking note of the research and increasingly integrating SEL instruction into their daily programming. This is good news.

Kids have vastly different SEL skill levels and needs, and it's hard for teachers to teach one lesson to a group and meet the unique needs of each individual.

Yet as educators look to build SEL skills in students, they're experiencing some of the same challenges with these universal programs as they do with academic ones: Kids have vastly different SEL skill levels and needs, and it's hard for teachers to teach one lesson to a group and meet the unique needs of each individual. Until now, there have been limited ways to provide students with a personalized learning experience in SEL -- identifying the needs of each learner, and then supporting and challenging them exactly where they need it -- especially at scale. This is changing, however, with the introduction of adaptive SEL games.

Before jumping into how these games work, it's important to note that SEL games can differ greatly in how they're designed and in the research that's been done on them. In evidence-based SEL skill-building games, developers utilize something called "adaptive technology" to meet the needs of each learner. Much like an intelligent tutoring system, the games employ an underlying model of proficiency -- or aptitude -- to individualize each student's experience. This individualization is what engages students and keeps them in an "optimal zone of learning": where they're challenged at only one level above their current skill level. In this way, the game is not so difficult that it loses the child, nor so easy that the child is bored. All games do this to some degree, which is why games are so hard for both kids and adults to put down!

Are the skills that SEL games purport to build in kids really improved in the real world?

But do they work? Are the skills that SEL games purport to build in kids really improved in the real world? Again, it's important to check the research. Personalized Learning Games' Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Melissa DeRosier, the creator of a K-4 SEL game, Zoo U, was adamant about proving that her games built SEL skills "in the real world" before she put them into students' hands.

"Schools have such limited time and resources, we wanted to make sure that when they spend these resources on our SEL games, students truly benefit. We devoted years of research to ensure our games are engaging for students and result in concrete, demonstrable benefits in their social and emotional lives," says DeRosier.

Neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at University of Wisconsin-Madison Dr. Richie Davidson conducted extensive research on two SEL games that he and his team at Games Learning Society developed: Tenacity, which teaches self-regulation and mindfulness through breath counting, and Crystals of Kaydor, an empathy-building adventure game. He’ll be publishing his full research findings on the middle school-focused games -- which include data from brain scans on players -- in the coming months. The synopsis: The games work well for some kids but less so for others. He plans to do additional research on whom they do work for and why, so educators can leverage the games to target and support specific populations of students. 

As more educators learn about the value of personalization to both improve learning and engage kids, more are welcoming the use of these tools to reinforce their in-person work.

So what does implementation of these games look like? Davidson's games are readying for launch in 2016. DeRosier's game launched in late spring of this year and was implemented by a select set of early adopters in classrooms in Sacramento, California; Florida; and North Carolina. Schools in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, and more have followed suit this school year. As more educators learn about the value of personalization to both improve learning and engage kids, more are welcoming the use of these tools to reinforce their in-person work -- both for Tier 1 and Tier 2 students.  

Mai Xi Lee heads up SEL programming in Sacramento USD, one of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning's Collaborating Districts, a group of nine urban districts focused on scaling and sharing best practices in SEL. As an early adopter of Zoo U, she sees value in implementing the game with all students, not only those with identified skill deficits.

"We have to give (students) the kind of tools that will support their unique needs and talents. … No two are alike, and they shouldn’t have to be. That is why personalized learning is so critical to supporting them in developing and strengthening their unique qualities and skills, at whichever place they may start," says Lee.

Counselors take another approach and see immense value in these tools' ability to support students with identified deficits.

"I love that [my students] can create their own avatar and really see themselves working through social situations," says Yvonne Ammons, a guidance counselor in Bay County, Florida, who is using the game this year. "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." 

Whether for general education populations or kids with identified skill deficits, teachers, counselors, and, importantly, students are seeing benefits. However, there also are challenges with implementation. GameDesk's Lucien Vattel created the SEL game DOJO, which allows teens to see how their thoughts affect stress in their bodies and then practice strategies to reduce that stress. Despite strong positive feedback from students and studies showing marked reductions in their stress and misbehavior, the game has been hard to distribute due to the cost of the biofeedback device required to implement it. He and his team are exploring building the game without the device on the iPad so as to enable more students to benefit. Until then, Vattel suggests counselors buy one game and use it with multiple students in one-on-one settings.  

"We must also remain cognizant of the beneficial role teachers, principals, and other educators play in modeling and reinforcing children's SEL skills." --Joan Duffell

Though games can indeed take students' SEL skills and confidence to a new level, it's important never to forget the value of human connection and caring and supportive role models when teaching intra- and interpersonal skills.

"Gaming has such great potential for social emotional learning, as kids have such varied paces and styles of learning. … Those who may not do well in a group instructional setting may excel at skill acquisition in a gaming environment. … [However], we must also remain cognizant of the beneficial role teachers, principals, and other educators play in modeling and reinforcing children's SEL skills," says Joan Duffell, CEO of Committee for Children, the SEL organization behind Second Step.  

She's right. Children will always need to be shown kindness and empathy to be able to feel it and share it. Yet we can't stop the advancement of technology or its ubiquity in our lives. What we can do is harness its unique qualities and its power to help improve kids' social and emotional lives.

Learn more about personalizing and assessing SEL instruction in our upcoming webinar with Jessica Berlinski on Wednesday, November 18, 3:00-4:00 p.m. PST. RSVP for the webinar today!

Photo: "i wear your heart on my sleeve" by Send me adrift. Used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license