Sixteen-year-old Sarah* shoved the computer away. “I’m not doing this,” she said, shifting her disdain between the counselor and the online course in front of her. With a history of anger and family issues, Sarah was viewed as “unreachable” by school staff.
Sarah made a few hostile clicks through the module on “Self-Esteem” and sank lower in her chair. Thirty minutes later, she started crying. When she finished, the counselor read her online responses and engaged Sarah in the first real conversation she had with any adult in the school.
The education technology debate vacillates between extremes. One vision is the “magic tech box” that cuts students off from all human contact and programs its way to student learning. The other extreme rejects tech-topia and favors the “mythic teacher” that forms deep relationships with every student, is always available to help, and knows exactly what to do in every moment.
Base Education, a six-person startup based out of Denver, CO, rejects these extremes and uses technology to build relationships—in this case, between struggling high school students and supportive adults.
About one in four teenagers suffer from mental health disorders (including substance abuse) that result in severe impairment. Many of these problems begin during adolescence, making mental health supports a growing priority in high school and college.
Entrepreneur and social-emotional learning consultant Jessica Berlinski argues that “the need for social and emotional supports among teenagers has always been great, but educators are increasingly open to tech-driven solutions that meet young people where they are at.” She points to the digital world that teens occupy outside of school and the potential benefits of customized supports.
Base Education now works with nine school districts across Colorado and sees its K-12 social-emotional learning platform as a way to amplify relationships between students and supportive adults.
A Window into Students’ Emotions
“Sarah was our first beta tester,” said Base Education co-founder and CEO, Robin Glenn. Robin had spent the last eight years as a therapist, mostly serving at-risk teenagers in Douglas County School District near Denver, CO. Her students’ struggles ran the gamut, from depression to substance abuse to truancy.
“Sarah was willing to share things online that she wouldn’t share with staff,” observed Robin. “Her responses, which the counselor could read in real time, gave the counselor clues about what Sarah was going through and teed up a meaningful dialogue.”
When students log into Base Education, they can take modules on different topics like “Anger Management,” “Impulsive Decision-Making” or “Truancy” that take 60 to 90 minutes to complete. Students learn content and basic skills in each area.
But the platform also asks teens to reflect. For example, in the “Healthy Communication” module, students are asked questions like, “Do you feel like people get you?” or “What, if anything, do you think you need to work on?”
Students know their written responses will be reviewed by a single, designated staff member and kept confidential unless they disclose something that triggers mandatory reporting such as danger to self or others.
One of Base Education’s most compelling features is its ability to record deleted text so teachers or counselors can review all of a student’s answers, even those that a student changed. In response to a question about future goals, a student typed that he wanted to “sleep or die”—possibly indicating depression and/or suicidal tendencies—and then replaced it with the text “make money in any way possible.” Another student responded to a question about bullying by saying, “probably go tell or just go up to the bully and say can you please give me back my belongings,” but then deleted it and wrote “I don’t know.” He did not want to be seen as engaging with the program, but his counselor was able to see that the student cared enough to respond and used that as an opening for dialogue.
The program also tracks Firewords, which flag potentially harmful language, leading administrators to take a closer look. For example, one student with severe depression triggered numerous Firewords that are commonly associated with poor response to antidepressants. A staff member was able to intervene and the student’s doctor adjusted the medication. In another instance, a student wrote about bringing a gun to school and then deleted the answer, but the Fireword alert allowed the administration to support the student and provide safety for others in the school.
Through the students’ direct answers, deleted answers and use of Firewords, Base Education gives supportive adults a window into students’ experiences and emotions. Thomas Evans, Assistant Principal at Scott Carpenter Middle School in Westminster, CO, commented that the information students share in the modules allows staff to “intervene far more effectively” and is “a potential lifesaver for some students who are in crisis.”
“Students feel respected when adults take the time to read their answers and it can accelerate conversation,” notes Robin. Even for those students who mostly write “I don’t know” or click through the prompts, the one thoughtful answer they provide—or even delete—can be the entry point an adult needs to reach a student.
Base Education is one of a handful of startups focused exclusively on social-emotional development and mental health supports in K12. However, the need for these services is growing and start-ups are responding with new approaches.
Tech’s Growing Interest in Mental Health Supports
Entrepreneurial activity in the broader mental health services space is growing rapidly in an effort to use technology to reach the millions of people around the world who cannot access quality care.
Companies like Talkspace and SilverCloud work with colleges and universities to give students online access to therapists. Other companies are focused on supporting employers and healthcare providers.
But K-12 has its own unique needs, whether its the guidance counselor with a line of students outside her office waiting to talk, or the dean of students trying to manage a multitude of behavioral issues, or the teacher who simply wants to give a student time to reflect instead of kicking him out of class.
Ultimately, teens want to be understood. And caring adults want to make a difference in their lives, with online interventions that bring us closer together in real life.
Alex Hernandez (@thinkschools) is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation's best public charter schools. Alex is also an official EdSurge columnist.
*Student names and key details in this column have been changed to protect student confidentiality.