1-on-1 coaching is the missing piece in student mental health

Even 10 years ago, the problem was more significant than the capacity to meet it.
Katie Dorn
Katie Dornhttps://empoweru.education/
Katie Dorn, MA, LSC, MFT is general manager and founding partner of EmpowerU, which recently joined the Catapult Learning family, and an experienced licensed school counselor and therapist. A mother of seven grown children and a successful entrepreneur and author, Dorn is passionate about finding effective ways to help students and families with mental health obstacles.

There is a student mental health crisis in the United States. The U.S. Surgeon General declared the decline of student mental health as the “crisis of our time.”

Nearly one-third of U.S. students report having experienced poor mental health, and 56% of teen girls report feeling anxious and/or depressed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the most recently available and first since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Exacerbated by the ripple effect of the pandemic, many of today’s students struggle with the vital skills they need to self-regulate and persist through difficulty. Research supports the idea that these non-academic barriers directly affect their ability to focus and succeed in school—and life outside of the classroom.

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What’s more, students aren’t the only ones struggling. School staff face increased pressure to support the rising number of students in need of help—at a time when educators themselves are at a breaking point. The competing demands placed upon staff are compounding, and educators often lack the adequate resources needed to deal with the rapidly rising levels of behavioral and mental health issues of the students in their classrooms.

Sadly, this is yet another pressure driving teachers to exit the profession in record numbers, leaving the remaining staff to take on even more. Administrators recognize the urgent need to address the growing problem but often need help finding data-driven, proven resources that can make a difference for both their students and their maxed-out staff.

As a therapist and former school counselor, I’ve witnessed the escalating gaps in serving student and educator mental health needs for over a decade. More and more students are falling through the cracks—not because they can’t do the work— but because they don’t have the tools and support to manage their anxiety, depression, and motivation.

Even 10 years ago, the problem was more significant than the capacity to meet it. During my time as a high school counselor, I had a caseload of more than 400 students and a laundry list of demands that left me unable to deliver the frequent daily doses of support that about 20% of my students needed to manage their challenges, stress, and pressures. I knew there had to be a way to leverage technology, while still harnessing the expertise of real people, to help more students more quickly and with better outcomes. But how?

The power of 1-on-1 coaching

As I dug into the research, I realized that any successful solution needed to be people-powered.

All students have the potential to learn and grow at school and in life. Young people benefit most from the unconditional positive regard of a caring adult trained to deliver feedback and encouragement. At its very heart, student-mental health support is about meaningful relationships.

Responding to student mental health issues requires a personalized approach, rooted in relationships that go beyond student check-in meetings every other week to deliver daily personalized support and accountability.

Research shows that combining frequent doses of skill-building lessons, with one-on-one daily coaching, provides the structure and scaffolding required for students to apply practical resilience skills to their challenges. It allows them to take daily steps toward their desired change, fueling transformation.

As school and district leaders search for solutions in this area, administrators should consider Tier 2 resilience interventions that are goal-driven and grounded in research. By embedding personalized 1:1 asynchronous coaching with skill-building lessons, districts can multiply the capacity of their existing staff to deliver unconditional positive regard to every student, building a relationship rooted in the psychological safety that is necessary for students to trust, disclose, and do the vital work of personal growth. It truly is empowering to tap into the goodness and wonder of a young person and help them take the steps they need to re-engage and thrive.

Both the independent supportive lesson design and 1:1 student/coach feedback loop are the missing pieces to driving successful improvements in student mental health and well-being.

Educators need support as well. It’s essential districts offer staff opportunities for resilience and mental health professional development. This can be done using the same coaching model used with students, allowing them to reconnect with their purpose, improve their well-being and coping, and model calm and resilience to those in their classroom.

Seen, heard and empowered

Schools invest significant time and resources to understand the growth of students, both as individuals and as cohort groups. This should be no different for a school’s behavioral supports. Leaders must have methods of measuring student growth, and administrators should not settle for a student success program that cannot monitor progress and measure results, both from the program outcomes using dashboards as well as agnostic data points, such as screener data and MTSS attendance, discipline and academic grit data. These data points are the very levers on which districts measure ROI and should be a cornerstone in evaluation criteria for districts.

As district leaders confront student well-being hurdles at this critical time, they must act as thoughtful stewards of the abundance of mental health funding available today. They must ensure that the programs they utilize integrate resilience-building instruction, harness the transformative power of meaningful relationships, and prioritize measurable results that drive behavior and academic success.

Let’s unite to ensure all students nationwide feel seen, heard and empowered to succeed. Take the time because their time is now.

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