Computer simulations have long helped train doctors in complex medical procedures. Now, tens of thousands of Florida teachers and school staff are using online simulators to learn how to talk to troubled students.
The effort is part of a law passed in 2018 that aimed to boost school security and set aside $400 million for a variety of programs, from school guardians to improved mental health training, in the wake of the mass shooting that killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
While it may seem odd to use a computer avatar to practice for a sensitive talk with a real student dealing with struggles like depression, suicidal thoughts or behavioral problems, Tracy Cardenas, Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System Suncoast Project Manager, said the feedback has been positive.
"Sometimes those conversations are challenging," Cardenas said.
"What a great, safe environment if you are able to go into a virtual world, engage in those conversations, maybe make a couple of mistakes and then redirect that conversation in a more positive direction."
The program is made by a company called Kognito. The training takes about an hour or two, and is offered to teachers, administrators, bus drivers and cafeteria workers.
In the high school student simulation, a virtual student named Renee is showing signs of anxiety and is suspected of cutting herself. The user's job is to pick from a drop down menu what the virtual teacher, Mr. Lyons, will say to her about it.
Here's one scenario:
Mr. Lyons: "Well, the other day when you made a B on that exam, you really seemed to freak out about it."
Renee: "No, I didn't!"
Mr. Lyons: "Well, I just mean you were asking a lot of questions."
Renee: "No. You know what I have enough to deal with right now I don't have time for this. I gotta go. See you tomorrow."
If it doesn't go well -- as in this case -- there's a chance to "undo" your words, and try again to get her to the counselor, Miss Carroway.
Mr. Lyons: "Look Renee, I think you have a really bright future ahead of you but if you want to do big things in life there will always be pressure and I just want you to learn to channel the pressure in good ways."
Renee: "And you think Miss Carroway can help with that?"
Mr. Lyons: "I think so. It can't hurt to try."
In another exercise, users learn what to do if a student has expressed suicidal thoughts.
An avatar advises users to ask students how they feel about seeing a counselor, rather than simply tell them to see a counselor.
But if the student has expressed any intention of harming themselves or others, users are urged to act decisively:
"If you fear the student may be a danger to himself or others you must be very direct and act quickly. Don't let the student out of your sight until you have connected him with a counselor or another administrator who is prepared to help."
More research is needed to determine if these online simulations improve outcomes, make people more empathetic, or are capable of averting tragedy.
But Cardenas said a key benefit of the online process, is that it offers a chance to practice and learn from one's mistakes, thereby improving the likelihood of success in a real-life situation.
"Having a conversation with someone in crisis can feel a little off putting and we need to make sure we are doing that," she said.
More than 75,000 school staff across Florida have already taken the training, including more than 93 percent of the school staff in Sarasota County, according to Cardenas.
Age-specific online simulations are available for those who work with elementary, middle and high school students.