#BeLove: Developing skills for personal change

from Ripple Effects

Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, is a trending education practice today. But what does it mean for kids of color? There is a growing tension between organizations touting “grit” and “growth mindset,” and other groups that want to instead focus on holding institutions accountable for damage that has been caused to black and brown youth — rather than blaming them for their lack of “grit.” One company, Ripple Effects, is treading ground between the two camps with a personalized approach.

Ripple Effects prioritizes personalized learning by first and foremost identifying students’ learning styles and strengths. Interactive profiles help interpret student answers, identify challenges and show how they will get the best use out of the program. Because Ripple Effects has found that students tend to talk to adults about issues less than 20% of the time, the SEL skills that are taught in the program are delivered by an avatar that has the appearance and voice of a peer; not an authority figure or a therapist. The motivational strategies are from an expert counselor but students feel as though they are getting counseling and being empowered by a peer to name their experience.

Today, 400,000 students who are facing non-academic barriers to school and life success benefit from this suite of technology-based, trauma-informed, personal and social problem-solving tools. While SEL tends to focus on purely intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, Ripple Effects focuses on the larger context of social justice and cultural appropriateness, and the role that they play in SEL. In fact, one part of the Ripple Effects toolset was designed to to help teachers address their own implicit bias. In schools with students of color and few teachers of color, implicit bias about race can be explosive. When teachers are accused of racist behavior publicly, they tend to shut down, but Ripple Effects works to mitigate this. In the same way that students have private channels to address their biggest needs, teachers can also log in to Ripple Effects from home to work on biases that they find difficult and embarrassing to discuss in public. Teachers can acknowledge that they have work to do on their own biases, while still providing students with the emotional support that they need. The program includes “Pounce” a behavioral observation app for teachers. It is unique in that it only allows for positive logging on the part of teachers. Teachers are building their strengths-based perspectives through structures that encourage them to note positive behaviors.

Ripple Effects has found that the best results come when students and teachers utilize the program in tandem. Students may work on Ripple Effects instead of an academic subject such as language arts, but more often their first introduction is in the context of discipline and special education settings, where black and brown students, especially boys, are grossly overrepresented. When students have an outlet to reflect on personal experiences — from domestic violence to racism, when they hear “it’s not your fault, here are some ways to help you manage,” when they learn how to express their emotions, the result is improved academic outcomes. This tends to reduce stress levels resulting in students being less pre-occupied during instruction because they have Ripple Effects to work with when they feel overwhelmed.

Many education technology tools today track all aspects of a student’s performance and participation and have been criticized for privacy breaches. Ripple Effects, however, is committed to privacy, respect and cultural competency. Alice Ray, co-founder and CEO of Ripple Effects, maintains that “there are so many familial and social pressures on kids, we want to give them a way to get supports for those needs without having to break cultural taboos.” For example, students who come from cultures where discussing family issues is not accepted can have the opportunity to write about it instead. Furthermore, Ripple Effects is doubly encrypted; meaning that Ripple Effects doesn’t have access to student work and protects kids’ privacy.

While Social Emotional Learning programs aim to help kids grow, they focus heavily on self-control. Educators can help students develop these skills AND acknowledge, then change the role that institutional racism plays in the their experience. Alice believes that traditional approaches to SEL can perpetuate systemic injustice and Ripple Effects aims to provide students with the skills to express themselves. When asked why it matters that individual people are confronting bias and racism in her community, Alice says that “we believe racism, sexism, homophobia and other “isms” are woven with a single thread, which each person must begin to unravel wherever it touches them.” Ripple Effects helps students, teachers and administrators the ability to take a hold of this thread by building the skills to recognize, resist and repair injustice.

#BeLove profiles organizations committed to ending structural racism and bias. Our goal is to tell the stories of change in our communities that result from the capacity-building work at individual and institutional levels. In the words of Assata Shakur, “ We need to be weapons of mass construction, weapons of mass love. It’s not enough to change the system, we need to change ourselves.”

Written by: Julie Zdonek. Julie is a 2017 Education Pioneer Fellow currently pursuing a Master’s Degree at Carnegie Mellon in the School of Public Policy and Management.