Now that we’re a few weeks into the school year, most parents are likely feeling some relief about getting students back into schools. But it may not be all high-fives at bus stops and skipping down school hallways.
Many parents are also feeling anxious about how their kids will recover from virtual learning and how they will settle back into the classroom—back into their friend groups and into their overall academic routine.
We at the Loudoun Education Foundation have a bit of news that should help families feel more assured. For several years, the top mental health professionals in the school system have been working on how best to equip staff to recognize when students’ need additional mental health support and how to offer that support. The stresses brought on by the pandemic only accelerated that need.
John J. Lody, Director of Diagnostic and Prevention Services for Loudoun County Public Schools, worked with the Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia to find a program that would go a long way in preparing teachers to help their students, whether in the classroom or in a virtual setting.
The program, called Kognito, offers online training that provides teachers with virtual simulations that show how students might express trauma and psychological distress in the classroom. The simulations take teachers through multiple interactions with a student over time.
For example, in one simulation, a middle school girl refuses to join a class book discussion. The teacher doesn’t know that the book reminds the student of a traumatic event in her life, when her family’s home was lost to a hurricane. But the teacher learns how to recognize and address the student’s distress.
“A student’s teacher knows them better than any other school staff,” Lody said. “So we thought, they need to know how to identify when a student may be experiencing psychological distress, and what to do next.”
A community effort
Last year, LEF partnered with Inova Loudoun Hospital and local philanthropic group 100WomenStrong to cover the cost of training all LCPS teachers in Kognito. Inova Loudoun Hospital donated $25,000 and 100WomenStrong donated $25,000. (100WomenStrong is a fund of the Community Foundation for Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties.)
Lody’s team worked to ensure all LCPS teachers took part in the hour-long training ahead of this new school year. As of this month, 5,646 LCPS teachers and instructional staff underwent Kognito training. With that, Loudoun County teachers are among those leading the nation in being prepared to welcome students back to the classroom.
“It provides such real-life situations that it gives teachers the confidence to recognize signs of distress. And, from there, how to support a child who is in distress and how to connect them to help,” Lody said.
Teachers feel better equipped
There are other evidenced-based, trauma-informed training models available, but Lody said Kognito’s is the most effective he’s seen. It’s short—less than an hour. And it’s kind of a “choose your own adventure” design, that allows the teacher to try different tactics throughout the simulation and learn best practices firsthand.
And the response from teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. Of the 5,646 teachers and instructional staff who participated, 99 percent rated the training as good to excellent. Ninety-six percent reported that they felt confident in their ability to recognize when a student is exhibiting signs of psychological distress. And 94 percent said they felt confident in their ability to talk with a student in psychological distress to motivate them to connect with mental health support services.
“Teachers go through a lot of professional development training, so to hear that it was that well received really speaks volumes,” Lody said.
It’s tricky to measure how many potentially life-saving interactions will happen this school year as a result of the Kognito training. But Lody is already hearing stories from teachers who feel like they are better equipped to support their students where they’re at—and there are likely countless more stories out there.
Interested in joining the Loudoun Education Foundation’s efforts to support local students and teachers? Learn how you can volunteer for LEF’s Backpack Coalition program here, and click here to learn just how far your financial support goes. Thank you.