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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Digital Technology: Tools that Help Enhance Emotional Intelligence

When kids find it hard to express themselves out loud, there are tools that can help.
By Roberta Furger

With the Relate for Teens software, students can explore personal issues, keep a private journal, and complete a teacher-created curriculum.

Credit: Ripple Effects

A troubled adolescent uses an edgy multimedia software program to explore questions and concerns about intensely personal issues like sexual orientation or family conflicts.

An elementary school student sits in front of a computer screen and watches as a beautiful meadow scene unfolds before his eyes -- a vivid representation of his attempt to work through feelings of anger, frustration, and anxiety.

A group of teachers participate in a workshop on emotional intelligence, the focus of which is a multimedia presentation prepared by -- and from the perspective of -- a fourth grader as she maneuvers her way through the obstacles of a typical school day.

Students and teachers alike are discovering that digital technologies add a new -- and much needed -- dimension to the teaching and learning of emotional intelligence. Just as in the teaching of core subjects, the flexibility of new digital tools provides students with an avenue for creativity and exploration in the area of social and emotional learning. These tools enable students to explore issues at their own pace -- and in whatever learning style they are most comfortable (by watching an on-screen video, by exploring their feelings in an electronic journal, or by listening to a CD-ROM as a story is read aloud, for example).

"Digital technologies can help kids who might otherwise not be able to explore difficult topics or who [aren't comfortable] talking about something like their parent's divorce with their teacher," says Robin Stern, director of New Media Research and Development at the Center for Social and Emotional Education and research coordinator for The Interactive Technology & SEL Project. "They provide the private space that so many students need," adds Stern, "and enable students to reflect on and explore topics at their own pace."

Digital technologies provide a 'private space for students to reflect on and explore difficult issues,' says Robin Stern.

Credit: Edutopia

A Tool for Teens

Consider, for example, a two-year-old project in La Fourche Parish, Louisiana, where teachers, counselors, principals, and support staff are using Relate for Teens, a combination CD-ROM program and Web site created by Ripple Effects in support of social and emotional learning. Developed by Alice Ray, former director of The Committee for Children and one of the creators of the Second Step violence prevention program, Relate for Teens allows students to investigate issues and concerns (such as peer pressure, divorce, or an eating disorder), keep a private electronic journal, and work through a teacher-designed curriculum to support the social and emotional learning going on in the classroom.

"It's kid-driven," says Rochelle St. Marie, coordinator for Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities in La Fourche Parish Public Schools. She is a strong proponent of using the software to augment existing programs and services. St. Marie recalls having previewed an early version of the software at a violence prevention conference in San Diego and was immediately struck by its realistic, at times even edgy, interface. From the realistic language and graphics -- featuring multicultural teens in today's fashions -- to the videos of real teens in real situations, the program provides a private space for teens to explore both the seemingly trivial (to some adults, at least) and weighty issues they face every day.

Its uses in La Fourche Parish Public Schools have been many and varied: Guidance counselors have installed the software in their offices, providing a quiet, private space for troubled students to explore issues and concerns. Teachers are beginning to use the software as part of their curriculum, selecting specific content areas for student exploration, followed by classroom discussions. School administrators have used the software as a positive discipline tool to address behavior issues that come up throughout the school day, such student bullying, disruptive behavior, or excessive tardiness or absenteeism.

The Freeze Framer software reflects a students' progress toward diffusing stress and controlling their emotions by gradually turning a drab meadow into a colorful field.

Credit: HeartMath

Looking Inward

If Relate for Teens is about helping adolescents maneuver their way through their many complex relationships, another software program called Freeze-Framer is designed to facilitate a student's inward reflection.

Developed by HeartMath, Freeze-Framer consists of a fingertip pulse sensor (to gauge heart rhythms, much like biofeedback gauges brainwaves) that plugs into a desktop computer along with a software program that provides students with a visual representation of what's going on inside them. Students place the tips of their forefingers in the sensor and watch as charts and graphs on screen reflect their progress toward diffusing stress and controlling their emotions.

But more effective than the wavy lines running across the screen (illustrating their heart rhythms) are the games and activities that students control with their feelings. They can steer a hot air balloon over fields and through an obstacle course, or use their "heart focus" to turn a drab meadow into a colorful field.

For four years, Liz Steele, a drama teacher at Palm Springs Middle School in Hialeah, Florida, has been incorporating HeartMath's FreezeFrame concept (which consists of refocusing attention and energy away from the events causing stress) into her peer counseling course entitled, "Heart Smart." The purpose: to encourage students to reflect on the stresses in their lives and use that self-reflection as the basis for improving their relationships with peers, teachers, and parents.

Throughout the course, students are introduced to a variety of tools and strategies to encourage self-reflection -- from journal writing to "Freeze Framing" to teacher-facilitated classroom discussions. The Freeze-Framer software, explains Steele, has provided students with a first-ever glimpse at the effectiveness of the tools they've been using throughout the course. "It enables them to see what's going on inside their heart and head," she says. "It's real. It's tangible. And it provides terrific motivation for students to walk their talk."

Students might use the Freeze-Framer on their own or in front of their classmates, says Steele. "They get really excited when they're able to control their emotions to the point where they are able to turn the black and white forest scene into a beautiful, thriving meadow," she adds. "It offers something outside of themselves to help them assess what's going on inside. That's very valuable."

Students with special needs can benefit from the use of multimedia to support social and emotional learning, says Maurice Elias.

Credit: Edutopia

Students Teaching Teachers

A small school in Olympia, Washington, has discovered another, equally powerful way in which technology can be used to support the teaching of emotional intelligence. Last fall, Diane Waiste, principal of John Rogers Elementary School, began working with one of her fourth graders on the development of a multimedia teaching tool for teachers and students alike. Her goal: to explore issues around emotional intelligence from a student's perspective in the hopes of stimulating a schoolwide dialog around the subject.

"We wanted to introduce emotional intelligence into our curriculum," says Waiste, "but since we don't have a lot of money for a fancy program, I knew we would all have to work together to develop our own program. I thought our early efforts would be better received if they came from a student's perspective," she adds.

The result is a ten-minute PowerPoint® presentation that tells the story of a young girl maneuvering through the daily obstacles of elementary school life, complete with real-life scenarios and photos and discussion points. In one slide, the young girl talks about her difficulty making new friends; in another, she shares her inability to comfort a classmate, whose dog has just died.

The thought-provoking presentation was the centerpiece of a staff development workshop at John Rogers, complete with a group discussion led by the young creator herself. "It was really eye-opening to explore emotional intelligence from the eyes of a nine-year-old," says Principal Waiste. Later this year teachers will begin using that same presentation as a jumping-off point for classroom discussions.

New Tools for a New Generation

Although digital tools to support social and emotional learning are still few in number, new projects and uses are being explored every day. Stern, who teaches social and emotional learning and digital technology at Columbia University's Teachers College, is working with her students as they create emotionally intelligent tools for student learning and personal discovery, such as a Web site for adolescent girls that includes games and activities designed to encourage young women to explore their feelings.

Elsewhere, teachers are using group-enabled discussion software to facilitate classroom conversations of complex social and emotional issues. And throughout the country, educators are exploring ways in which digital technologies can help address the many different learning styles of their students -- all in support of emotional intelligence.

Indeed, one of the most hopeful uses of digital technologies, says Maurice Elias, coauthor of Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: 1997) is in the support of the social and emotional learning of children with special needs. "Digital technologies create vivid images, complete with sound and colors," observes Elias. These bells and whistles captivate students with special needs, he adds, enabling them "to learn the lessons they want to learn."

Roberta Furger is a contributing writer for Edutopia.

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