Declining student mental health is a major concern for K12 leaders but experts are warning that the response has not yet been dynamic or collaborative enough to reverse the problem. The shortcomings of student mental health initiatives and the routes to more comprehensive solutions are detailed in a new analysis by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think thank at Arizona State University.
Educators and public school supporters have to confront “the many societal factors that are contributing to young people’s distress, including increasing political polarization around issues like race, gender, and climate change,” said the reports panel of experts, who issued three calls to action:
- Embrace technological innovations that can improve student well-being while honoring the fundamental need for human relationships.
- Overcome turf wars and divisions to embrace “big tent” thinking for social and emotional development and well-being support.
- Build new, integrated monitoring and response systems to address the urgent needs of young people.
The report cites several recent studies that show student mental health concerns have only grown in the wake of three years of pandemic and political disruptions and asserted that not all of the problems can be blamed on the isolation and uncertainty of remote instruction. For instance, teen suicides declined at the onset of lockdowns and some experts attributed that to students experiencing fewer bullying incidents.
Today, however, mental health concerns are being swept aside in some cases when educators feel pressured to increase focus on academic recovery at the expense of social-emotional learning. “Evidence does not support this zero-sum perspective,” the panel of experts argues. “Academic learning is inherently social and emotional, and integrating all those aspects can effectively promote whole-child development. Indeed, SEL is foundational to core academic instruction.”
Social-emotional learning and other mental health initiatives have also been stifled by politically motivated groups that have conflated SEL with critical race theory and “indoctrination.” And insufficient attention to the mental well-being of teachers, administrators, school staff and parents appears to be another factor in declining student mental health.
Student mental health: Reasons for optimism
Signs of progress can be seen where teachers and administrators are giving students more “voice and choice” over their learning environments, the panel said. These efforts include the adoption of SEL assessments that help educators better coordinate services and school partnerships with community organizations to pool SEL resources.
The panel provided more details on its three calls to action:
1. Embracing technological innovations that can improve student well-being while honoring the need for human relationships. On the bright side of the turbulent period of remote learning is that students, teachers and families were introduced to new tech tools that, with some new strategies, can be used effectively for building relationships and providing social-emotional support.
The panel points out that virtual parent-teacher meetings are more convenient for many families and virtual counseling sessions expand access for students whose schools have limited counseling capacity. And telemedicine has been connected to reductions in absenteeism. Finally, having students watch lectures online can give teachers more time to lead their classes in robust, engaging discussions.
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“Cultivating and establishing quality relationships among young people and between young people and adults is a central need, and it can happen online in the right context,” the reports experts attest.
2. Overcome turf wars and divisions to embrace “big tent” thinking around student mental health. Many K12 leaders have developed a “profile of a graduate” that lays out the knowledge and skills students should have when they complete high school. The panel recommends educators create a “profile of a citizen” that details graduates’ competencies in conflict resolution, emotional regulation and responsible decision-making. Such a profile could incorporate social-emotional concepts such as restorative justice, positive behavior interventions, mental health care, anti-bullying, character education and mindfulness.
3. Build integrated monitoring and response systems to address the urgent needs of young people. The panel contends that the last three years have revealed that many communities do not currently have the capacity to measure whether young people are the social and emotional skills “to thrive in good and hard times.” One model is New York City, which conducts a bi-annual assessment of students’ SEL competencies and maps their needs into school SEL activities.
Allegheny County in Pennsylvania connects school and local public health data to examine the relationships between chronic absenteeism, mental health, and family involvement with the county’s Department of Human Services. This gives educators and other officials a clearer picture of the factors that are influencing students’ well-being.
The report’s expert panel included:
- David Adams, chief executive officer of the Urban Assembly
- Catherine Bradshaw, professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia
- Robert Jagers, vice president of research at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)
- Velma McBride Murry, professor at the Peabody College and University Medical School at Vanderbilt University