Virtual students train teachers in suicide prevention

Computer program allows Texas educators to role-play with students in distress
By: | June 10, 2019
The At Risk suicide prevention program allows teachers to practice discussing mental health concerns with virtual students.The At-Risk suicide prevention program allows teachers to practice discussing mental health concerns with virtual students.

Educators not trained in mental health care may fear saying the wrong things when discussing suicide and depression with students in distress. So why not practice these delicate communication skills with virtual teenagers?

As growing student anxiety raises concerns in districts across the country, teachers in Round Rock ISD near Austin (50,000 students) have been learning how to best approach these conversations using At-Risk, a digital role-playing platform.

“Most educators don’t know what they should and shouldn’t say,” says LaShanda Lewis, the district’s counseling services coordinator. “At-Risk allows you to go at your own pace and do it multiple times. And it allows you to make a mistake.”

Under a state law passed in 2019, all Texas districts must develop a suicide prevention plan.

The At-Risk computer program, developed by Kognito, lets a teacher talk to a simulated student who is emotionally distraught. The conversation can be set for an elementary, middle or high school student.

In a discussion, the teacher might open with: “I’ve noticed your grades have dropped” or “You’ve been falling asleep in class.” When the student answers, the teacher chooses from a list of preset responses. An effective response allows the discussion to continue.

On the other hand, the student’s body language and tone of voice will let the teacher know if they’ve responded badly. In this case, a virtual coach provides the teacher with immediate feedback and guidance.

“One of the downsides of face-to-face role-playing is it can be embarrassing; it can make you feel vulnerable,” says Jennifer Spiegler, a senior vice president at Kognito. “That’s not a great way to learn because cognitively your brain is busier being embarrassed than it is being open to learning and building skills.”

Suicide prevention program has an impact

Some 99% of Round Rock ISD teachers found the At-Risk training effective. Still, the district’s counselors also offer all district personnel in-person training on suicide prevention.

Read more: Mental health care tops pillars of school suicide prevention

Round Rock ISD has experienced a few student and educator suicides in recent years. And district counselors report that they see about six students per day who are suffering from mental health issues that are severe enough to require the involvement of parents and outside therapists, Lewis says.

Read more: Implementing mental health first aid in K-12

“There are a few things we suspect are the cause,” Lewis says. “I think social media plays a role and the need for kids to have instant gratification, but our students are also more comfortable having these conversations about stress, anxiety and suicide.”

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