Research suggests that social and emotional learning can lead to achievement gains

gaming-selCan playing a game help students—especially those with disabilities or special needs—improve their behavior, learn empathy, and increase academic performance? The founder of gaming monolith Electronic Arts thinks so, and he’s not alone.

“A game allows so much opportunity for playful and creative repetition in a way that deepens the learning of these skills,” said Janice Toben, an educational consultant and co-founder of the Institute for SEL. “It’s exciting to think that this can be happening with information [from the game] being sent to teachers and parents as well.”

Toben’s organization is grounded in social and emotional learning—a process by which students learn to recognize and manage their emotions, care about others, make good decisions, behave ethically and responsibly, develop positive relationships, and avoid negative behaviors.

During a recent webinar with Trip Hawkins, the EA founder, which was part of a special education series by PresenceLearning, Toben explained that the approach is not soft—but rather rooted in neuroscience. She also pointed to research suggesting a clear correlation between SEL and academic achievement.

Next page: A game-based approach

A 2011 study found that students who had taken part in an SEL program saw an average achievement gain of 11 percentage points, while incidents of misbehavior declined by 28 percent. Other studies have found that SEL can help boost students’ resilience, among other skills — which is particularly important for students with special needs.

“We are hearing a lot about resilience in education right now,” Toben said. “What we really mean is helping students deal with disappointments, whether it’s disappointment about how a test turned out, or disappointment in a relationship that is changing. Whatever it may be, social and emotional learning can go a long way in shifting a student’s perspective.”

During the webinar, Toben outlined the five key areas of social and emotional competency: self-awareness, or the ability to recognize feelings as they are occurring; self-management, which is the ability to manage emotions, such as calming down or delaying gratification; social awareness, or the ability to sense what others are feeling; relationship skills, such as cooperation and negotiation; and effective decision-making.

Finding a meaningful and effective way of teaching these skills is the focus of Hawkins’ new company, called If You Can, which hopes to bring a game-based approach to learning social and emotional skills.

“This is a very powerful form of attention, because there is an almost immediate feedback loop,” he said. “Any time you are playing a game, it’s a fundamentally interactive medium.”

The company’s first product is a game for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch called IF…The Emotional IQ Game.

Inspired by the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, IF… is an adventure game for children ages 6-12. It takes students on a quest that promotes positive social behavior and helps them manage emotions such as stress, anxiety, anger, sadness, and frustration.

As students complete various missions, they are asked to think about and make choices related to SEL skills such as active listening, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, and resilience. For each choice the student makes, the game assesses their SEL progress for parents and teachers to see.

“Science has found that when information is presented in the context of a narrative, [students] are more likely to remember it than if they are just given a list of facts,” Hawkins said. “So this is a very powerful medium, and of course anything you are doing in the game is self-paced. You can loop back and repeat things, or move forward if you want.”

Toben and other SEL experts consulted on the design the game. It includes 12 chapters that cover 20 teaching objectives spanning the five main areas of SEL.

The game is something that children with any kind of special needs “can manage and do independently, which is very empowering,” Hawkins said. “We went out of our way to make a game that is very easy to operate.” Because it is played in a safe, private environment, he said, it offers a “supportive way to help build confidence.”

Dennis Pierce is a freelance writer who has been reporting on education and technology. for more than 17 years. Dennis can be reached at denniswpierce@gmail.com.