How Social-Emotional Learning within a Digital Environment Empowers Students

Links & Resources to Include

Ripple Effects is a personalized technology platform that helps address non-academic barriers.  It combines research, learner centered digital environments, and trauma-informed applicable strategies to empower students in a tiered system.

Go Zen creates online social and emotional learning programs for kids aged 5-15 years old, parents, educators, and school professionals.  Their goal is to transform non-academic barriers such as stress, anxiety, anger, and social issues into an opportunity for students to transform these feelings into confidence, courage, and resilience.

Conscious Discipline is an evidence based, trauma informed approach to discipline.  This program provides realistic strategies adults and children can implement into their lives to help positively transform behaviors and promote healthy mindsets. 

Trust Based Relational Intervention is a tiered system involving four components when empowering students and their caretakers to develop healthy habits designed to break the cycle of abuse.  These components teach the student and the adults in their lives how to cope and develop healthy responses to unwanted recurring behaviors or outbursts. 

Common Sense is a digital platform that promotes Social Emotional Learning through Digital Citizenship.  It is rich with information to help students, their families, educators, and the surrounding community develop conscious 

Brainology empowers students to develop a growth mindset. This learning platform provides free resources for educators and students to identify a fixed mindset and further foster a growth mindset.

TrainUgly has a plethora of growth mindset resources designed to inspire participants to become better learners.  TrainUgly also pairs well with Carol Dweck’s Brainology resource mentioned above.  Both offer lessons on how the brain works and how we can exercise our brains through specific learning steps and developing a growth mindset.

rethinkEd is a technology based social-emotional program for K-12 schools to promote connectedness, community, and well-being.  RethinkEd is the first SEL program to integrate assessment and instructional solutions while addressing the unique needs of each student.  It is evidence based and designed to cultivate meaningful relationships between students and safe adults.

Respect Yourself is an independent charity-based program founded in the UK that connects struggling adolescents to meaningful stories, blogs, strategies for coping, and goal setting through a text messaging system for young people aged 13-25.  The program is designed to empower students to learn from others who have come before and gain wisdom to transform the trajectory of their own lives.  The question asked on the website to help start the conversation is “if you had the chance, what would you tell your younger self?”


I currently teach 3rd grade, all subjects, at a Project-Based Learning (PBL) charter school in Austin, TX.  I strive to create social-emotional, learner-centered environments in which students can creatively problem solve, explore learning through driving questions, and be lovingly held accountable for their actions.  My passion is to help my students discover their purpose and develop their stories.  By developing authentic learning experiences for my students, it sets the foundation for them to flourish, engage, synthesize, and showcase their work in authentic ways.  True education is about liberty and setting people free.  When students are given the freedom to choose how they express their learning, they begin to develop self-efficacy and ownership of their own learning.  As they take ownership, they further develop their voice and learn how to trust their own inner teacher when engaged in authentic learning environments (COVA).  

With this said, project-based learning through COVA can further develop students’ social-emotional skills, which is what is needed first before students can cope with the freedom to take chances or take ownership in the process.  I fully believe in the power of PBL, but I believe there also needs to be specific opportunities in place for students to learn strategies to manage themselves and their interactions with others if we hope to gain all that the PBL environment has to offer.

Background & Lessons Learned

My previous experience in teaching at a small charter school housed within a women and children’s shelter for domestic violence and sexual abuse is what led me to the research I have conducted while in Lamar’s Digital Learning and Leading program.  There I discovered a passion for researching social-emotional learning strategies that would help my families cope with the cycle of trauma many of them lived with throughout the course of their life.  I researched these strategies to not only help them cope, but to also help myself as I was the caretaker of many extreme behaviors.  We cannot give from an empty vessel.  Because of this experience, I realized more schools needed to implement social-emotional programs that could provide support not only to the families and students, but to the teachers that interacted with these families daily.  Secondary trauma is very real, and if we hope to break the cycle of abuse at a young age, we must have strong, empathetic, and prepared teachers.  

Connection to Innovation Plan

I developed my innovation plan in the midst of one of the most difficult years in this position.  I knew something could and had to be done to help schools like mine develop healthier habits that would hopefully lead their families to a stable life post living at the shelter.  My innovation plan centered around creating significant and personalized learning opportunities for my students.  This included project-based learning so they could identify their authentic (many times, tragic) problems and seek solutions to not only help themselves, but be a light to their families when they returned “home” each night.  I realized, however, that this was not enough.  My students’ trauma blocked many of them from being able to think outside the box creatively because their “now” was so distracting.  Many needed access to services and our teachers needed immediate, ongoing training to transform some of our students’ behaviors into strengths.  It was a sink or swim situation.  My innovation plan was the first step in reflecting on what was at the root of what needed changing and what I have control over.  Although I cannot control what happens district-wide (yet), I do have control of what happens in the community I create in my classroom and my response to students’ behaviors.  I can, to the best of my abilities, guide my students into cultivating their own inner peace through meditation, explicit social-emotional, project-based learning.  

