Kentucky Independent Schools Implement Digital Tool to Address Students’ Mental Health Needs

Approximately 18 percent of the American population has a mental health diagnosis, according to a 2017 report published by the nonprofit organization Mental Health America. To make matters worse, many of these individuals struggle to access the care they need, including nearly 8 percent of youth. Due to the prevalence of mental illness and the lack of adequate access to care, many K-12 teachers often find themselves assuming the role of mental health professionals for their students. 

To address these needs among students at the local level, Hazard Independent Schools (HIS) in Eastern Kentucky, along with 70 other districts in the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC), have implemented an online tool called Ripple Effects; access to the program was made possible by a grant to KVEC from the U.S. Department of Education. 

The tool — referred to as a “social emotional learning technology-based software system” — offers personalized guidance and emotional resources on over 400 topics ranging from bullying to ethnic slurs. The program consists of hundreds of interactive tutorials focused on these and other issues affecting young people and is designed to supplement rather than replace in-person interventions from guidance counselors and teachers. Via games and exercises, students come to understand their feelings and actions and learn strategies for managing challenges. 

Initially, HIS allowed educators to use the tool once a week with their students during a 30-minute advisory period. Teachers selected the topics they deemed most relevant and worked to introduce students to the program, in the process sparking class discussions about specific mental health issues. Once they were familiar and comfortable with Ripple Effects, students began using it on their own. 

Prior to introducing the program, however, HIS teachers worked to make it more relevant to their students by updating the audio and appearance to more closely align with the district’s largely rural student population. HIS hired students to record voice-overs and take photos of their peers so that they could relate more to the tutorials.

According to Vivian Carter, innovation coordinator for HIS, district officials say the technology is having a positive effect on students. Most notably, they’ve witnessed a decrease in the number of mental health and behavior referrals since its implementation. 

Nearly half of all KVEC schools are now using Ripple Effects to provide mental health care to students in need.