Professional Development

Can Computer Simulations Help Teachers Intervene With Suicidal Students?

By Madeline Will — June 30, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By Alix Mammina

As youth suicide rates continue to rise, schools across the country are struggling to turn the tide and develop strong prevention strategies. For some districts, the answer to this problem comes in an unusual form: computer simulations of potential intervention strategies.

In the past decade, hospital admissions for adolescents with suicidal thoughts or actions have more than doubled, according to a new study by the Pediatric Academic Societies. Some school districts across the country have experienced suicide clusters, while the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” has stirred up fears of copycat suicides—a phenomenon that may already be occurring, according to some news reports. With the recent upsurge in mental health awareness, the health simulation company Kognito has experienced increased demand from school districts for its suicide prevention program, CEO and co-founder Ron Goldman said in an interview with Education Week Teacher.

“More and more people are not only aware of mental health issues, but also of how those problems can impact everything from students’ academic performance and attendance to their career goals and future success,” Goldman said.

Virtual simulations are nothing new in the K-12 setting—in recent years, teachers have been using them through professional development and teacher-prep programs to confront implicit biases and develop classroom management skills without practicing on actual students. The first of Kognito’s At-Risk for PK-12 Educators simulations was released in 2010, as a response to both requests from schools and recognition of students’ mental health needs.

“One of the most significant challenges in this area is the fact that most students who need help don’t seek help—in many cases because of stigmatization and a lack of information about available support services,” Goldman said.

Each At-Risk program simulates real-life conversations with elementary, middle, or high school students. Guided by a virtual coach, users learn how to identify warning signs of psychological distress, raise concerns with parents and students, and make referrals to support services. Then, through a series of “conversation challenges,” users practice their newly acquired skills by role-playing with virtual parents and students. By conversing with characters like “Michael,” a student who has shared suicidal thoughts, or “Ms. Parker,” the mom of a 5th grader who has been disruptive in class, educators can familiarize themselves with techniques for building trust and facilitating empathetic conversations.

Teachers, administrators, and mental health professionals weighed in on the development of At-Risk. Goldman said more than 400 high schools across the country participated in surveys, focus groups, and phone calls in order to provide the feedback that would help shape “At-Risk for High School Educators,” which is included in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.

“Our main focus is to build scenarios that mimic real life,” Goldman said. “If you don’t do it well, the user will know that it’s not real. We didn’t want to build this in isolation.”

Over 11,000 schools across the country have used the At-Risk simulation, including Sequoia Union high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area. After identifying the need for an all-staff mental health training, the district funded the use of At-Risk, as well as Step In, Speak Up!, a Kognito simulation on LGBT student needs. This year, the district trained over 700 staff members—from teachers and administrators to counselors, nurses, coaches, and bus drivers.

Since implementation, the feedback for both At-Risk and Step In, Speak Up! has been “overwhelmingly positive,” said Dr. Karen Li, a wellness coordinator for the district. In a post-training survey, district staff members praised the courses for their “authentic student voices,” “practical and relevant advice,” and “realistic scenarios and dialogue,” and between 97 and 98 percent of the participants rated the programs as “good,” “very good,” or “excellent.”

The district has already seen the effects of the training in action, with one school site assisting a distressed student in February—after a teacher had developed the skills to respond to the situation, Li said.

While no outside researchers have measured the results of the At-Risk simulations, studies conducted by Kognito have shown positive results. Middle school teachers reported increasing the number of students they referred to support services by 53 percent, while high school educators reported a 37 percent increase. Participants also reported significant changes in the number of students they approached to discuss concern—a 25 percent increase for middle school educators, and 71 percent increase for high school teachers.

This type of training could help the teachers who might not feel comfortable addressing mental health or suicide with students. My colleague Evie Blad has also written about online training materials that inform teachers about warning signs of teen suicide. And in an essay for Education Week Teacher, Ronen Habib, the founder of EQ Schools, wrote that after one of his students committed suicide, he introduced positive psychology in the classroom. Teachers, he wrote, need to learn how to bring emotions and joy into learning to foster resilience in their students.

In the future, Kognito plans to include additional topics related to mental health in the At-Risk simulations, including sexual assault and school deaths.

Photo of At-Risk for High School Educators simulation provided by Kognito


Read More on Teen Mental Health:

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Professional Development Opinion Developing Success Criteria With PD Participants to Engage in Deeper Learning
Success criteria show educators how we believe they will be successful at the end of a lesson. Let's involve them in the process.
4 min read
Professional Development Opinion 4 Essential Elements Needed Right Now to Engage in Leadership Coaching
Leadership coaching is growing, but there are some important elements to consider before anyone engages in a coaching relationship.
6 min read
shutterstock 1586195833
Shutterstock
Professional Development Return of the In-Person Edu-Conference: Elementary Principals' Group to Meet in Chicago
Registration for the organization's first in-person conference since the pandemic started is keeping apace with that of previous years.
4 min read
Abstract blurred image of attendees in seminar room or conference hall and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. new normal life concept.
Pratchaya/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Professional Development Some Kids Had a 'Choppy' K-12 Experience This Year. ISTE Will Explore Solutions
Big themes at this year's online-only ed-tech conference will include acceleration and finding K-12's way in a new, more virtual world.
2 min read
Image of a student working on a computer from home.
iStock/Getty