How a new technology—avatar-based SEL—is supporting more students

Avatar-based technology uses an engaging platform that is both meaningful and impactful in addressing students' mental health.

Districts around the United States are struggling to help students adapt back to the in-person classroom environment. Students are fraught with unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns in a post-COVID-19 return to school.

Many students have not received direct instruction in over two years and were compelled to use a virtual platform for learning. For many students, speaking to their peers and teachers in person has been an adjustment, with some students having marked difficulty. Even prior to COVID-19, anxiety among students was steadily increasing.

School administrators have dealt with increasing teacher stress and burnout—with teachers abandoning a profession they once believed they would retire from. Teaching is no longer about content; rather it is about managing behaviors, emotions, and the learning gaps that have occurred in a post-Covid world.

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Many schools are also grappling with massive budget cuts, which make already depleted resources more scarce. Many schools are facing teacher and related school personnel shortages, which often result in larger classes, further exacerbating both the academic and social-emotional needs of children and adolescents.

Engaging with SEL avatars

One way, administrators, counselors, and mental health professionals are attempting to address the mental health needs of students is by implementing district-wide social-emotional learning programs. A relatively new method of approaching these students is through avatar-based technology, which has utilized an engaging platform that is both meaningful and impactful.

Christy Mulligan
Christy Mulligan

We have reviewed the few virtual reality platforms available, and one program that stands out is a program that developed its SEL curriculum based on the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework. CASEL defines social-emotional learning as “the process by which children develop the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to interpret and manage emotions, identify and strive toward positive goals, feel and display empathy for others, build and sustain positive relationships, and implement responsible decisions.” This virtual reality program allows students to create their own avatar, develop their own scripts, and create a video based on their own social-emotional goals.

Alexander Fertig
Alexander Fertig

Alexander Fertig, the co-author of this column, is a New Jersey certified school psychologist who uses this program for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Although there are barriers to engaging this population to actively participate in SEL learning, the avatar-based program has connected them to a variety of activities and games to support SEL learning and competency.

Students have developed scripts on various topics such as body language, anger management, and executive functioning weaknesses. They then create social stories—that are specific to themselves—that they encounter within the school environment. The students have become so proficient with the technology, and they delve deeply into the topics and create innovative content. Students are able to view their movies while eating popcorn, and they learn from each other. These efforts not only help the individual student learn, but it also allows other students to connect, and build empathy to see the struggles of their peers.

Supporting more students’ needs

Administrators are often looking for SEL activities that relate specifically to their students and communities. School-based group counseling, SEL lessons, and academic instruction for students frequently fall into a familiar pattern that leads to a lack of engagement. Often, SEL lessons are over-generalized and fail to make a connection to the experiences of the individual students or school communities. This lack of connection will lead students not to make an investment in what they are learning and disengagement from the goals of SEL.

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Using avatar SEL-based elements, administrators can not only use different models of counseling but also add topics that impact students in their specific communities and cultural backgrounds. Avatar-based lessons are useful tools for administrators to assist students in self-regulation and understanding the resources available at the building level and within their communities.

Avatar-based SEL is endorsed for all levels of the multi-tiered system of supports process. Programs that utilize avatar-based technology can engage students in a manner that is interesting, fun, and meaningful. Since most students have an interest in new technology, we see this as an exciting method of addressing social, emotional and executive functioning needs that transcends lecture-based instruction. We see programs that utilize technology and strive to address the social and emotional needs of students as the future.

Although we continue to endorse individual service providers for the most severe children and adolescents, ever-growing caseloads often cause this type of counseling to fall short for students with more mild social skill deficits. Avatar-based, virtual reality SEL is a cost-effective method of supporting the needs of more students across a school district.

Christy Mulligan is an assistant professor/assistant director in the School Psychology Program at Adelphi University’s Derner School of Psychology. Alexander Fertig is a school psychologist practicing in New Jersey with 25 years of experience as a school psychologist and teacher. 

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