Why Digital Access Matters

I have taught in 5 different schools, and they all have a similar pattern of need for digital access to social-emotional programs to support both students and staff.  Now that schools are distance learning for the time-being, I can only imagine the need these students have while being away from what many deem as their safest environment: school.  School is home for many of my students, even though I have changed schools, the need to feel safe and to belong is human.  We all want to know we matter to someone.  Core values used to be routinely taught at home, but for many students, the only time they hear they are loved is at school.  This is where digital access to the learning environment comes into play.  Students first need to feel safe, valued, and a sense of community to feel free to make mistakes in learning.  To do this regardless of where the students live, they need access to social-emotional learning programs and tools that enable them to connect with their classmates and teachers.  Access to these tools could mean educating the entire family.  The long-term goal of this initiative is a whole-school transformation toward creating learner-centered environments virtually or in person through PBL rooted in social-emotional learning. It would navigate our students, their families, and staff to create an educated, connected, and compassionate community.  We are stronger together.  An educated community is capable of revolutionary ripple effects on surrounding communities, and hopefully the world.  This has been my vision throughout the DLL program.  This reflects a shift from the traditional classroom to a blended environment.  Students are no longer confined to one learning community, but have the support of many.  The research I have conducted regarding this initiative will help my leadership and colleagues understand the “why?” behind what I plan to do.  

Connection to Growth Mindset & COVA

There are many layers when executing a well-developed vision, so we must embrace the uncertainty and challenges that come with grace.  We can celebrate our failures and be grateful for our successes.  By embracing a growth mindset and the COVA approach, we provide a framework for the learners to experiment, fail, and explore freely.  The teacher is no longer the deliverer of information, but creates the setting conducive to authentic learning.  This authentic learning environment (whether it be virtual or in person) invites students to come as they are, and connects them to rich experiences that spark inquiry and help them deeply reflect on who they are, and who they are becoming.  The teacher transitions from performer and presenter of information to a co-learner and mentor.  In a digital realm, a learning management system (LMS) then becomes a space where students can connect with authentic learning through an online community no matter where they live.  This community is the connection to limitless information, ready to engage the learner in opportunities they never dreamed possible.  The LMS is a valuable resource that helps students participate socially, emotionally, and academically in an online community other than social media.  

Learning is the Goal

It’s about learning (Harapnuik, 2018).  If we are not setting environments with the sole purpose of learning, then we have missed the point entirely.  It is not about the tools, it is about elevating and enriching the learning experience, and creating access to these experiences through digital tools.  Digital tools provide access to learning opportunities that could otherwise be missed if we simply relied on the myth that learning only happens within the walls of a classroom.  The learner is then liberated to express themselves in new avenues, find belonging and obtain self efficacy through social-emotional learning, build digital literacy and etiquette skills, synthesize and showcase their learning, and further promote curiosity and discovery in future aspirations.

Article Outline

I. What is trauma & secondary trauma?

  1. Who’s affected? & How it is relative. 
  2. Long-term effects
    1. The Body Keeps the Score
  3. Why prevention and proactive SEL programs are vital in breaking the cycle 

II. What is Social-emotional learning?

Why SEL?

  1. Who benefits from SEL?
    1. SEL in teachers
      1. Teacher burnout defined
      2. Lack of preservice teacher training
      3. Need to develop solid mentorship programs for teachers of all skill sets and experience levels
      4. Impact ongoing SEL/Mentorship in teachers’ lives has on student-teacher relationships
    2. SEL in students
      1. How trauma affects the brain and learning
        1. Negative emotions (fear, anxiety, poor perception of self) depreciates the brain’s ability to make meaningful connections
        2. What is the extreme behavior really saying?  Thinking beyond surface level.  Getting to the heart of the matter.
        3. Impact of SEL in student lives
          1. Renewed perspective and realistic strategies to manage self and relationships with others
          2. Develop empathy & interpersonal skills
          3. Begin trusting oneself to make positive and healthy choices
          4. Economic Benefit of SEL & future society impact
            1. It costs less to proactively implement SEL programs in schools than maintain juvenile detention centers or rehabilitation programs later on
            2. Absence of SEL programs result in increased costs for behavior management, facilities upkeep, and security staff
            3. Insert Quote by Fredrick Douglas “it’s easier to build strong children than fix a broken man.”
            4. Safer communities now and long-term
      2. Student-teacher relationships
        1. Trust based
          1. Trust between teacher student
          2. Trust between teacher and self
          3. Trust between student and self
        2. Connectedness and belonging
        3. Expectations
          1. Living up to the expectations of someone they love and respect. They learn to become their own teacher & set expectations within themselves they can trust.
        4. Learning community & feeling a sense of purpose/worth
          1. Empathetic, connected school culture
          2. Students connection to staff and each other creates chain reaction that impacts home-life & surrounding community
          3. Build compassionate communities and further create a positive ripple effect.
    3. SEL impact on school culture and surrounding community
      1. If it is not going to begin at home, it will begin at school
      2. Schools become the beacon of their communities
      3. Develops connectedness in the community
      4. Schools impact beyond the walls of the school building (hint to digital access promoting the revolutionizing idea that school can be anywhere).
      5. Educated communities impact on the economy


