Inside Out, InsideU: Transforming Emotional Learning for the Next Generation 

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By Jane Appel


In a world of constant technology use, especially with children, it’s important to use screen time meaningfully. InsideU is a digital social and emotional learning app created by Dr. Sam Hubley, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant research professor with CU Boulder’s Renée Crown Wellness Institute (Crown Institute).  

The app helps children understand their emotions, talk about them in a critical way and realize they control their actions—their feelings don’t. It has four episodes featuring choose-your-own-adventure stories and was inspired by the 2015 Pixar movie Inside Out.  

“We really have something here with Inside Out,” said Hubley. “It’s a beautiful movie, but they never created a formal resource to help people understand its key messages and action them.”  

Hubley wrote a letter to Pixar in 2016 explaining his love for the film and his grandparents’ previous work in animation. His letter opened a line of communication with folks at Pixar, and Hubley was able to share his ideas about how Inside Out could inspire resources for people. In 2018, everyone involved agreed to create an app. It took another two years to iron out the details. Hubley officially started working on the app in 2020 at the Crown Institute with Julia Zigarelli, associate director and clinical child psychologist, and Ryan Guild, senior project manager.  

Inside U is supported by a grant from CU Boulder’s Office for Public and Community-Engaged Scholarship (formerly named the Office for Outreach and Engagement).  

Hubley’s inspiration for developing an app was addressing what he calls “the treatment gap.” Although not specifically designed to help with diagnosed mental health issues, InsideU is a tool for learning about expressing emotions.  

In a 2021 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), two out of five adults reported feeling symptoms of anxiety and depression, while 44% of high school students reported struggling with persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. The number of people who struggle with mental health issues is far greater than the number of people who receive adequate treatment, and this alarmed Hubley. He decided to work on something free and accessible to the public.  

Hubley thought the best route forward was to include the app’s end-users in the development process.  

“If we were designing something for young people, then we wanted young people at the table right from the very start,” said Hubley. “That is one of our core values, and every research project at the Crown Institute is embedded within a community partnership.”  

Hubley and his team collaborated with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver to see what app content and structure would be most effective and popular with young users.  

In one co-design group with children, Hubley presented a few 90-second film clips that showed a significant emotional change for the characters involved. Then he asked the kids to describe what emotion they saw, how they knew it was that emotion and what the character was feeling in their body. The kids mapped the physical sensations of the characters’ emotions. Based on the ways the children understood and talked about the physical part of emotions, Hubley and his team decided to include a segment on the app to map how emotions feel and look in the body.  

With another group, Zigarelli and Guild created an abstract exercise about fear. They asked the children to describe fear: its smell, its sound, its feel, its temperature and so on. They were prompted to partake in an open-ended representation of what fear is. The results varied tremendously. Some kids were specific and pointed out where fear was felt in the body and what it looked like, while others were abstract and drew blobs of different colors and shapes. The exercise allowed Hubley and his colleagues to make a grid of diverse ways to talk and think about emotions, resulting in multiple representations of emotions in the app.  

Creating InsideU in a community-engaged manner was extremely important to Hubley. He explained that, to reach people and connect them with helpful information, “you have to get out of the university; you have to get out of the clinic; you have to get in the community and work with people in everyday settings.” 

The app works best with children because Riley, the main character in Inside Out, is a 12-year-old. Hubley also thought it was vital to make the app accessible to children because the roots of most mental health issues are found in childhood, and if children are receiving high-quality learning early, then mitigating mental health issues later may be much easier.  

“I remember one of the very first co-design sessions. A neighbor and her daughter went through our prototype and then proceeded to engage in a 20-minute conversation that started with a disagreement over the weekend,” explained Hubley. “It just blossomed into this beautiful moment of connection…because we’re so often missing each other, we’re so busy and stressed, and they both started crying and gave each other a big hug, and I was like, oh my gosh, this is so powerful.”  

With Inside Out 2 coming in June 2024, Hubley aims to expand the app. He is excited to see how the sequel will use additional emotions (anxiety, ennui, embarrassment and envy) and how Riley will deal with them.  

Hubley hopes the app “helps young people, their educators and their families have more open, frequent and authentic conversations about their emotional lives.” 

To try out the app, visit For more information, visit