Computers + Emotional Care = a Great Match

Erin Lark

Connecting Social-Emotional Learning


Computer Science and Computational Thinking

First, a Story

Recently, my students gave me one of those golden moments in teaching.  Allow me to set the stage.

We were over six weeks into a project-based life science unit in which students apply systems-thinking to closely examine the inner workings of a body system and relate that system to others as a subsystem. The set of standards housing our work is juicy with Crosscutting Concepts and ripe with potential for Science and Engineering Practices.  We began the unit exploring how cells themselves, a structure students often initially perceive as an end-all-be-all baseline to life, are instead a very complex system of subsystems.  That particular day, students were outlining components of their selected body system in preparation for writing  a podcast.

(If you aren’t into the science instruction side of things and/or are tired of reading the word system and its derivatives, I’m getting to the moment posthaste!)

Midway through any project, I like to pause as a class and realign our work, providing an opportunity for students to recommit to our “why” and self-assess our progress.  At this point, I did the good old-fashioned move of stepping to the whiteboard, marker in hand, asking students to reflect on benchmarks.

As I posited the benefit of checking in with our achievement, the following conversation unfolded:

Me: When we are looking at our work to figure out our next task, it can help to break it down, decomposing where we are into parts to see what’s missing or unfinished.  This is like when you are deep into writing code in robotics and come up for air to make sure the end result is still going to lift the arm or turn 90 degrees..

Student A: So it’s like we are programming?  Then I need to check the rubric to see where I am.  I think I have all the organs but [the texts] all talk about oxygen somehow, so I’m missing something.

Me: Exactly, consider our rubric a flowchart for your work.  If we look at that together, and I make a list of our categories, we can connect our workflow.   [Picture me writing this list, making a T-chart, while I continue to talk}  When talking about the human body, we identified that it’s always important to talk about boundaries, inputs and outputs.  These are terms we also use when programming, and problem solving in general. When you are considering these pieces, you are also considering your client and end result, even if that client is yourself.  So when we are talking about the major organs, we can consider those the-

Student B: Components - the parts!

Student C: And that means when doctors look for diseases they are debugging!  So anyone listening to my podcast should be able to learn about my system and how to tell if it’s broken.  Like a user guide.

Bingo - cue huge teacher grin.  Did I mention I also had visitors from a local university’s Management Information Systems program as guest observers who just happened to be video recording this exchange?  Pure awesomeness.

Those students rang every bell with their thinking, applying computer science and computational thinking concepts as though they live for that metaphorical moment.  Understanding in these subjects helped them make stronger connections to other topics and even better, students could use that relationship to inform their next moves.  Now what to do with that brilliance?

Here’s the Rub

That same afternoon this article crossed my feed. The author notes that “teenagers are dealing with rapid changes to their bodies, hormones and lives in an era of non-stop information overload, and they need help developing coping strategies.”  When I reflected on the day, considered the 100+ students with whom I’d interacted, it stunned me to realize that nearly three quarters of them have mental health on the brain.  Shouldn’t I? 

I am no newcomer to social-emotional learning.  In our room, affectionately nicknamed The Hygge House, students regularly experience community circles, practice inclusive language, and readily care for their busy minds with brain breaks.  I realize it’s my job to care for children as well as content, and take both roles seriously.

That said, there’s always more to be done.  I cannot be an advocate for all of my students if I always assume I know exactly what they need instead of constantly seeking out new opportunities they find valuable.  Lucky for all of us, there are many sources for those who want to become part of the solution, as well as promising data from school systems highlighting success stories.  For example,

Teachers in Washington also have access to the Social-Emotional Learning Standards and Benchmarks, a set of standards to use in tandem with academic standards already guiding classroom activities.  These six standards outline learning experiences just as key to student success in achieving college and career readiness as those prescribed by content areas. For example, the ability to regulate emotions is essential when persevering through a challenging situation, something that can happen with tangible goods, such as debugging a program, or the intangible, such as discussing a disagreement with a colleague.  Outside of the expectation that these standards are part of your teaching repertoire, embracing them can only solidify the great work we do in developing the inter- and intrapersonal skills of young people who will apply that learning as adults.


The Now What

Digging deeper, one can find local statistics, stats broken down by subgroup, and all manner of manipulation describing the problem, and these data beg the question:  if a student’s educators aren’t willing and able to help them build a social-emotional toolbox at school, who will be?

Remember my story?  What came next for me was a natural merger of languages, which evolved into a new social-emotional learning tool.  Students at my school take extensive coursework in computer science, robotics, and design. They regularly consider questions to answer and problems to solve, and build the academic vocabulary to describe these processes.  By using similar terminology in discussions, students who initially lacked some skill in communication regarding social-emotional goals, feelings, and needs have a new lexicon at hand. Below are just a few examples I’ve recently introduced:

Example 1


Computational Thinking

Computer Science

Social-Emotional Learning



Recognizing and Defining Computational Problems

Choice Points

Example Classroom Action

Breaking problems into manageable pieces

Finding patterns within complex sets of information

Taking apart a situation to look for where choices were made and analyzing the results for meeting goals

Teacher Language

“How can we look at what we happened, how that was different from what you wanted,  and decide what to do next?

Example 2


Computational Thinking

Computer Science

Social-Emotional Learning


Algorithm Design

Creating Computational Artifacts

Restorative Practices

Example Classroom Language

Write instructions into the form of a flow chart

Create a program to address a societal issue

Establish a protocol for addressing behavioral issues

Teacher Language

“What will help us know what to do any time this comes up and how can we share that plan with others?”


Will this pathway work for all students?  Nope. That’s the beauty (and the hard part) of the process.  Those of us who spend our days steeped in figuring out how to get a robotic scissor-lift to operate, why the torque is off, and what to do for any given error message, are in the mindframe to make these connections.  This doesn’t mean that your students or any other students cannot, only that it’s best to find a language that works for the people with whom you’re working. Consider when those magic links are forged in the work you do and identify those as possible opportunities to enhance student learning for your clients.  That, after all, is the user experience.

Knowing your students as you do, how might they benefit from a connection among CT, CS, and SEL experiences?

 What other academic languages may support a natural pathway to caring for the whole student?


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The opinions expressed by the CORElaborate Bloggers, guest bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD), Ready Washington or any employee thereof. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Washington State Teacher Leader or Guest Bloggers.

Erin Lark Board

Secondary Science Teacher at Vancouver Public Schools

Erin is an NBCT teaching secondary science in Vancouver, WA. Currently at iTech Preparatory, her work centers on interdisciplinary PBL and mindfulness.Her dissertation focused on youth innovation skills and interests in STEM content and careers, and she continues to advocate for young innovators on the daily as a co-founder of WayfinderWA.