Deep Dives

How AI-Powered Tools Can Enhance Our Human-Centered Work

May 15, 2024
Dr. Elsa Friis, Ph.D., Msc-GH
How AI-Powered Tools Can Enhance Our Human-Centered Work

Key Points

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  • AI can provide personalized support on the topics students are grappling with at the moment, in their native language and at their reading level.
  • This technology can help school staff recognize when students have more serious needs and respond with appropriate resources and support.

Like many educators dedicated to fostering effective social and emotional learning (SEL), you may be looking at emerging AI-powered tools with curiosity and caution about how we can adapt to this latest wave of technology without further eroding opportunities for human-to-human relationship-building. 

As a licensed psychologist and behavioral health advocate who has dedicated my career to exploring how technology can enhance the work of teachers, counselors, and therapists, I’m here to shed light on how AI, when used responsibly, can augment the impact of our human-centered work. 

AI as a Tier 1 SEL Support

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This technology can enhance Tier 1 SEL and preventative mental health support. Tier 1 strategies provide broad, universal support intended to meet the needs of most students schoolwide. As the tiers increase, the level of support grows more personalized. While SEL is not a mental health intervention, it helps foster “protective factors” that all students can benefit from, like developing the skills to cope with stress and understand emotions. It is not a replacement for mental health services for students who may need a deeper, more personalized level of support. This technology can be used to enhance and extend SEL for use for Tier 1, while also serving as a bridge to help identify students who may benefit from Tier 2 and additional mental health supports. 

In this post, I will share outcomes from Pulling Back the Curtain on Youth Mental Health, a report recently released by Alongside, a web and mobile app that provides personalized support and SEL skill-building activities with the help of an AI chatbot. For full disclosure, I oversee Alongside’s clinical team and teen advisors who work collaboratively to develop product content and features.

The report is based on findings from more than 30,000 chat and SEL skill-building sessions that middle and high school students across the U.S. engaged in this year. The quantitative and qualitative data reveal a variety of ways that students are finding value in features that are responsive to their immediate needs and lived experiences. I’ll share a few takeaways here, and invite you to download the full report if you are interested in going deeper. 

Key Takeaways

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1. AI personalization gives students agency to seek the kind of support they feel will help them most, and not rush into problem-solving until they are ready. 

One of our key findings reveals that students benefit from having a confidential space to simply feel heard. Over 36 percent of the time, students using the app chose to engage in chats where the primary purpose was to process their feelings without judgment, rather than being rushed to problem-solve. After completing activities on the app, students rated it as “helpful” or “very helpful” more than 86 percent of the time. This was consistent across age, gender, and ethnicity. 

2. With AI, SEL tools can provide responsive social and emotional skill-building on the topics currently causing the most distress. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the study indicates that interpersonal relationships are the biggest source of stress for teens, with over 40 percent of chat sessions focusing on peer and family relationships. Interestingly, though, there were some gender and age differences. Female and non-binary students most frequently sought help with friendships, while male students more commonly struggled with family matters. In terms of age, students in grades 5 through 8 struggled most with friendships, while ninth, tenth, and twelfth graders sought more help with romantic relationships. Eleventh graders stood out as the only age group that sought help with school issues more frequently than relationship issues. 

3. AI can personalize support by relating activities to students’ lived experiences and responding to them in their native language and reading level. 

One AI superpower is the ability to offer social and emotional guidance in students’ native language and adjust its readability based on age or grade. When given the opportunity to select a language on the app, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian were the top choices after English. Both counselors and students reported that this was a huge benefit for English language learners. Teen adviser Niku Sedarat commented, “Feeling like our cultural identity is accounted for in the support we seek makes us feel like WE are accounted for.”

4. Confidential spaces for students to seek help can aid in identifying severe issues, such as suicidal ideation, that may otherwise fly under the radar. 

AI facilitates the ability to monitor for students who are struggling with more severe issues including self-harm, suicidal ideation, homicidal ideation, and abuse. The majority of students who discussed severe issues were not previously identified by the school teams as students who were struggling. When students using the app did bring up thoughts of harm to self or others, school teams were immediately alerted and students were guided through a safety protocol. Notably, the small percentage of students who disclosed thoughts of self-harm during a chat session tended to be high-risk according to the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (CSSRS). This emphasizes how this type of intervention can be an on-ramp to getting more intensive help when needed. 

Extending the Reach of SEL Support

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While digital interventions cannot replace the value of human support, data collected from students using the Alongside app demonstrates how an AI-powered tool can complement a comprehensive multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) program. SEL is an approach that benefits all students, and AI-powered tools extend the reach of this support in a way that many students find responsive and easy to access. 

Responsibly designed AI tools can enhance a personalized and culturally responsible approach to SEL for all students and support school counseling programs for those who need more intensive attention, while giving educators a new superpower to provide support to students in the moments they need it most. 

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

Dr. Elsa Friis, Ph.D., Msc-GH, is a licensed psychologist, researcher, and behavioral health advocate who specializes in utilizing technology to expand access to youth mental health support and foundational social and emotional skill building. She received her MS in Global Health and PhD in Clinical psychology from Duke University where she leveraged human-centered design to develop an app to support the implementation of a family therapy intervention in Kenya.

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