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Emotional Intelligence and AI Together Can Help Lessen the Student Mental Health Crisis (Opinion)

Alarmingly, there are new reports that 6 out of 10 youth are feeling isolated and lonely and that suicidal ideation is on a steep rise across America. The integration of innovative teaching methodologies and cutting-edge research on adolescent mental health has become imperative. There is a convergence of two influential educational paradigms enabled by new developments in AI to help integrate innovative teaching and focus on adolescent mental health at the same time. This new “system” integrates the work of neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang‘s on conditions for learning connected to emotions and belonging.

One school system that is trying to merge innovative teaching and adolescent mental health is the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD). It is focusing on the “5 Cs,” which are communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and compassion in students while supporting that mission with the help of rapidly developing AI learning tools. With sophisticated learning platforms, aligned leadership, and support for teachers, AUHSD is at the stage where it can capture how and why the system it has developed with students, teachers, and the wider community works by focusing on whole-child instruction—culminating in creating whole adults ready to fully participate in a healthy democratic society.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is an indispensable life skill that empowers individuals to recognize, understand, manage, and harness their emotions effectively, all while remaining attuned to the emotions of others. Immordino-Yang and other neuroscientists have found that emotionally engaged students are more likely to retain information and apply critical-thinking skills effectively. Thus, effective teaching strategies should cultivate students’ emotional states to optimize the learning experience.

AI holds the potential to deepen our understanding of these neural processes, which can in turn inform pedagogical strategies.

AUHSD’s Approach to Whole-Child Education

Anaheim Union—a district with a high percentage of poverty—is dedicated to fostering the 5 Cs in students, to ensure that they are well-prepared for the challenges of the modern world. The district does not “teach to the test”—there are no test benchmarks of state interim assessments—yet all academic metrics have risen well beyond what demography would predict.

These district drivers align with the development of emotional intelligence and well-being through classroom pedagogy:

Communication: Effective communication is at the heart of emotional intelligence. By teaching students to express their work both orally and in writing, educators can create an emotionally supportive learning environment. Communication is not just about expressing ideas but also seeing the impact of these ideas on others.

Collaboration: Collaborative projects offer students the opportunity to develop their ability to manage projects as leaders. Working in teams necessitates empathy, active listening, and conflict-resolution skills.

Critical Thinking: It encompasses not only the analysis of information but also the application of emotional intelligence in this process. Students can be taught to think critically about the emotional impact of their decisions and the ethical considerations associated with their actions in a digitally connected world.

Creativity: Encouraging students to explore their creative potential not only enhances their artistic and innovative abilities but also fosters emotional expression.

Compassion: The district places a strong emphasis on compassion, a key element of emotional intelligence. It encourages students to understand the emotions and perspectives of others.

Artificial Intelligence

Through the co-development of AI tools in partnership with a nonprofit tech company called eKadence and the University of California, Irvine, the district aims to first help teachers develop more holistic- and applied-learning experiences and lesson plans designed to support student agency and purpose. These practices include developing ePortfolios, performance task assessments, and capstones assisted by AI tools that encourage students to reflect on what they’ve learned, whereby students make connections between their education and issues that are important to them personally.

This integration of AI in supporting whole-child pedagogy, grounded in the principles of emotional intelligence and well-being, offers a beacon of hope in the face of the challenges that today’s students encounter, fostering not just academic excellence but also emotional resilience and societal contribution. Integrated AI can capture and synthesize student reflection on their own learning to identify gaps and strengths which inform both student and teacher about what’s working in the classroom.

Whole-System Solution

AUHSD represents a whole-system solution. They are impacting 100 percent of the students, continue to engage more and more parents and community members, and have the goal of total transformation of the education profession. Additionally, they have established and continue to foster a close partnership with postsecondary, businesses, and social agencies. Our school community now has greater practical clarity of what is needed and, more importantly, what it looks like in practice. The challenge is that it takes a daunting intensity of interaction and integration (synergy) of the key components. The negative costs of not pursuing this new paradigm compared to the uplifting rewards of making it happen make this a challenge well worth fighting for.

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