Many educators would agree that it’s difficult to get a read on student well-being – particularly in middle schools, where students are less inclined to share their thoughts and feelings.
One New York school is hoping this will get easier with help from a new data-driven tool called #WinAtSocial Insights, which hopes to transform the way educators understand and support student well-being.
#WinAtSocial Insights is a tool created by The Social Institute (TSI), the creators of an online learning platform designed to help students navigate social media and technology. Insights captures anonymous student feedback during TSI lessons and surveys and then provides both teachers and students with the results. Schools can use Insights to gather data about student mood, health and well-being and then use it to inform decisions about lessons, school activities and more.
Like many schools, Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge Preparatory School didn’t have a consistent way to check in with its 375 students. The K-12 independent also did not have a constructive way for students to inform teachers and administrators about how they were feeling.
When TSI asked Bay Ridge middle school director Julie Mayring to try Insights, she was immediately interested. A system that could collect and aggregate student feedback could be used to plan relevant lessons and activities, and measure changes in student well-being over time. The school decided to implement Insights in fall 2022 for its fourth through 12th grade students.
“Middle schoolers don’t always outwardly share their feelings the way younger students do. So, our faculty meetings would cover teacher reports on how a particular student or class was doing in general, but we didn’t have metrics or specifics on a breakdown of feelings over a period of time,” says Mayring, who is also a licensed psychologist. “That’s why this new tool is intriguing to me. It attempts to capture human emotion through a device that students use all the time – their laptop.”
Using social media for good
Bay Ridge was already familiar with TSI and its #WinAtSocial Curriculum. In 2019, Mayring discovered the organization at an education conference while she was looking for an organized approach to help students learn how to navigate social media. TSI’s gamified lessons focus on positive social media and technology use and highlight student perspectives and voices.
Mayring felt that using technology to learn about tech would resonate well with Bay Ridge middle schoolers. In addition, TSI’s ready-made lessons could provide some relief for staff who find the topic of emerging tech a bit outside their area of expertise, Mayring says.
“I loved how they incorporated real-world examples of how social media could be used, both for good and also examples of when certain choices were made that didn’t play out too well,” says Mayring. “Before this, we had tried to keep up with the latest apps that students were using and figure out how to best help them to navigate this rapidly developing digital world. Some of our faculty members found this stressful,” Mayring said.
TSI founder Laura Tierney says Insights was designed to help educators build what she refers to as student intelligence, or “the ability to understand and relate to students and address the trends and topics that most influence their lives.” The key to creating impactful learning environments lies in understanding students’ well-being and social experience, both online and offline, she says.
“By cultivating strong student intelligence, schools can identify trends among their students and make meaningful, data-driven decisions that enhance school culture and support the health, happiness, and future success of their students,” Tierney says. “That ability to harness and respond to real-time data is a game-changer for school communities to affect real change.”
Using data to allocate SEL resources
Tierney says the current version of Insights does not provide actionable steps directly, although that functionality may become available in the future.
The current version is designed to help educators see trends, identify challenges, and support social-emotional learning with targeted lessons. Administrators can also use the embedded surveys and polls to build school culture and make informed decisions about teaching, communications and school policy.
For example, in a TSI orientation lesson, students are asked to identify technology-related challenges they believe their school community faces most. Some of the challenges students rank include:
Striking a balance with tech to maximize our time.
Finding ways to use tech and/or social media for good.
Mastering techniques to handle stress and everyday pressures.
Staying in control of our personal info and privacy online.
Administrators can use feedback from this poll to determine where to invest time and resources.
In another survey, students are asked to anonymously identify social media platforms and technology they use most. This can help schools identify which platforms and devices are most popular by grade level and help identify relevant lessons to prioritize. This is also great student feedback to share with parents and school boards, Tierney says.
Mayring used Insights data early in the 2022-23 school year to get a read on how middle grade students were feeling about their first month back to school. Students responded to a check-in built into a lesson by choosing from a list of nine terms: meh, drained, happy, calm, stressed, excited, angry, sad and grateful.
Of those survey, 57% of seventh graders responded with “meh,” 14% chose “drained,” and 29% reported feeling “excited.” Mayring felt this highlighted a sense of “low energy” across the grade level and set about planning activities to address the feedback. This prompted efforts to plan a sleepaway trip and a meeting with seventh grade staff to determine whether there were other fun or energizing activities they could organize to shift the trend.
Sixth graders reported a greater variation in their feelings, but “meh” also topped the list. The school planned a Halloween festival for sixth graders in an effort to decrease the number of “meh” reports. Mayring says she is looking forward to seeing how effective their plans were as Insights gathers new feedback.
“This is actionable data that I have at my fingertips. It’s pretty exciting to see,” Mayring says. “Time will tell if we can take actions that help to achieve changes in our metrics. I’d hope to see the number reporting ‘happy’ increase. And hopefully, we can shift the number of ‘meh’ reports we are getting in a downward direction.”
Paul Wurster is a writer and technical editor based in Oregon.