The Case for Virtual Social and Emotional Learning

The pandemic has sparked unprecedented concerns about student social and emotional well-being and mental health. One organization seeking to help schools address this challenge is EmpowerU, which offers online social-emotional support via daily skill-building lessons and one-on-one mentoring. Founded in Minnesota in 2018 by Katie Dorn, a veteran K-12 school counselor and therapist, EmpowerU serves thousands of students across the country. Recently, I spoke with Katie about why they do this work on online, whether it delivers for kids, and how exactly it works.

— Rick

Rick: What is EmpowerU?

Katie: EmpowerU is a tech-powered platform that delivers social-emotional learning, or SEL, and mental health to schools and colleges. Student mental-health challenges have been on the rise for the past decade, with nearly 1 in 3 students struggling with anxiety, depression, trauma, or attention issues that impact their ability to focus, stay motivated, and learn. EmpowerU aims to ensure that all students can access quality mental health and SEL support that is relevant and impactful in a cost-effective way — teaching students how to make the change that works for them, one small step at a time.

Rick: How did you get this started?

Katie: I am a licensed school counselor, counselor-educator, therapist, and mother of seven grown children. When I worked in a high school with a caseload of 400 students, about 10 percent of them needed daily skill building and support, but there just wasn’t a time or place to deliver it. Schools were using IEPs and 504s to accommodate students’ ADHD, anxiety, and depression but just didn’t have the bandwidth and staff to deliver any highly personalized support. I knew there had to be a better way to support students, so I founded EmpowerU with two other adolescent-mental-health clinicians.

Rick: What does using EmpowerU look like for students?

Katie: Students work through a self-paced daily curriculum that lasts about 12 to 14 weeks. They sign onto the EmpowerU portal from their tablet, computer, or phone to complete a 30- to 40-minute daily lesson, comprised of videos, graphics, and questions. Each student is also assigned a licensed adolescent-mental-health instructor — think school psychologist, school social worker, school counselor — who builds a relationship with the student and provides daily feedback and encouragement via text and email. The psychological safety our coaches provide is critical for students to identify their own challenges, worries, strengths, and circumstances, which allows us to customize the program for each student. And the coursework is aligned with National Health and Wellness standards, so it can be credit-bearing.

Rick: How does the coaching work? Can mental-health support online really work without face-to-face interaction?

Katie: Let me give a student example. Last year, a 9th grade student enrolled in EmpowerU after she couldn’t leave her home for 10 months because of her extreme anxiety. Each day, she logged on to complete a lesson that built upon core concepts and strategies using videos, example scenarios, and formative questions. At the end of each lesson, she wrote a reflection on how she could apply what she learned to her specific goal. Her personal coach, who had been working with her via personalized messages sent through our secure portal since day one, would read this reflection and provide support and encouragement. The student would follow up with questions or work with the coach to set a small goal for the day. After just three weeks of daily lessons and support, this student was able to return to school. The key takeaway is that social-emotional learning can’t just be taught. In order for it to positively impact behavior change and outcomes, students need support and accountability on a daily basis.

Rick: What data do you have on program effectiveness?

Katie: Our approach uses a psychological model that’s considered the gold standard in measuring pre- to post-intervention behavioral change. This model focuses on the decisionmaking of the individual and outlines five stages of change a person goes through, beginning with recognition or interest in change and ending in the ongoing practice of new, healthier behavior. Our three-year data study shows that the average EmpowerU student advances through those stages of change at nearly twice the typical rate. And 94 percent of our students make significant enough progress that they avoid needing additional or more costly interventions.

Rick: As the pandemic recedes, what role can online SEL programs or mental-health provision play?

Katie: The past years’ challenges fueled an estimated learning gap of 20 to 30 percent — which was even greater for disadvantaged students who were already behind prepandemic. School leaders are looking for holistic programs that will reengage struggling students, support their mental health, and in turn help them meet their academic goals. EmpowerU helps schools increase student support without having to hire new staff. In fact, school counseling teams love partnering with EmpowerU because they get access to the data tracking their students’ goals and progress, which is unique to EmpowerU.

Rick: How do your online services compare to traditional therapy?

Katie: With adolescents, there is a real cost and access issue with traditional therapy. A 2019 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that nearly 60 percent of the 3.8 million youth aged 12 to 17 who reported a major depressive episode in 2019 did not receive any treatment. The majority who did receive help got it only at school. Typically, these students see a school-based therapist every other week for 50 minutes, at an average cost of about $200 a session. When I was in this role, students often forgot to practice strategies I assigned as “homework” in the time between sessions, so it was hard to build momentum. With our online program, students receive SEL instruction and feedback every school day. Within the first five days, students are making significant progress. The school district contracts with us to provide the 12 to 14 week course, instruction, support, and pre-to-post outcome data for a total cost of $399 per student.

Rick: What do you say to parents or educators who are skeptical that social and emotional learning can really happen online?

Katie: First, I get it. I think everyone has asked themselves in the last year or so about limitations of online teaching, therapy, social interaction — you name it. But it has been shown that online delivery of counseling services is effective for people of all ages. During last year’s remote learning, we had hundreds of students who had become discouraged and disengaged enter into our program; many were seniors that were behind and at risk of not graduating. They were able to use EmpowerU to become more confident, self-directed learners, helping them reengage and cross that finish line. And we’ve even found that the asynchronous nature of our support allows students to reflect more thoughtfully and discover insights on their own. They can be more vulnerable, honest, and direct as they outline their deepest fears and greatest aspirations to their personal coach. Schools recognize that students need a safe time and place each day to focus on these vital skills. We have created that space and support in a way that feels highly personal, in an online format that students are used to and actually feel more comfortable with.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.