  1. Learner-centered environments
  2. Choice, Ownership, & Voice
  3. Flexible, engaging, and effective digital learning environments
    1. Role of the teacher
    2. Role of the student
  1. PBL & SEL Connection
    1. Extended Inquiry Process
      1. Learners have adequate time to interact with concepts and ask questions
      2. Interacting with problems that have many possible solutions (flexibility)
    2. Authentic Problems/Projects
      1. Learners encounter real-world problems
      2. Learners develop authentic solutions to real problems
        1. Learners connect authentic solutions and responses to behaviors through SEL strategies.  Authentic projects help students connect deeper with themselves and others.
    3. Collaboration
      1. Opportunity for critique, reflection, revision, and development of grit
      2. Development of 21st-century life skills needed to conduct and practice meaningful relationships with classmates & teachers.
    4. SEL recap
      1. The relationship between PBL & SEL sets a framework for students to practice developing interpersonal conflict resolution skills.
      2. Learners develop a healthier perception of self and peers
  2. Both build self-efficacy
  3. SEL sets the foundation for academics.  (The head cannot go where the heart hasn’t been) If the heart is blocked (SEL) then academics will do very little. (look at “attainment” in lit review).

IV. Connection to Innovation Plan

  1. What is a personalized learning environment and why is it important?
  2. How SEL is the foundation in creating personalized learning environments
  3. SEL combined with PBL in blended learning

V.  Digital Citizenship & Digital Access

  1. What is digital citizenship?  How does this compare with citizenship?
  2. Students’ desensitization within the virtual world
    1. Develop SEL skills through Digital Citizenship LMS
  3. Students need access to digital tools beyond the classroom (include above list of resources).

VI. Conclusion-It’s About Learning

  1. Invitation to an open, honest dialogue in why we educate in the first place
    1. Sir Ken Robinson quote on revolutionizing education from “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”
  2. Education is about liberty and setting people free
    1. Harapnuik quote about “our heads won’t go where our heart hasn’t been.”
  3. SEL is the foundation of learning and changing lives
  4. Question/Call to action

One of the most helpful resources throughout this planning process was revisiting the Literature Review I conducted in my Action Research class.  There, I was reminded of an extensive list of reading that reminded me of evidence based practices, steps to implement, and why teaching SEL is just as important as teaching the “ABCs.”  Specifically, I found the National Survey on How Social-Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools (Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, A. 2013) to be enlightening and validating when seeking the impact SEL truly makes on education.  I also found the study Educating the Whole Child: Improving the School Climate to Support Student Success (Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. 2018) to be incredibly helpful when considering the impact SEL has not only within each individual classroom, but its impact on school culture and furthermore the surrounding community.  I also wanted to include applicable resources that teachers and school leadership can begin implementing now as the first step in developing a solid social-emotional program for both students and staff.  I closely follow articles published by Edutopia, and find the style of writing to be engaging and immediately applicable to my context.  I find that I walk away from the articles feeling “heard” and can relate to much of what others are experiencing in the education field.  I also am impressed with the innovative ideas I have gained simply by following Edutopia’s short publications.  I am loosely considering submitting my final work to Edutopia. The submission guidelines for publication to Edutopia are as follows:

  1. The article must be original work submitted by the owner of the copyright,
  2. The article cannot have been previously published or forthcoming in a journal or book
  3. The article cannot be under review at another journal and will not be submitted to another journal until the completion of the editorial decision.
  4. Edutopia encourages new writers seeking publication to create an engaging pitch rich with pedagogical value, includes links to reliable sources, and is between 750-850 words.
  5. Edutopia suggests a clear picture to go with the article
  6. The proposal must include an outline (it is up to the writer how to pitch the proposal) along with an 80 word bio about the writer.
  7. Edutopia estimates it will take 2-3 weeks to hear back if the article was accepted for publication and if revisions are needed, which is highly likely.

Another journal that has been helpful is Educational Leadership published by ASCD. This is an open submission publication printing articles it deems useful for preK-12 educators. It typically publishes articles by theme, so their submission requirements are somewhat different from peer-reviewed journals.  They print articles involving research-based solutions to educational problems, reasonable debate on controversial subjects, opinions including experience and ideas, and practical examples of programs. ASCD utilizes Submittable for it’s article submissions. They then review the articles for coinciding themes and special topics.  The submissions are typically between 1,500-2,500 words, which could be better suited for the message I am aiming to convey.  My outline is extensive and has encompassed years worth of research, so I am highly considering submitting to Educational Leadership by ASCD.

References & Resources

Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, A. (2013). The missing piece: A national survey on how social and emotional learning can empower children and transform schools. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprises.

Darling-Hammond, L., & Cook-Harvey, C. M. (2018). Educating the whole child: Improving school climate to support student success. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Harapnuik, D. (2018) It’s about learning. COVA.

Harapnuik, D. (2015). It’s about learning: The head won’t go where the heart hasn’t been.

Ribble, M. (2011). Digital citizenship in schools: Second edition. International Society for Technology in Education.

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Viking.