SEL at Scale: How Edtech Can Support Meaningful Social and Emotional Learning - Digital Promise

SEL at Scale: How Edtech Can Support Meaningful Social and Emotional Learning

Middle school friends work together in a computer lab

October 6, 2021 | By

“Connection is the most important piece of the puzzle for the student-teacher relationship. … Students are more successful when they feel that their teacher understands them and understands where they’re coming from.”- High school teacher, Tennessee

This past year, with the emergency shift to remote working and learning, the importance of relationships has become more apparent than ever. As students and teachers return to school, many are focused on rebuilding the relationships that 84 percent of teachers felt suffered during the pandemic. Research has found that a focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom helps promote these relationships, and builds well-being and academic success. But educators may not have the capacity to address their students’ many needs, especially in high schools where teachers spend less time with more students, and where adolescents may be less receptive to adult guidance. Here is where the reach, flexibility, and familiarity of educational technology (edtech) can be leveraged.

Among the many potential benefits of edtech use in SEL is cultivating students’ agency in their own learning experiences. One product that has recently launched with this goal is Shmoop’s new tool Heartbeat, built upon the Learner Variability Project’s (LVP) whole learner framework. Heartbeat aims to support adolescents’ understanding and reflection around how they learn, including the impact of their well-being, such as sleep and physical activity, and certain facets of SEL, such as motivation and social support.

“There is a ton of research, but very few tools that enable [personalized learning] to come to life. Schools and educators are looking for comprehensive solutions that simplify the ability to create 1:1 learning environments …Heartbeat will do exactly that.” – Andy Rahden, CEO at Shmoop

Heartbeat works by regularly asking students to react to accessible prompts (e.g., “I have people in my life I can turn to for emotional support in a crisis” or “Hey! I actually got a good night’s sleep last night!”), and provides context to show how these factors may affect their well-being and learning. It also summarizes these responses to provide teachers with a snapshot of their students’ current lives and emotional states, which they may not typically be attuned to, or may misinterpret.

LVP partnered with Shmoop to pilot the tool with school districts that were managing both virtual and in-person learning during spring 2021. Surveys and interviews were used to learn how this kind of tool might influence students’ understanding of themselves and teachers’ understanding of their students, and whether it ultimately supported a positive and productive learning environment. Before trying Heartbeat, educators felt that they could use help to better understand and support their students, particularly by elevating their voice and promoting student agency:

“Those students that really need those basic needs met and feel like they’re not being heard..those quieter students that even when you do talk to them face-to-face, they’re not ready to open up, although they may feel more comfortable opening up digitally.” – High school teacher, Tennessee

Another teacher we spoke with explained that during remote learning, she hadn’t understood why her student was unable to get to his virtual class on time:

“I’ve known this kid for years, and I had no idea that he was at home with two siblings as mom was at work. … And now I know why because he’s probably at home taking care of two children. So now I get it.” – Middle school teacher, New Jersey

After trying the tool, teachers reported that it provided insight on the whole child, and helped better understand students’ SEL needs and how they affected learning. It also allowed their students to express their feelings, helped to build rapport with students, and allowed students to reflect on their SEL and its impact on their academic success. In speaking with a 10th grader who had used it in her class, she reported that it provided useful insights, stating:

“… Learning about intrinsic motivation, which is something that I think helped me because I struggle sometimes with getting up in the morning. … And understanding why I didn’t want to because sometimes I can. But understanding that intrinsic motivation really helped me… I do think it was insightful for me to kind of see into my behavior like that.” – High school student, Tennessee

This pilot work shows a certain promise in using edtech to support SEL; however, we must ensure these types of tools are developed and administered with immense consideration. They must be designed and developed from research based on a diversity of learners, and with an acknowledgement that every learner is different. That is, aspects of SEL such as mental health are complex and may not look the same in every student, an observation we heard from one student around her own anxiety.

Additionally, a crucial aspect of SEL is relationships, and so these tools should not aim to replace teachers, or real-world conversations, rather, they should increase comfort around these ideas, promote conversation, and instill confidence.

“I hope that students feel comfortable using it. And so I hope that I can find out maybe some additional pieces that I might not find out in a face-to-face discussion with them.” – High school teacher, Tennessee

Trusting and empathetic relationships are deeply intertwined with a student’s sense of belonging which promotes their confidence and learner success. Edtech, when built for and with users—and implemented with awareness and intention—can create more opportunities for self-directed learning and check-ins, even for larger classrooms. These opportunities allow for greater motivation, communication, and self-reflection, laying the foundation for a positive and engaging learning experience and future success for every learner.


Berman, S., with Chaffee, S., & Sarmiento, J. (2018). The practice base for how we learn: Supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic developmentConsensus statements of practice from the Council of Distinguished Educators. Washington, DC: National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, The Aspen Institute.

Digital Promise. (2021). Learning in the 21st Century: How the American Public, Parents, and Teachers View K-12 Teaching and Learning in the Pandemic. Digital Promise: Washington, D.C.

Giovanelli, A., Ozer, E. M., & Dahl, R. E. (2020). Leveraging technology to improve health in adolescence: A developmental science perspective. Journal of Adolescent Health, 67(2), S7-S13.

Halberstadt, A. G., Castro, V. L., Chu, Q., Lozada, F. T., & Sims, C. M. (2018). Preservice teachers’ racialized emotion recognition, anger bias, and hostility attributions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 54, 125-138

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