Support For Kids’ Mental Health Amidst a Pandemic
Building the future of a digital tool for children with the deadline of ASAP.
It’s fall and kids are back in school. And while the landscape looks different than it did at this time last year, we’re finding that more and more children need additional support to manage the stress of the times.
According to the CDC, the number of “12- to 17-year-olds visiting the emergency room for mental health-related issues increased by 31%” within the first six months of the pandemic. That’s a staggering number.
Thankfully there are some amazing organizations out there that support the wellbeing of kids, specifically. But when living through unprecedented times, how do we make sure that the tools and resources we’re using are relevant, topical and up to today’s challenges?
Let’s look at an example:
I love referencing real-life examples to demonstrate how adaptation and change come about, so let’s look at how a Minneapolis-based company called EmpowerU adapted in response to the pandemic.
Co-founded in 2015 by Katie Dorn, Abby Master, and Ginny Green, EmpowerU launched a few years later with the mission to help students replace anxiety and depression with confidence and resilience. The program equips students with the skills to become more self-directed, confident and focused learners by pairing interactive daily lessons with 1:1 support from online instructors. These instructors, who have master’s degrees and specialized training, serve as life coaches that personalize the course content based on each student’s goals and barriers.
What was working?
EmpowerU was delivering a ton of impact during pre-pandemic times. Like many visionary founders, Katie, Abby and Ginny were extremely resourceful in building the first iteration of the teaching and coaching platform using off-the-shelf tools, creativity, and a lot of dedication. And it was working! In fact, the need for this kind for program was so great that the founders were already in a position to scale up.
What was the challenge?
A global pandemic made a growing need — 1:1 wellness-based support for kids — even more critical. It forced the founders to start thinking differently about the future, as well as the types of tools and technology they would need to best support the kids and their business. In other words, what felt like an eventual progression suddenly needed to happen ASAP, and in response to a pandemic (which was a first for everyone).
What was the approach?
I wanted to help the EmpowerU team define a clear vision for the future of the EmpowerU experience. We needed to make sure any adjustments to features would be a clear step up, and that the team could handle rapid growth.
To do this we launched into a Strategic Planning and Roadmapping session. The goal was to evaluate what was working, move it to a new platform, explore new possibilities, and define a vision for the future that we could keep in mind as we built a new version of the program (which needed to be in the hands of students inside of 9 months).
How did we do it?
It’s amazing how much can be accomplished simply by getting input from the right people, staying organized, and utilizing proven tools.
In just two days we leveraged an engaged board and student base, and turned data into an actionable plan. Some of the information-gathering methods used include:
- Feedback sessions: When you want to know what’s working well and what isn’t, why not go straight to the source? Through facilitated feedback sessions with students and instructors, we were able to dig up this information in order to reveal insights and opportunities.
- Structured interview methods: To make sure we got the right information during the feedback session, very specific questions were asked to spark helpful conversation that would help us plan for the future. Things like, “In the future it would be amazing if EmpowerU could____.” And “When ___ I want to ____ so I can ___.”
- Stakeholder checkpoint: This is an excellent step if you have stakeholders involved who need to weigh in. This shouldn’t be a free-for-all. Instead, treat it as an opportunity to present the choices and directions you’ve landed on. In the case of EmpowerU, we had each board member vote on specific criteria we were evaluating. Their collective input helped us make some final choices about how to invest for the next phase.
The outcome of the workshop was two tangible plans that clearly spelled out the next steps for the business, including:
- A clear roadmap divided into Now, Next, and Future iterations with desired outcomes for each phase of work. This roadmap lived as a sharable artifact that the founders, board members and product owner could all understand.
- A detailed roadmap for the “Now” phase of work, using job-story format to clearly articulate what needed to be true for items in the “Now” bucket. This level of detail was used by the product team to build the next iteration of the EmpowerU platform.
Did it work?
With these two key drivers in place, we were able to bring to life the next version of EmpowerU in time for the 2021 school year! The Strategic Planning & Roadmapping Session helped an already-amazing program adapt and evolve in a very short amount of time. The outcome yielded an expanded program that now allows more kids to find 1:1 support. It also resulted in a business strategy that will support the growth of the business beyond today’s immediate challenges.
“Jackie was extremely helpful in bringing our vision for a more integrated student coaching experience to life through her collaborative and strategic process. The end result has far exceeded our expectations. Students are now supported within the course by our EmpowerU coaches that help them seamlessly integrate what they just learned in the platform to their specific goals and challenges. Schools are busy and students are struggling — and this new platform is helping districts and colleges scale their support with a warm and accessible approach that drives increased wellbeing.” — Katie Dorn, EmpowerU co-founder
This was one of the most rewarding projects I worked on in 2020 because the team was passionate, the problem important, and the impact on the lives of the students using the platform was huge.
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