Edtech tools like digital collaboration platforms and virtual reality environments can help educators take meaningful steps toward creating effective social-emotional learning programs.

As I wrote about last month, accelerating technological development has made it increasingly important for schools to equip today’s students with “21st century skills” like critical thinking, creativity, advanced problem solving, and interpersonal communication. While reading, writing, and arithmetic remain integral to K-12 curricula, the development of many 21st century skills depends as much on students’ social-emotional learning (SEL) as on their strictly academic edification.

The broader educational community has yet to settle on a consensus definition of “social-emotional learning,” but as summarized by a report commissioned by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “SEL focuses on knowledge, attitudes, and skills in five competency areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.”

When interwoven into daily classroom goings-on, instruction in these areas can have remarkable effects: research has shown that mature SEL programs deliver up to an 11:1 return on investment. “SEL gives [students] the skills they need to succeed,” says Washoe County School District Social and Emotional Learning Coordinator Trish Shaffer. “We want every student to be able to walk across the stage at graduation, yes, but we also want them to be prepared to move onto their next adventure and succeed there, as well.”

Shaffer’s sentiment is hardly unique, but as highlighted in the CASEL report, educators’ bullishness on SEL has yet to translate to consistent results. According to the report, only a third of principals have managed to implement a schoolwide SEL program, and only a quarter have managed to do so in a way that meets CASEL’s criteria for a “high-quality implementation.”

Near-Universal Agreement on the Value of SEL

Despite this scattershot rollout, there is broad-based administrative support for SEL. Of the nearly 900 PK-12 public school principals surveyed as part of the CASEL report, 83 percent agree it’s “very important” for schools to promote the development of students’ SEL competencies.

Why the enthusiasm? Among other things, overwhelming majorities of principals believe an increased focus on SEL will have either a “somewhat major” or “very major” benefit on promoting a positive school climate (99 percent agree), helping students become good citizens (98 percent agree), and decreasing bullying (96 percent agree). What’s more, 97 percent of principals agree a robust SEL program will have a positive impact on students’ academic achievement and better prepare students to not only get to, but graduate from, college.

And while 99 percent of principals believe SEL can be taught in the classroom, few have figured out how to help their staff do so effectively. When asked what would help their schools overcome this challenge, principals most frequently point to additional professional development for teachers (cited by 54 percent of CASEL respondents) and the proliferation of research-based strategies about effective ways to promote SEL (cited by 44 percent). Both of these solutions clearly have their merits, but new research by Microsoft points to a third solution: technology.

Using Edtech to Support SEL

Far from a replacement for professional development infrastructure and widely-accessible scientific literature, cutting-edge edtech tools offer schools a way to instantly level-up their ongoing SEL endeavors.

For instance, collaboration platforms — cloud-based tools like G Suite that enable users to work together in real time regardless of their physical proximity — facilitate the development of key SEL competencies relating to teamwork. Indeed, after adopting a digital collaboration tool, administrators in the Fresno Unified School District saw a statistically significant improvement in students’ academic outcomes and their social-emotional competencies.

Similarly, by blending multisensory stimuli to reproduce challenging social situations, virtual reality environments provide students with opportunities to both observe and practice complex social skills. “Immersive and mixed reality technologies can…help [students] see the world from others’ point of view,” the Microsoft research explains. “Gaining such new perspective can help students develop empathy — a crucial skill — and discover, practice, and apply that skill.”

Of course, whether schools opt to bolster their SEL programs with new technology, additional professional development, or even the hiring of a specialist, their efforts will require adequate funding. That’s where a tool like Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform comes into play.

CheckPoint streamlines a district’s data collection, organization, and validation processes, ensuring its enrollment records are always accurate and up-to-date. As budgets shrink and schools’ responsibilities expand to include things like SEL, using a tool like CheckPoint to ensure your district receives the maximum amount of funding to which it’s entitled is absolutely essential.