Interaction with learners

Simulate student mental health for teachers

Editor’s note: This story kicked off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with the trending and top stories about innovation in education. Subscribe today!

Teenage mental health had declined in the decade before the pandemic. The past two years have only worsened what many advocates and experts consider a teen mental health crisis.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 4 in 10 teens reported feeling “constantly sad or hopeless”. In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national state of emergency for children’s mental health. In its report, the AAP called on policymakers and advocates to “address these challenges through innovation and action, using state, local and national approaches to improve access and quality of care across the board.” along the continuum of mental health promotion, prevention and treatment.”

Glenn Albright, a professor and clinical psychologist at Baruch College at the City University of New York, may have an idea to help educators deal with these teenagers: virtual role-playing simulation.

Albright is co-founder and research director of Kognito, a company that develops online role-playing simulations to train educators and healthcare professionals to have conversations with youth about mental health, substance use , suicide prevention and LGBTQ+ issues. The simulations allow learners to enter a virtual environment and role-play with virtual students who show signs of psychological distress, according to Albright.

“When they role-play with what we’ll call an intelligent, emotion-sensitive virtual character, that’s a student who also has emotions and memory. You practice having those conversations so you can apply the skills in real life,” Albright said.

Related: Rethinking Campus Mental Health to Better Serve LGBTQ+ Students and Others

Kognito’s virtual simulation training, specifically aimed at high school teachers, staff, and administrators, aims to help these educators become effective caretakers. “Gatekeeper” is a term commonly used in the mental health community to refer to a person who has been trained to identify students in psychological distress, speak to them and, if necessary, refer them to mental health support services.

One scenario in the simulation involves an academically at-risk virtual student with low attendance and suspected substance use and bullying. The educator practices responding to the virtual human using evidence-based communication skills. If the educator says something insensitive or makes a misstep, for example, the student in the scenario reacts negatively. For more guidance, a virtual coach provides real-time feedback on how to properly navigate the conversation.

High school educators can learn to identify and address student mental health issues using a virtual simulation program. Credit: Kognito demo screenshot

“These are skills like asking open-ended questions and just affirming that the student is doing a great job and coming to you, creating a safe environment,” Albright said.

Albright said there is an urgent need for educators to learn such skills because the incidence of psychological distress among young people is so high. Teachers, administrators and other school staff are in a “really good position” to identify students in mental health crisis because they see them every day, he said.

“They can kind of be the eyes and ears of student mental health,” Albright said. “When they are trained as guardians, they can get the help they need from these students.”

Related: Schools struggle to help students return to class after mental health crisis

Albright and a team of fellow researchers examine the impact of high school educators’ simulation curriculum in a new study published in The Journal of Technology in Behavioral Science. They spent several years examining the effectiveness of simulation in studying more than 31,000 educators in 43 states and five US territories.

When the pandemic hit, Albright and the other researchers continued to collect data. They found that educators who received the training, which is delivered entirely online, were able to apply what they had learned in the virtual simulation to the distance learning environment, Albright said.

Overall, an online simulation is not necessarily more effective than in-person training, he said. But the data he and his colleagues have collected shows that educators in an online interaction are still able to learn important skills and discern which students need help.

“By practicing that online,” Albright said, “you become confident that you can do better, you’re ready to have those conversations. And then when you meet someone like that, in the real classroom, you can handle a situation quite effectively.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741.

This virtual simulation story was made by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Register for Hechinger’s newsletter

The Hechinger Report provides detailed, factual and unbiased education information free to all readers. But that doesn’t mean he’s free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues in schools and on campuses across the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us to continue.

Join us today.