How schools can seize a can’t-miss chance to strengthen mental health care

For some communities, COVID was just the latest ordeal in a string of natural disasters, racial injustice and other crises

Educators must embed mental health into every aspect of the school day to meet student social-emotional needs that have been intensified by the pandemic.

For some communities, COVID was just the latest ordeal in a string of natural disasters, racial injustice and other crises, said Susan Barrett, director for the Center for Social Behavior Support at Old Dominion University, during her Elementary and Secondary Education Act Network conference presentation Friday.

“We are not going to self-care our way out of this by doing yoga,” said Barrett, who is also a technical assistance director with the Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

“We now have an opportunity to redesign the system forever because it wasn’t working for so many of our children, youth and adults,” Barrett said. “Let’s think at the organizational level about what we can do together to disrupt the status quo moving forward.”

This transformation starts with developing an interconnected and districtwide system of mental health support that provides PD for teachers in meeting students’ social-emotional needs. Stationing outside health professionals in schools makes it far more likely that students—and staff who are struggling—will seek and receive care, Barrett said.

“Referring means transferring responsibility,” she said. “How can we bring community providers into the space of school and embed them to help us.”

Administrators must also reduce the burden on teachers and staff by prioritizing a smaller list of tasks and allowing educators to tailor those priorities to the needs of each of their students. Among these responsibilities should be rebuilding welcoming and predictable environments in schools.

More from DA: How K-12 leaders can help principals overcome stress and resist burnout

Mental health goals must first be clear—for example, administrators can tie attendance and instructional time targets to new social-emotional learning initiatives. Then, the goal must not only be backed up with sufficient budget spending but must also feature in a district’s own measures of accountability and outcomes, she said.

Here are some examples of changes districts have made during the pandemic:

1. Shelton School District (Washington): Leveraged the pandemic’s staggered school start times to its social-emotional advantage. The schedule allowed staff to space out around school buildings to greet each student individually and perform COVID temperature scans.

The districts plan to keep the staggered start times in 2022-23 so teachers can greet each student.

2. Clifton Public School District (New Jersey): Expanded its districtwide leadership team to include parents in developing support services for students and parents.

3. Central School District (Oregon): Launched a marketing campaign to reduce the stigma of students and staff asking for mental health help.

4. Salinas Union High School District (California): Building the capacity of all staff to embed
mindfulness skills into academic lessons.

“I love it when I hear teachers say I ripped up the lesson plan today because the kids were telling me through their behavior that we needed to do something different—we need to move, we need to play, we need a moment of joy and love,” she said.

Finally, districts should monitor communitywide health data so administrators can tackle emerging issues proactively and risk forcing students to wait for critical social-emotional support, she says.

The Department of Education also offers a guidebook, “Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs,” which offers more ideas for making social-emotional learning and mental health care systemwide initiatives, rather than the work of individual departments.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

Most Popular