Technology: a Bridge to Social, Emotional and Mental Health

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Technology has a bad rap when it comes to its ill effects on youth, and it may well deserve it: heavy cell phone use has been linked to depressive symptoms in young people, as has excessive internet use and poor mental health. Yet kids’ engagement with tech is only increasing. Time spent on social media, for instance, has doubled since 2012.

Despite this, some kids argue that technology is actually supporting their social and emotional development. Perhaps more surprisingly, so do educators who are leveraging tech tools to improve their students’ mental and behavioral health. Here are three reasons why implementers of one evidence-based SEL digital tool say tech can make a difference:

Kids aren’t ready to open up

Kids are going through a lot. Based on data collected from the National Survey of Children’s Health for ages 6 to 17, researchers found a 20 percent increase in diagnoses of anxiety between 2007 and 2012. Depression too has increased, although not as significantly.

“As caring educators, we assume kids feel safe to open up to us. Yet why would a child who has never had a safe adult in their life suddenly have the trust, confidence and skill set to ask for help?” aptly questions Lori Vollandt, Social Emotional Learning (SEL) consultant and former SEL Director for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

LAUSD and schools across the country use a digital program that provides kids a safe place to explore their challenges, learn and practice skills to navigate them, and build the confidence to ask for help. The 420 lessons in the program, called Ripple Effects, cover core SEL skills as well as personal topics ranging from anxiety, bullying and marijuana to managing fears around an undocumented parent.

Brittany Salazar, a counselor in Victoria ISD in Texas uses such tech tools with elementary and middle school students to help them learn how to talk about what they’re going through. “Kids often don’t have the language to talk about their challenges… and the younger they are, the less likely they are to even know that what may be happening to them is wrong,” says Salazar.

“With adolescents, the program helps bridge the gap with (us) adults, whom they see as “out of touch”. You’re reaching them on their level… and that makes them talk faster. If you’re going the traditional therapy route, it can take months to get a kid to talk to you.” Kids have a comfort level with technology observes Salazar, “We can use that to help them.”

Kids want autonomy  

In studying how adolescents best learn SEL, U of Texas Austin researcher David Yeager found that what works for elementary age youth doesn’t translate to middle and high school. An ever-growing body of research supports younger kids effectively learning SEL via in-person instruction led by an educator. Yet Yeager found that teens learn SEL best in a climate where they have autonomy and feel respected.

Technology taps right into this adolescent need as it can give students agency to forge their own learning pathway. SEL technology programs can provide many different ways of learning about each skill or real-world challenge. Students decide both how they want to learn as well as what they want (or need) to learn.

Linda Bruene, co-creator of the in-person SEL curriculum Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving, has seen first-hand how this self-direction can ameliorate the resistance of even the most defiant students. In recent work implementing SEL technology programs with non-compliant students in rural Pennsylvania, Bruene and her colleagues “let them loose” to explore topics in the program on their own.

“You’re in charge, you’re the boss, you can figure it out,” they told students. It worked. Aggressive, oppositional students engaged with the digital intervention and their behavior improved. Bruene and her colleagues reported they valued the tech tool because they can “let (their students) go free, while knowing it’s a safe and healthy playground.”

Data also supports that learning is “stickier” when kids have autonomy to choose what they want to learn. In a study of at-risk students, those who didn’t do any of the assigned topics, but only focused on the topics they chose, achieved the highest academic gains.

Not enough counselors for kids

In addition to anxiety and depression increasing in young people, the US suicide rate has also increased, with the most marked rise among adolescent girls. As a result, students’ mental health is an increasing priority in schools.

Yet most schools have only one counselor – one counselor to identify and address sometimes over 1,000 students’ unique social, emotional, mental and behavioral health issues. The result is that many kids “fall through the cracks”. Non-academic challenges prevent them from learning. They’re less likely to graduate, less likely to get a decent job… and the spiral goes down from there.

Technology offers a critical and innovative solution in that it can provide a scalable mechanism for kids to explore the issues they’re facing, as well as the trauma that frequently lies underneath.

“Resources come in many forms,” says Adolfo Melara, Superintendent of Delhi USD in CA. “We strongly believe in the power of human interaction, but it also has its limits. Tech is accessible in real time, on-demand.”

Mental health support for all students is Melara’s goal. Several years ago Melara figured out how to get free health care for all his students. Now he’s working to ensure that every student has on-demand access to personalized mental health supports.

Melara says he did the math: His district has roughly 3,000 students across three dedicated counselors. “If 10% of the 1,000 students each counselor works with are struggling or need mental health support, each counselor would need to meet with 100 students in a day,” shared Melara. He turned to SEL technology tools to support his staff and his students.

“The program is an equalizer in that all students can access it, in the moment that it’s needed. Even when we make a referral, how do we know students can get to that place?” Melara questioned. “We’re here for the needs of our students, and we have to make sure those needs are met. With technology, access is not an issue.”

Evaluating digital tools

These are three compelling reasons why educators are turning to technology to support students. While the educators in this article chose to implement Ripple Effects, there are other tech tools out there: Base Education, Centervention and Suite 360 are all digital programs that support kids’ social and emotional development. So that you’re able to find the best tool to meet your students’ needs, here’s a quick check-list to evaluate digital programs:

  • Is it evidence-based? Does the research show that the tool works to address your specific goal(s) – e.g. improved behavior? reduced suspensions? improved academics?
  • Is the technology personalized? Is the content in-person content that has been moved online or does the technology actually adapt to the needs of the learner?
  • Is it trauma-informed?
  • Is it culturally responsive? In what way?
  • Is it easy? Will it be a light lift for your educators and counselors?

In his early work, Dan Goleman sited technology as one of the reasons why youth are not developing the social emotional skills traditionally developed through social interactions and in life. He wasn’t wrong, yet three decades later we must acknowledge that times have changed. Technology can now serve as a needed bridge to reaching, engaging and supporting kids that without it, may never get the help they need.

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Jessica Berlinski
Director
Personalized Learning, SEL & Equity
Greater Los Angeles Area

Jessica Berlinski

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