Students at a number of elementary and middle schools across the country are being asked not just to take reading, math, and other academic subjects this school year. They’re also being expected to engage in some self-reflection and discovery of their character.
The schools are utilizing Happify, an online gaming platform that supports social-emotional learning concepts, as part of a larger character-development program known as Thriving Learning Communities, designed by the Cincinnati-based Mayerson Academy, a nonprofit provider of professional-development services in the education sector.
While schools have long placed a heavy emphasis on improving students’ academic achievement, many educators and researchers are paying closer attention to students’ social-emotional, noncognitive development, fueled in part by its emphasis in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal education law commonly known as ESSA. Even so, a number of observers note that the use of apps and other digital tools focused on measuring and developing students’ non-cognitive skills is still in the early stages. Others question whether schools could become too reliant on tech tools to cultivate social-emotional skills.
And apps like Happify are also emerging at a time when some parent groups are concerned about protecting students’ data and personal information, and about students’ and schools’ overexposure to digital tools and platforms.
For some private and public schools, there is great value in programs such as Mayerson’s, which offers a blended learning program for schools that pairs the science of character strengths with a version of Happify customized for schoolchildren.
“We’re aiming for a culture change,” said Jillian Darwish, the president of the Mayerson Academy. “There is a deep concern over how we are going to assist and care for educators and children in this fast-paced, intense world.”
Lynn Ochs, the senior program director for Mayerson, said her organization worked closely with Happify to adjust vocabulary and readability so it would be appropriate for middle schoolers. “We also had the ability to create custom content in the activities themselves,” she said.
Mayerson also tapped into its exclusive partnership with the VIA Institute on Character, a nonprofit also based in Cincinnati, that has designated 24 character strengths. In February, the 1,300-student Deer Park Community City Schools, a district located 10 miles north of Cincinnati, was awarded a $106,000 Straight A Grant from the Ohio education department to implement Mayerson’s Thriving Learning Communities With Happify program for students and teachers in grades 5-8.
Nine public and private schools in Chicago, Dallas, Pueblo, Colo., St. Louis, and other communities are also implementing the program this school year with separate, grant-based funding from Mayerson and other supporters.
Jay Phillips, the assistant superintendent of the Deer Park schools, noted that some of his district’s recent goals have been centered on social-emotional health and character building. “I thought this could be a great fit for us,” Phillips said. “I liked the blended-learning aspect of this with the online component and classroom offline component.”
The Deer Park school district consists of two elementary schools and a junior/senior high school and serves a total of 1,280 students. Fifty percent of the students are from economically disadvantaged families.
Phillips emphasized that while the Mayerson program helps his district address the social-emotional components of ESSA, the law wasn’t the driving force behind the district’s decision to pursue the grant. “The driving force for us was with all of the mental-health issues out there and lack of social-emotional support, we felt before we could do anything else, our kids needed to feel confidence in themselves,” he said. “We feel if kids understand their strengths, they can build upon them.”
Understanding Student Needs
Dave Bergan, the director of student services for the Deer Park district, was part of the team that applied for the grant and a lead member of the district’s mental-health task force.
As part of reviewing mental-health services for students, the task force performed an anonymous Developmental Assets Profile that surveyed students in grades 6-9. Task force members found positive self-image among students was lacking, according to survey results. “This was an area we needed to work on,” he said.
At Amity Elementary, a grades 3-6 school, 5th grade teacher Melissa McNutt has begun implementing the Thriving Learning Communities program for nearly 50 students.
As part of the platform, students start off their use of the Happify platform by taking a character-strengths survey in class that identifies their top-five character strengths. Sample strengths include “curiosity,” “teamwork,” “bravery,” “kindness,” “love,” “perseverance,” and “zest.”
Ochs and Darwish noted that the program is built on the idea that everyone possesses all 24 strengths, just in varying degrees.
When working on activities in Happify, students get a reminder in a window of their top-five signature strengths.
“We highlight strengths throughout the year,” Ochs said. “We focus on their strengths, but they really have an opportunity to explore all strengths throughout the curriculum.”
In class, teachers can choose to focus on particular strengths. The first character strength McNutt’s class focused on was “kindness.”
