Fostering mental health and brain development through Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Technology

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Could the biggest threat to our country’s future productivity be our own mental health decline? Here are some stats about our teens:

  • According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIHM), an estimated 3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2016. This number represents 12.8% of the US population in that age group.
  • The odds of adolescents suffering from clinical depression grew by 37 percent between 2005 and 2014, according to a study by Ramin Mojtabai, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The same study also concludes that teen depression seems to be on the rise equally across urban, rural, and suburban populations.

The potential factors for this decline could be attributed to many different areas: the rise of technology, effects of social media, rise of obesity, and so on. One factor to focus on, especially when thinking about future generations, will always be what’s happening in the classroom. Let’s look at how our nation’s teachers are doing. The following figures come from the union’s 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey, a poll administered to almost 5,000 teachers and school staff across the country:

  • Results show a significant increase in the number of stressed educators since the poll was last conducted in 2015. 58 percent of respondents described their mental health as “not good” for at least seven of the previous 30 days. That number was 34 percent just two years prior.
  • Sixty-one percent of the teachers said their work was always or often stressful.
  • They reported experiencing poor health and being bullied at work — by superiors, colleagues, students, or parents — at rates far higher than are reported for other professions.

Declining teacher and adolescent mental health conditions will have outsized implications on our society. The World Health Organization estimates that the current cost of mental depressive disorder on the global economy is $1 trillion. With the American (and global, for that matter) workforce shifting towards a world with automation and artificial intelligence, there is an ever-increasing need for emotional intelligence, mental flexibility, and adaption in our labor force. The mental health of our country is imperative to sustain competitiveness in a global economy.

So, the problem has been defined and the numbers are clear. One potential solution is through education.

One avenue our country’s education system is combating these mental-health related threats in the long-term is by instituting Social Emotional Learning (“SEL”) into the curriculum.

Social-emotional competencies include emotional processes such as regulating emotions and displaying empathy; interpersonal skills such as social competence and social perspective taking; and cognitive regulation, including cognitive or mental flexibility.

Social-emotional competencies also include intercultural competence and understanding, connectedness to others, and social responsibility. These competencies are malleable, meaning they change depending on context and culture. Context and culture — and the social interactions young people have within them — can affect which competencies young people exhibit, how they exhibit them, and which competencies are reinforced.

The content of social-emotional learning is, therefore, clear and imperative. The method in which we create and disseminate this knowledge, however, has varied and is still being figured out. How can we model and teach this consistently and effectively?

Beyond developing a cohesive curriculum and programming for Social Emotional Learning, SEL technology in the classroom will become an imperative method to disseminate knowledge and model behaviors that support positive emotional climates and regulation. Looking ahead, there are several key technological trends that will transform how SEL is implemented.

1. Virtual Reality. VR/AR technology opens up a world of possibility for SEL. With high-quality, immersive content, the best VR companies can create empathy building experiences for students that allow them to experience various perspectives and life situations.

Example: Kinful. Comprehensive SEL curricular program centered around student created virtual reality lessons

Key Characteristics:

  • Proprietary and unique SEL curriculum specifically tailored to virtual reality
  • An out-of-box technology solution (“Kinful Kit”) contains everything a teacher will need, from over 85 SEL exercises to a classroom set of VR headsets

Example: Mursion. Virtual reality company focused on developing content for immersive experiences for users

Key characteristics:

  • Working with Alexandria, VA district schools to help students with autism develop SEL skills through immersive VR content

2. Wearable technology. Wearables can now give users ubiquitous access to clear-cut indicators of their physical and mental health. There is a strong correlation to physiological data as it relates to mental stress and wearables provide a user with unique access to tracking and analyzing this data.

Example: Embrace 4 watch from Empatica. Wearable wrist device that offers real-time physiological data and corresponding analysis and visualization software

Key characteristics:

  • Data acquisition, analysis, and visualization capabilities
  • APIs allow users to develop apps using real-time data from a device

Example: Foci. A wearable device for waistband that tracks physiological data like a user’s breathing patterns to identify emotional and focus-enhancing insights

Key Characteristics:

  • Accompanying application that provides data analysis and visualization abilities
  • Used as a tool to manage digital distractions in the classroom

3. Enterprise Data Retrieval. With SaaS software increasingly in schools, teachers and administrators are able to gather student and teacher behavior and wellness data in droves. With access to such a large amount of data, districts and states can be better equipped to understand the emotional well-being of their stakeholders.

Example: Panorama. Enterprise survey and data visualization platform that conducts SEL surveys for students and teachers to better understand school and classroom emotional climate

Key characteristics

  • Personalization features to cater to individual student interventions
  • Mobile-friendly to be most accessible to parents, students, and teachers alike

Example: ClassDojo. Behavior management system centered around student avatars, which the teacher can use to reinforce or correct behavior

Key characteristics:

  • Data tracking system for teachers to see the distribution and frequency of their classroom management-related actions

In addition to supporting these technological advances in SEL, there are important conditions that must be true in order for any SEL practice to thrive in a school setting.

Teacher Training and Development. To foster a positive emotional climate in the classroom, teachers themselves must be trained to exhibit social-emotional competencies as well. Use Case: RULER

Parent Involvement. Primary caregivers will guide most of a child’s development, so it must also be true that they are given the guidebook on social-emotional learning and teaching as well. Use Case: Bloomz

Data privacy and efficacy. An often overlooked aspect of SEL is its heavy reliance on data. With increased data tracking, districts must be better prepared to secure their student and teacher data. Additionally, without clear data tracking and milestones, no impact or efficacy or further learning can be extracted from social-emotional learning and teaching methodologies.

Technology’s effect on the human psyche. There is considerable research being done on how the increase of screen time has perhaps exacerbated the anxiety and depression epidemic in our society. This is something to also be aware of as technology is continuously implemented in the classroom.

The society that cultivates its members’ physical and mental well-being will be poised for leadership and greatness for the coming generations. It is clear why this matters and it is becoming clearer how technology will play a role.


Have feedback or thoughts on this article? As a former educator turned technologist, I am passionate about managing products for technology organizations that seek to empower their users to achieve more. Feel free to reach out to me via e-mail or leave a comment below to continue the discussion.