Deep Dives

AI + SEL & The Mental Health Crisis: How Can We Leverage New Tech to Meet the Moment? (and What Are the Risks?) 

November 1, 2023
Margot Toppen
SEL Program Developer
AI + SEL & The Mental Health Crisis: How Can We Leverage New Tech to Meet the Moment? (and What Are the Risks?) 

The edu-sphere is buzzing about how AI will impact education, but as a veteran SEL program developer, I’ve been surprised by how little we’ve heard about AI and social and emotional learning (SEL). To fill this void, I decided to talk to other experts in the field and conduct a “SWOT” analysis to examine the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats AI presents to our field.

Here’s what I found: The potential benefits and opportunities are great, and we would be failing this next generation of kids to not consider the reality of their world. Therefore, we must confront the challenges and engage our problem-solving skills to embrace AI responsibly.

Now’s the time to lean in and think creatively about how emerging technology such as generative AI can augment and enhance the very human-centered work we do. Here’s what I learned: 


One of the most promising applications of generative AI tools like Chat GPT or Google Bard is the potential to differentiate curriculum in highly personalized ways. For example, a teacher or counselor can plug in lesson material and ask AI to provide variations, such as adapting an activity for various developmental levels or learning differences. AI can also generate ideas to make scenario-based learning, common in SEL, more culturally relevant. With well-crafted prompts that speak to specific interests and life circumstances, AI bots can generate more relatable role-playing variations.

Another strength: AI can be a force multiplier in the face of staff shortages and help provide innovative solutions to existing challenges in related fields, such as mental health or English Language Learner (ELL) education. For example, AI could help make brief and early interventions widely accessible, says Jay Goyal, CEO of Alongside, a Tier 1 mental health support chatbot for secondary students.

While a chatbot providing therapy may feel like cognitive dissonance and will require ensuring high-quality practices are used, experimentation with chatbots in psychology has been underway for decades. This research reveals that, in addition to making mental health support more affordable and accessible, chatbots are often a preferred entry point to therapy for people who are skeptical or have social anxiety. Goyal says this can be especially true for teens, who are often not comfortable opening up to adults. 

Perhaps most promising of all is AI’s potential to break through language barriers and create safe spaces for ELL students by providing them with support in their native language. Goyal shared that Alongside currently provides support for students in 30 languages, and they expect that number to double within the coming year. 


Obvious concerns surrounding AI include privacy, bias, and dehumanization of the learning process. “This is very human work,” says Corey Layne Crouch, a strategy consultant in the education industry. “We need really strong safeguards to ensure that AI tools being leveraged in school settings are engineered with protective factors in place.”

Nick Woolf, Executive Director of SEL4VT and founder of Inside SEL agreed, stating “AI is not all-knowing, which means it can make some really big mistakes. It is really important to understand just how new some of this technology is and to recognize that AI tools are not free from biases.” 


Nearly everyone I interviewed cited the many ways that AI can save teachers’ time for foundational social and emotional work so important to teaching. “Teachers can focus more on building individual relationships and working in groups with students instead of mass bulk instruction,” says Daniel Lopez, host of the AI for Education podcast. 

Taking that thought a step further, Woolf notes, “While there is so much potential for AI to save educators time … by reducing effort spent on mundane, tedious tasks, I’m equally excited about potential solutions that focus on educator wellness and building adult capacity to lead, teach, and model SEL.”

One thing I know for sure: when you want a fresh perspective on something, ask an artist. Luckily, my research connected me to Howard Robinson, a STEM educator and VR game designer who integrates SEL into his work and has an incredible knack for “meeting kids where they are.” Robinson guides students in exploring visual generative AI tools such as Bing and Midjourney as catalysts for inspiration and self-expression.

The use of AI is inevitable for this next generation, Robinson says, and AI offers a way for students to explore their own ideas by creating visual content. For Robinson, AI does not stand for artificial intelligence, it stands for “Artificial Inspiration.” “I try to show kids that their own ideas are more powerful than AI,” he says. “You just use AI to help your ideas grow.”


One threat that is top of mind is the lack of evidence-base supporting the use of AI to enhance SEL. The field could overcome this by developing SEL-specific AI tools trained on evidence-based practices and high-quality research. These tools can also be designed to ensure compliance with FERPA, COPPA, and other state and local privacy requirements.  

Of course, the largest threat is the culture war that has placed many education issues under the microscope. Kaitlin Tiches, research librarian at the Digital Wellness Lab, confirmed parents’ concerns about whether tech-based applications will be aligned to their own values. It’s critical to stay the course on measuring outcomes, and AI can play a helpful role by synthesizing and providing access to the large body of research and knowledge that proves the efficacy and universal value of SEL. 


I hope this analysis has provided food for thought and sparked interest in learning more. Here are a few tips for those who wish to explore how AI pertains to their own work:

  1. Get informed: The resources shared below offer a starting place, including an upcoming webinar discussion with AI for Education.
  2. Try it out: Set aside some time to play with AI tools to see how they work.  
  3. Look at your own work and think about how it could be impacted. 
  4. Talk to students and get their input. What are they curious about? How much or little technology do they think would be helpful to their academic, social, and emotional needs? 

Imagine the potential that schools may unlock by empowering students to drive the conversation around using AI to support their academic, social, and emotional growth. It just may turn out to be truly transformational. 

Interested in exploring SEL and AI? It’s one of the topics that will be explored at The 2023 SEL Exchange in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 7-9. Register Now!

Resources to Learn More:

Special Thanks: Corey Layne Crouch, Jay Goyal, Daniel Lopez, Rachel Miller, Lewis Poche, Howard Robinson, Kaitlin Tiches, Nick Woolf.

Margot Toppen is a veteran SEL program developer who embraces innovative strategies to engage learners through the body, heart, and mind. Building from her early work using dance as a medium for character education, Margot went on to launch EduMotion’s award-winning SEL Journeys product, which now finds its home in the whole-child wellness portfolio of CATCH Global Foundation. 

Graphic by Howard Robinson. Howard Robinson is a self-taught professional freelance designer of web and graphics and educator who grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He has a passion for creating innovative and engaging digital experiences that inspire learning and creativity.

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

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Sharon Smiley

Beautiful 🙏🏾❤️

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