Erikson’s Social and Emotional Learning Initiative supports innovative approaches to creating engaged learning

The visibility and increased need for understanding Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has skyrocketed over the past few years, and for good reason. SEL is a process by which children and adults manage their emotions, and develop self-awareness, decision-making skills, and empathy for others.  Many educators have begun to realize the benefits of incorporating mindfulness, or awareness of your body, mind, and feelings in the present moment, into their SEL approaches.

Scholars at Erikson are at the forefront of the SEL field and have created a research and professional development center focused on SEL in young children from preschool through 3rd grade. The Social and Emotional Learning Initiative’s (SELI) motto, “love causes learning,” guides its activities, which include professional development and training for teachers, school staff, and parents. SELI also conducts original research to help schools become more compassionate and productive hubs for learning.

The benefits to implementing SEL tools into school curriculum and programming are many:  increased connectedness between teachers and students, higher levels of child engagement in learning, and increased kindness and compassion at all levels.

There’s an app for that—replenishing attention with nature

Classrooms are often set up in ways that are directly counter to maintaining children’s attention, such as requiring students to be seated for long stretches, or having too many distracting decorations on the walls. One of the newest ways Erikson’s SEL experts are shaping the SEL field is by paying more attention to paying attention. The Calm Spot app, now available in the Google Play store for Android users, displays 2-3 minute relaxing videos of nature, a concept called attention restoration.

Associate professor and director of Erikson’s SEL Initiative Dr. Amanda Moreno says that humans have two different types of attention: effortful attention and automatic attention, and we can’t operate them at the same time. “You have to spend time engaging your automatic attention if you plan on subsequently being engaged in something that is hard,” says Moreno.

That’s where the Calm Spot app comes in; it engages users’ automatic attention. There are different versions for personal use (for both adults and children), or for use within a classroom. The app has over 70 high-quality nature videos including scenes such as cows grazing on a pasture, or a waterfall accompanied by a rainbow. The video selections are randomly generated, to avoid the time and mental burden it takes to make a choice. However, in personal mode, users do have the option to change the video if they are not in the mood for the one that starts playing.

Classroom mode is set up with features to reduce the need for teacher monitoring. A photo-based log in system proves to be easy enough to use for children as young as three, and prevents a child from overusing the app. A child cannot use the app more than once an hour, or more than three times a day.

About halfway through each video, a voiceover gently draws users back to the screen in case their attention has drifted, by poetically describing the scene or one of its features. For example: “Look – the leaves flutter in the gentle breeze while the sunshine creates dancing patterns in the grass.” Once the video finishes, a final voiceover instructs children to return to their classroom activity. “The hope is they will now pay attention better for the next 20 to 30 minutes than they would have if they had just been forced to sit at their desk the whole time,” Moreno says.

Responding to Modern Day Needs

SELI is developing and researching multiple other innovative aspects of SEL programming and approaches in response to current challenges in schools. Currently, they are implementing what they call a “two-gen” (two generation) approach to SEL by supporting older youth in playing the role of “Emotion Coach” for younger children. They are also developing their “Calm Community Curriculum” into an SEL parenting program, and exploring innovative ways of increasing positivity in classrooms, such as by providing gentle reminders to teachers through smartwatches.

Given the increased awareness around the need for trauma-responsive schools, Dr. Moreno says, “our approach is really to bring attachment theory to the classroom. All children learn better from a place of love, but this is absolutely essential for children exposed to toxic stress and trauma.” These strategies, including those that support adult self-care in the face of their increasingly demanding jobs, are expanded in SELI’s Summer Institute track, as well as Erikson’s SEL specialization within our online Masters of Science in Early Education.

Learn more about SELI here and contact them at [email protected].