Professional Development

Can Computer Simulations Help Teachers Intervene With Suicidal Students?

By Alix Mammina — June 30, 2017 4 min read
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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.

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