Students at Deer Park access the Happify platform using school-issued Google Chromebooks. Every Monday, McNutt conducts a character education lesson based on Mayerson’s program. Her students also log on to Happify once a week and take about 10 to 15 minutes to engage with the app and review their character strengths.
At this time, Mayerson is awaiting research on the effectiveness of the program and use of the website. Darwish said her organization has captured both quantitative and qualitative data from the 2015-16 school year that is being reviewed by Robert McGrath, a research scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.
Jennifer Brown Urban, an associate professor of family and child studies at Montclair State University, also in New Jersey, said using technology is an emergent approach to character development. “It’s in the earlier, nascent stage at this point,” she said.
Technology Still Emerging
Brown Urban noted there are a handful of other character education programs similar to Mayerson’s that utilize web-based tools for pinpointing character strengths, such as the UK-based Inspire>Aspire character development program. The program is designed to help 10- to 18-year-olds explore their character, ideals, and values through a poster template using Internet resources, according to the organization’s website.
But as more public and private schools use technology in their classrooms for a variety of tasks, parent-advocate groups are raising their own concerns about offering online tools and apps such as Happify to children.
Most recently, Parents Across America, a nonprofit group with 44 chapters across 25 states, issued a set of resources warning of the “threats” posed by the expansion of technology use in schools, including rising screen time for children, increased testing and data collection, and what the group views as misguided teaching strategies based on low-quality digital products.
Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, an education advocacy group and co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, questioned whether schools should be using tools such as Happify to assess and train students in terms of social-emotional qualities.
“It’s an unproven product which has many serious privacy, educational, and psychological concerns associated with it that a lot of parents would be unhappy to hear about,” Haimson said, adding that some parents feel nervous about assessing their kids’ character issues.
In addition, when students first start using the platform, all posts are private until the school elects to turn on the community feature, which creates a confined online community monitored by school staff. The goal of the program is to create a “walled garden” so students are only communicating with one another, said Ochs.
When utilizing the platform, students and teachers within the community can see students’ user names, school name, and elective statements about what makes them happy, Ochs noted, adding that Mayerson can also view that information as well as usage data.
Darwish noted that Thriving Learning Communities also has a parent engagement component, whereby teachers are encouraged to communicate with parents via various letter templates, suggesting activities and conversations at home that both inform parents and encourage student learning.
“We follow a typical educational software convention, that while parents do not have unique log-in credentials, they can certainly see the child’s work through the child’s log-in,” she explained.
Skills Without Technology
Brown Urban is also the director of the Partnerships for Advancing Character Program Evaluation, or PACE Project, at Montclair State. The project describes itself as an “innovative approach to evaluation capacity building that offers unique professional development opportunities for staff of youth character development programs as well as evaluators.” Mayerson was one of 16 education organizations selected to participate in a cohort with the PACE Project this fall. Brown Urban noted one goal of the project is to help educators and researchers ensure that such character education programs, and the technology they utilize, develop accurate assessments of students’ noncognitive skills.
“This is what PACE is working to address,” she said. “What we are looking at is ‘to what extent is the program having intended outcomes?”
Whatever use Mayerson makes of technology is likely to add to what schools are already doing, said Kentaro Toyama, an associate professor of community information at the University of Michigan. “If they are working on character strengths and helping students build those, I’m confident [schools] are already doing well without technological aids,” he said. “They will find a way to make it fit with their mission and tactics.”
The caution he would provide, Toyama noted, is that it’s unlikely the technology by itself will have impact. “Just because Mayerson sees positive results doesn’t mean another educational institution that may not be as pedagogically able or as focused as Mayerson would see the same benefits.”
A deeper, longer-term challenge is to instill in educators the notion that students acquire these noncognitive skills with or without the technology, Toyama said, noting that his main claim about technology is that it amplifies existing human forces.
“You don’t want people to become less happy or less virtuous because their smartphone died,” he said. “The more technology you bring into the class, the more you rely on it to produce the positive results.”
Deer Park’s Bergan notes that the Happify component is only a small piece of the entire program. “I agree that a character education program that relies on screen time as opposed to face-to-face wouldn’t be positive,” he noted. “Happify is a bonus for us, not the driver for why we are in the program.”
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A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2016 edition of Education Week as Social-Emotional Learning Via Tech