Think of school, and gaining the knowledge that will help pass a test or write a great paper comes to mind. But when it comes to navigating life, interpersonal skills, making choices and managing emotions can be just as important. Plus, many students are struggling with anxiety and depression. Educator-turned-founder Ashley Williams said this social and emotional intelligence must also be honed.
“It’s kind of like strength training,” said Williams, the founder of Baltimore startup Infinite Focus Schools. “The more that you learn about it the stronger your emotional intelligence becomes.”
It also the subject of specific areas of education, including socio-emotional learning and mindfulness. Infinite Focus Schools is looking to grow access to curriculum and learning in these areas with its tech platform.
While working at Southwest Baltimore Charter School as director of climate and culture in 2018, Williams wrote and implemented a curriculum for students that included socio-emotional learning, and working with an outside mindfulness company. The feedback from students was positive, but teachers saw the lessons as one more thing they had to pack in to a busy schedule.
A key question, per Williams: “How do we offer content so it’s not additional burden to already burdened teachers?”
Stepping back, Williams saw that there was an opportunity to use technology to shorten the lessons to 10 minutes with video, and tighten the feedback loop by collecting data. So she ended up resigning her position to do more research, and ended up starting Infinite Focus Schools.
She built an MVP and beta tested with teachers around the country. The result is a platform that teaches students about emotional, biological and cognitive functions, as well as “toxic stress.” The idea is that educators can essentially press play, and content is being delivered by students that are at the same age level of the students watching the lessons, so it’s relatable.
“The idea is that kids can carry these coping mechanisms around in their pockets,” Williams said.
The app also has an assessment that allows teachers and parents to measure emotional intelligence, so the data can provide insights.
Williams said Infinite Focus Schools has refined the platform based on feedback from users. Along the way, Williams has also gotten support from Baltimore entrepreneurial resources such as Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab, Baltimore Corps’ Elevation Awards, and she’s in the latest cohort of Loyola University Maryland’s Baltipreneurs accelerator.
Along with the platform, Williams has also worked on honing the company’s model to spread the platform. The company is now taking an approach to spreading it by seeking to reach teachers and parents directly. Recently, Infinite Focus Schools received funding from Innovation Works’ Ignite Capital, which will help to raise brand awareness, including working with a digital marketing firm. It’s also taking part in the Santa Clara University-based Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship programming via that institution’s partnership with Innovation Works.
Looking at the market, Williams said schools are spending $640 million a year on socio-emotional learning. At the same time, she said, for every dollar invested in such learning, it can equate to $11 in lifetime earnings. And along with leading to a happier, healthier life for students, she points out there are outcomes that it can affect directly, such as likelihood to end up in prison, and life expectancy.
In turn, the company hopes the platform can help with the stress levels of teachers and parents, too.