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Q&A with Trip Hawkins and Janice Toben, M.Ed.

Trip Hawkins and Janice Toben

Our first Special Agents of Change webinar, “How Games Can Help Children with Special Needs Develop Critical Life Skills” with gaming pioneer Trip Hawkins and co-founder of the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Janice Toben sparked a lively discussion about gaming, SEL and their role in special education.

  1. What age and cognitive range can this game be used for?
    Trip: When we designed IF… The Emotional IQ Game, we designed it with an age range starting from early reading and expanding through middle school. We had the idea that any student who wants to make his or her own choices about his or her learning methods could play the game. We actually found that because SEL skills are so generally needed, even older students are playing it. We discovered that the game appealed to people on a very wide age range, but I think the perfect sweet spot for it is elementary school.
    Janice: The game can be also be played alongside with and held together with an adult, when the reading comprehension piece is an issue.
  2. How does the game work for students on the autism spectrum? Also, what do you think about designing games for students on the spectrum and what results you are seeing in this population?
    Trip: The great thing about this product design for children with special needs is that it is very easy to operate. It is something the user can do independently, which is very empowering. It builds confidence. It does not require advanced reading or advanced game playing skills.When we start looking at the types of conditions that students are diagnosed with, there are different SEL tools that apply to different categories of need. For example, students with ADHD most likely are having challenges with listening and being patient. They tend to interrupt more often in social situations, so these situations are simulated often in the game so players can get feedback about their behavior.That is one of the great things about the game. It gives the player a variety of choices on how to react to situations. Then, when he or she makes a good choice, the game positively reinforces that choice. When the player makes an inappropriate choice, the game will tell the player why it is inappropriate and then loop back to give him or her a chance to pick a better answer. So for a student with ADHD, he or she will potentially learn practices for calming down, meditation, being patient, being a better listener and more.For a student with Asperger’s, the game is going to address a different set of issues including social situations and the appropriate behaviors in those situations. Obviously, there are a lot of different kinds of conditions associated with the autism spectrum and I think a game design like this naturally taps into any child’s desire to enjoy a game, have fun and make progress to feel like they are accomplishing things, so this game can be helpful to almost any type of condition. For students with developmental delays, there may be times during the game in which they experience frustration due to harder-to-navigate situations or negative feedback. It is at this point that the game’s ability to teach skills to maintain composure and become self-aware are important. The game teaches players to use a set of skills within the SEL toolkit to self-regulate and calm down, which is important for real life situations.
    Janice: There is great sensitivity and intensity that sometimes comes along with children with special needs. The game gives students a way to step back and look at emotion through the characters, and actually learn about an emotion and then internalize skills for coping. For the students I knew who were on the spectrum, often their great intellect was sometimes frustrated by any suggestions of reflecting on the emotion in the moment, so we have to vary our experiences with students. We have to bring in movement and art while we are bringing in technology to respond to their individuality.
  3. The world of gaming can be especially helpful for children who experienced some type of trauma. A listener in Colorado asks, “What role could this game play for a second grader who is distant, aggressive and rarely connects with other children? He was sexually abused in nursery school and was one of several children targeted.”
    Trip: That’s a heartbreaking situation. The first priority we have when creating a game like this is safety and having the student feel protected and supported. I think a benefit of this game to a student in this situation is that the game experience is completely private. Because of this, the game starts out in a very gentle way. The early part of it is a tutorial that helps the player get acquainted with the game format.Even for students without a traumatic past, starting school can be overwhelming. When a child is accustomed to living at home and being in their private family residence, it can be pretty chaotic to drop into a classroom for the first time because there are a lot of brand new social issues, responsibilities and rules to follow. It generally could be very challenging for most children.Add this stress to a student who has a traumatic past? It is going to be much harder for them to be able to be calm, focused and relaxed in that climate, especially if it reminds them of the traumatic experiences they had. The game provides the student with a fairly gentle, private and supportive way to rebuild confidence.
    Janice: One chapter of the game focuses on this notion of having an inner ally and developing positive self-talk, which is a very powerful tool for both adults and children. The notion that sometimes our own self-thoughts can bring us down and not be helpful to us is a powerful concept and we must learn how to be an inner ally of support for ourselves. This is not all a panacea for everything we are talking about, nor is it going to be completely therapeutic for a child who has undergone that trauma, but that concept is a very important one and could be very helpful in building resilience.
    Trip: In addition to just dealing with everyday situations, there may be instances when a student with special needs deals with bullying. When we refer to bullying, we often identify a bully and then a victim, but in a way, they are both alienated and they are both victims.
    Because of this, we designed the game to address bullying. Over the course of playing the game, students are going to develop a lot of awareness and skills about bullying that they may not have developed otherwise. If a player is a bully in real life, playing the game could be very helpful to tune them into why they are behaving this way. The game will teach them why bullying is not effective to their own self progress and provide them with alternative tools and skills they can use to be more successful.
  4. What are your favorite low-tech ways to work on SEL skills?
    Janice: Let’s start off with a few no-tech approaches. Practicing positive affirmation, self-talks and appreciations throughout the day is really powerful and important. Additionally, we can engage in nature to practice a sense of awe and wonder, which is also a huge low-tech way to practice SEL skills. The science of awe is being studied at the Greater Good Science Center of Berkeley. It is very powerful and interesting to see how this can change our mindset and bring down cortisol levels. And obviously, practices that involve movement such as yoga are very helpful to people. Any activity that can be considered mindfulness practice can help.
    Trip: Daily mindfulness is, I think, the center of all this. If you are an adult, of course you need this for yourself. You need to tune into your awareness and figure out what you need to do to self-regulate. Notice your heart rate and your breathing. How can you manage yourself and communicate more effectively? And of course, if you were around kids or even other adults, being able to manage yourself in this way is the most important thing. I would say in terms of other effective tools, I personally benefited from some really great books that help readers develop a kinder internal voice like Kristin Neff’s “Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.” Also, books by Buddhist thinkers help readers realize what we have control over and what we don’t, as well as how to be kinder in that internal voice. There are three tools I love to use with my family, one of them being the Ungame, the world’s most popular self-expression game. It is just a great conversation starter. You wouldn’t think that children of all ages, including teens, would like this game, but I have children who ask to play this game regularly and all my children have really loved it. Two more specific SEL tools that are in a form of a deck of cards are Think, Feel, Act and Wonder Kids Cards. Both are a complete tools to use when trying to help someone work on a problem or to simply generate a brainstorming conversation that can go deeper.
    Janice: For parents, another one has to do with interacting with your child in the home. Though this is not always possible by any means, instead of calling across the room or around the corner or down the hallway, actually walk to your child and maybe get down eye-to-eye with them. This just gets back those subtle connective pieces that we are missing more and more of in our culture. Just deciding to do this one thing will create a different value and attentiveness around your common response of your children over time.
  5. What is the cost of IF… The Emotional IQ Game?
    The game is organized into chapters. Chapter 1 is free and additional chapters cost roughly $5 for home users with Apple devices. The company is developing a school and professional version (including support for PC and Mac users) that may be priced differently. For more information, visit:
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