Educators are leaning on a new online program designed to help them better identify and get help for students who may be grappling with severe mental health issues.
San Mateo Union High School District staff is being trained for the first time in psychological screening through an interactive computer course helping them recognize warning signs for a student in distress.
The program, called Kognito, is quicker, more efficient and effective than the district’s previous model and a top official believes it should be a mandatory prerequisite for those who interact with students.
“I’ve always been skeptical of online training,” said Mary McGrath, the district’s mental health manager. “But then I took this one, and it is awesome.”
McGrath said her experience is consistent with the other nearly 200 district workers who have taken the one-hour course, which is often followed by a group discussion offering educators an opportunity to examine the finer points of their experience.
“Many times, teens being teens, they try to dismiss or minimize their emotional issues in class,” said McGrath. “This training provides hints and things to look for when you are concerned about a student and gives specific strategies and techniques to address the student, without having to fix the problem.”
The program offers three virtual scenarios in which an educator is presented a student experiencing mental trauma. The guidance in coping with the dilemma is offered through a series of questions, as the test taker can select which course of action they believe would be most effective in connecting with their subject, under an attempt to get the student professional mental health assistance.
McGrath likened the experience to a “choose your own adventure” experience for those taking the test, with the added benefit of potentially making a real difference in the lives of students.
Jennifer Spiegler, the senior vice president of Strategic Partnership at Kognito, said the virtual role-playing model is proven to offer results as educators feel more freedom to get immersed in the program rather than being burdened to finish a menial task.
“It creates a safe space for doing role play and we choose to use animated characters because the whole premise is that you want to reduce the cognitive load on the learner,” she said.
Kognito was launched as a response to the 2007 school shooting at Virginia Tech University, said Spiegler, as an attempt to prevent another similar tragedy by building skills among educators to recognize warning signs.
“It was clear in that situation people knew there was a problem with the young man, but they didn’t take the next steps,” she said. “So we created a tool to allow them to take those steps.”
The program, which first debuted last month in the local high school district, was purchased after Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2246 requiring public school systems serving older students to adopt suicide prevention policies this year.
McGrath said the district has long focused on assuring workers have adequate mental health screening skills, but believes the new program is superior as it grants educators more flexibility to learn on their own schedule without needing to spend hours out of the classroom while saving the district the money required to hire a substitute.
Spiegler said the primary focus of the program is to be a more meaningful tool for educators to learn an essential skill, but added it offers auxiliary benefits too.
“We developed this specifically for mental health and suicide prevention, but those conversation skills are so cross cutting,” she said. “They help build relationships and relationships underpin all education.”
Kognito is growing in popularity as well, said McGrath, as it is used in the San Mateo County Community College District as well as at Stanford University, among other educational environments. All the scenarios are based in research and evidence, she added.
“My personal goal is to make it part of our mandatory training,” she said.
She believes there are opportunities to expand the program too, as specialized training is available for LGBTQ students or those coping with issues surrounding their sexuality. There is also a version tailored for students who can often offer early intervention to peers before potential problems rise to the level of being noticed by teachers or school staff.
“We can provide more training for students so they can be directing friends to get help,” she said.
Teachers who have completed the course feel more confident and prepared to address the sorts of social and emotional issues which can be presented in a high school environment, said McGrath.
“I’ve found with the staff that has taken it, they feel more empowered,” she said.
The focus of the training is solely assuring that students in distress seek professional help from the experts available at campuses, said McGrath, so educators do not feel overwhelmed with an expectation to offer psychological guidance they are unprepared to give.
Spiegler added teachers are the target audience to learn these skills, since they are offered daily exposure to students.
“From a public health perspective, this is where you find kids,” she said. “And we know early intervention is important in lifetime management of mental illness.”
She added the program’s lessons are especially useful in a current political environment which has caused students increasing amounts of stress due to uncertainties over the ways President Donald Trump may threaten their quality of life.
“With the administration, kids are absolutely terrified about the immigration policies,” she said. “We are seeing even more anxiety from a different population. It’s been a tough time for them.”
In all, McGrath said she considered the program a tremendous asset to enhancing the mental health environment at campuses across the district.
“To have the ability to have more eyes on kids and detect when there is a distress signal that would have been previously missed, it is totally valued,” she said.
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