Cumberland schools roll out AI chatbot for kids’ sliding mental health. It can only help.

Elmo, a beloved Sesame Street character, asked a simple question in a post last month on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Just checking in!” he said to his half a million followers: “How is everybody doing?”

Surprisingly, people flooded the red Muppet’s timeline with personal, heartfelt and emotional responses. Many shared that they were not doing so well, at that.

Last Friday, I posed a similar question to Pamela Story, who is the coordinator for social workers in Cumberland County Schools. How are the students and staff, I asked, especially since the pandemic?

“I think that’s an excellent question,” Story says. “How are we doing? We are doing the best we can. We certainly have noticed some challenges.”

Story listed a few. The list is daunting.

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She said that since the disruptions caused by COVID-19, school support staffers have seen in students a decrease in the ability to self-regulate, a decline in social skills and more frequent cases of high anxiety. She shared some of her staffers’ stories, including one about a second-grader who stripped off all his clothes in class and ran around the room.

“They’re shutting down,” she said of some students. “There’s a lot of aggressiveness in the schools and a lot of hopelessness.”

Teachers and other staff are under more stress, too, Story said, adding the system is seeing more employees take advantage of counseling and related services that are part of the Employee Assistance Plan.

Talk to the llama

Help is on the way. I believe it will help and it certainly cannot hurt.

The system has added a new member to the schools’ support team which already includes social workers, counselors and psychologists. Students can now interact with a llama named Kiwi, an AI chatbot in the app, Alongside, which offers mental health support for middle- and high-school students. Students can sign up with their parents’ or guardians’ permission.

So far, 36 students have signed up for Alongside, Dr. Natasha Scott, director of Student Services, told me on Friday.

She spoke at the kick-off event held on Feb. 15 at Seventy-First Classical Middle School on Raeford Road.

Llama keychains were offered at a launch event for the Alongside mental health support app on Feb. 15, 2024, at Seventy-First Classical Middle School. A llama, Kiwi, is the AI chatbot that middle school and high school students can talk to as part of an initiative by Cumberland County Schools.
Llama keychains were offered at a launch event for the Alongside mental health support app on Feb. 15, 2024, at Seventy-First Classical Middle School. A llama, Kiwi, is the AI chatbot that middle school and high school students can talk to as part of an initiative by Cumberland County Schools.

“The alongside app is just one more resource Cumberland County Schools has invested in for the well-being of our students,” she said at the event.

She described Kiwi as “cute as the dickens,” and said Alongside provided immediate support a student can access from a computer or mobile phone. The app includes social-emotional exercises designed by doctoral-level clinicians, self-help videos, a space for journaling and goal-setting tools, she said. The app adheres to the same privacy standards as when a student talks to a counselor or psychologist, Scott said.

For severe issues, such as abuse or thoughts of suicide, Kiwi reaches out to adults, she said.

“The app does not replace the human connection,” she said. “It is designed to work alongside our counselors, social workers and psychologists.”

A safe space and trustworthy sources

At the kick-off event, Dr. Elsa Friis, a licensed psychologist, and head of mental health at Alongside, said her team founded the app when they realized they were in a youth mental health crisis, and that just 15% of schools had enough counselors to meet the need. They conducted more than 100 interviews with students, counselors and administrators to design the app, she said.

“Universally when we talked to kids, we came up with three things,” she said. “One, they wanted a safe and judgment-free space, which is actually incredibly hard to find in this digital world.

“They also wanted personalized support, including being able to talk in their preferred language because we know your first language or native language is usually your heart language. And they also wanted trustworthy resources.”

She said the students knew social media “did not have all the answers.”

Anxiety and juggling — how Kiwi can help

Jessica Fikes, a sophomore at Seventy-First High School who also attended the classical middle school, spoke about her experience using the app, and I was very much dialed into her comments. I like the idea of the app but had my doubts that cool high-schoolers would “talk to the llama,” as the app’s hashtag encourages.

Fikes said she did not know how it would go initially but found Alongside helpful as she was going through a difficult period that included her mom’s surgery and a cancer diagnosis for her grandmother. She recalled a period when she felt a panic attack come on as she was talking to a friend. She logged onto Alongside, which helped, she said.

Jessica Fikes, a high school student in Cumberland County Schools, shares her experiences using the Alongside mental health support app at a launch ceremony for the app on Feb. 15, 2024, at Seventy-First Classical Middle School. Her mother, Njeri, who also spoke, looks on. Students in Cumberland County Schools, grades 6-12, can access the app with their parents' or guardians' permission.

She said students these days are juggling a lot, including family concerns that may include helping out siblings.

“You also have school, you might have a job, you might be in clubs,” she said, “Everything just starts to pile on top of each other and at one point it just becomes overwhelming.”

Kiwi and the app can help with organizing everything, she said.

“If you talk to the llama it might give you, like, a goal,” she said. “It says ‘When do you want to complete this?’"

Not just the app

Scott said that, before Alongside launched, some students, schools' staff and parents tried out the app.

She also made an important point at the kick-off that should not get lost: The system is already doing a lot to try to help students who need more support.

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I have two children in the system and can say I have seen more offerings in that line.

These include calm corners or calm spaces designated in each school.

“A calm corner is a place where a student can go when they realize that their feelings are getting too high and they need a moment to just kind of reset,” she said, “just kind of step back, gather themselves together and work independently on self-regulation skills.”

Scott also highlighted:

• A school behavioral health program in 35 schools that works with three mental health providers, who offer individual and family group counseling; medication management; and consultation and training. The programs are offered in-school during the day, which Scott says saves instructional time and relieves parents of the cost and burden of checking their children out of school, and checking them back in.

“So we’re very proud of that resource and we look forward to spreading that to all of our schools,” she said.

• A trauma-informed small-group counseling program in secondary schools.

• Universal screening, which Scott says identifies students who may need some additional support, something, “we may not know without the results of these screenings,” she said.

Keeping hope alive

Story, the social worker coordinator, said a social worker told her that “every support staff person in their office, including the data managers, the secretaries — they all have fidgets, stress balls … bears, stuffed animals, pillows — they have all kinds of things in their office so that when students come in there they can try to help calm them down.”

She believes Alongside will help. She said young people are into technology and wind up interacting with AI already on their phones. They may be more willing to talk to the llama before some adults in their lives — although the app does refer them to real people they can reach out to as well.

Story told me that with all the challenges the school system faces, she is an eternal optimist.

“We still want to keep hope alive, we’re not throwing in the towel.”

I liked hearing that.

Parents can play a role by trying to be more present and connected, she said.

It will take a village for sure — parents, the schools and now this llama Kiwi and heck, maybe Elmo, too.

Opinion Editor Myron B. Pitts can be reached at mpitts@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3559.

This article originally appeared on The Fayetteville Observer: Cumberland schools students can turn to 24/7 llama support