New technologies offer an interactive approach to developing social skills in schools and colleges, as Les Cowan explains

Anyone working with young people can be sure of at least two things. One, that they are very open to influence by peers, role models and those they admire. And two, that they can be equally resistant to influence by adults interested in their behaviour, attitudes and values. While hardly revelations, they have important implications for the resources used in life skills curricula.

New technologies

Those close to young people can see that new technologies are playing an increasingly important role in their lives – not just computer games but email, chat systems, YouTube, Bebo, text messaging, e-commerce and even the computer as a media archive for video and MP3.

Interestingly, new technologies have been taken up in many of the core curriculum subjects where a more factual or ‘hard’ information agenda lends itself well to an IT approach. But this is less so in the ‘softer’ areas of PSHE and citizenship. Why should this be? Surely young people’s attitudes, values and behaviours are so important for their welfare and good social functioning, that every available and helpful means should be investigated and engaged where possible?

New resources

With this in mind, Information Plus has been developing a range of interactive social learning software resources over the past 15 years. The resources aim to use culturally relevant interactive approaches to learning. The current focus is mostly on the eight to 16 age group in relation to social skills development and behaviour.

So what sort of interactive approaches seem to work and prove helpful? Our first and original concept came directly from the issue of: choices, consequences and outcomes.

You know the scenario… young person acts rashly, gets into trouble and has to face the music. She or he is then asked by a teacher, parent or other authority figure something along the lines of: ‘But did you never think when you stole the drink/took the tablets/punched the other kid what might happen as a result?’ Answer, of course, ‘No!’

From the monotonous regularity of this sort of situation, and the feeling that conventional responses sometimes don’t prove fantastically effective, the idea first occurred to us that it might be possible to create a technology-based interactive environment where young people can consider choices, consequences and outcomes in a safer and more reflective way. The interactive resources outlined below were designed to be engaging and fun and promote:

  • informed decision making
  • development of social skills
  • transferable approaches to dilemmas.


This approach has eventually grown into what we call the ‘Billy’ resources. Each CD-rom in this set of three titles, Billy Breaks the Rules, Billy and the Big D-cision and Billy and the Break In involves a starting problem or dilemma which can be responded to by means of pop-up thought bubble choices. Clicking on a choice means it is read aloud. Double-clicking takes the player to the consequences of acting that way and thence to a new situation with different choices and so on.

At each stage players can see whether Billy’s situation is better or worse. This makes for lots to talk about what might happen next and whether players have themselves experienced anything similar. The animated cartoon-style includes lots of action and sound effects which add fun to learning. Issues in the series include: rules and boundaries in the family, drugs and alcohol among the peer group and offending behaviour. Feedback from users suggests there is definite benefit in using a simulation approach to help young people develop more consequential thinking and transfer what they have learned to real life situations.


Popular and useful, the ‘On Screen Board Games’ provide a given starting point and a specific storyline which allow students to focus on a particular topic. The games cover a broad range of issues and are more group-orientated than some other resources. They use a system of points scoring to reward careful decision making. The first of the games, Busted, takes a Monopoly format. Players land on squares labelled ‘school’, ‘friends’, ‘family’, ‘work’ and ‘health’. The game leads players to behavioural dilemmas which need solving, quizzes or discussion topics. Cartoon ‘mentors’ follow players and comment on their choices.


A more specific social skills approach is taken by the ‘LifeBall’ series of CD-Roms. There are currently four titles: LifeBall (10-14 age range), LifeBall Plus (14+), LifeBall Work (work specific content) and LifeBall Special (16+ with learning disabilities). LifeBall uses the mechanism of the National Lottery draw machine but instead of numbers each of the eight different colours represents a particular social skill area such as: relationships, feelings, empathy and perseverance. Players are then presented with a problem or dilemma. They have to deploy the social skill to ensure good outcomes in situations involving ‘friends’, ‘family’, ‘rules and boundaries’ and ‘racism and diversity’.


For mid and older teens, where positive influence can be even harder, another game format makes young people advisers on the dilemmas faced by their peer group. Problematic is a CD-Rom simulation of a phone-in radio show in which players give advice to the callers about their problems. Players gain or lose points based on the quality of their advice. Other issues dealt with in an interactive board game format include sexual health and behaviour in Contraception: The Computer Game and parenting skills in Parenting Snakes and Ladders.

So does it work?

Our feedback from teachers, carers, parents, youth workers and others is that young people like and engage with an interactive approach. A particular benefit for teachers is that the resources address many of the issues already in the curriculum but in a style and format more natural to the way young people interact and communicate in everyday life. It’s been said that the computer is as powerful as a blank sheet of paper. It’s up to us what we choose to write on it…

Les Cowan is managing director of Information Plus.

First published in Learning for Life, April 2007