Preparing for student’s mental health in the upcoming year
August 26, 2021
Are you ready for the increased mental health needs of K-12 students after a year of distance learning?
For teachers and educators who weathered the trials of pandemic teaching, the upcoming 2021-2022 school year represents a return to something like normal. Even though many are returning to classrooms, this class of incoming students are not the same as those who left.
Many students are returning with mental health and social issues intensified by a year of unparalleled stress, social isolation, economic instability, and even the loss of loved ones. Now with the variant surging, there remains a level of uncertainty over whether the virus will close schools yet again.
Despite any uncertainty that may lie ahead, the return to school can still be an exciting time for students and parents. The question, then, is how can schools and educators prepare for the increased mental health needs of students, to ensure success this school year. The following are considerations for addressing mental health in schools.
Understand the components and roles of a comprehensive mental health program
Educators have multifaceted roles in promoting and preserving mental health. Most people think of mental health in terms of problems. Emotional meltdowns, behavioral and adjustment issues, mental illness, or developmental disorders are the “mental health” issues that negatively affect students and the school community. But emotional and behavioral problems are only one part of the mental health picture.
A complete view of mental health must also include mental wellness. A comprehensive school-wide mental health program addresses four key elements of mental wellness and mental health:
- Promoting emotional and behavioral health in the school community,
2. Preventing problems before they happen,
3. Intervening at the earliest signs of a problem, and
4. Professional treatment when emotional, behavioral, or developmental issues significantly reduce a child’s daily functioning.
Mental wellness is a priority because it correlates closely with academic success. At the beginning of an mental wellness endeavor school leaders start by clearly identifying the mental wellness roles and goals for individual programs, teachers, support staff, administrators, professionals, and community groups in a larger mental health picture.
Expand social and emotional learning programs
Social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are among the most successful ways schools can promote mental health and prevent problems before they arise. Research consistently correlates SEL programs with district-wide improvements in achievement and graduation rates.
More importantly, SEL programs help students develop the fundamentals of good mental health: understanding and controlling emotions, setting emotional and behavior goals, and forging positive relationships.
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), there are four SEL Critical Practices that schools can install to foster the competencies and learning environments that students and adults need to reunite, renew, and thrive.
- Develop and strengthen relationships and partnerships and take time to plan for SEL.
- Create opportunities for families to connect, heal and support students.
- Implement supportive and equitable learning environments that consistently promote SEL.
- Collect and reflect on data to continuously improve support for students, families, and staff.
For schools new to SEL, these programs require school-wide or district-wide implementation to succeed. For schools already committed to SEL, expanding these programs is an important first step to meet the heightened mental health needs of the incoming class of 2021.
Foster community partnerships
Schools cannot do it alone. Schools and their districts can set up partnerships and coordinate with community services and organizations. These partnerships can help promote mental health, offer social activities, or provide services and professional treatment. Many of these organizations will eagerly work with the school to provide training for teachers and support staff and even offer in-school services.
At the most basic level, schools can serve as a source of knowledge and referrals. Sometimes the most valuable mental health work a school can do is direct parents or students to community resources that they vitally need.
Foster parent partnerships
Teachers, support staff, and even administrators might consider developing relationships with parents early in the school year. Parents are perhaps the most critical component of the child’s emotional, social, and behavioral wellness.
Reach out to individual parents early, check in regularly, keep them updated about their child’s education and listen carefully to what they have to say. Learn about the child through their eyes, what they see at home, and what their child is telling them about school experiences and emotional wellness.
Involve them in the decisions about their child. Partner with them to address emotional, behavioral, or social problems that may be emerging. Some schools establish parent or family centers on school grounds to foster communication and collaboration between teachers, staff, parents, and students.
Expand school-based services and activities
Schools might consider expanding their services, particularly for the most vulnerable students. Social skills groups, recreation services, anti-bullying programs, classroom aides—these and similar services can be instituted and, if already in place, expanded.
To promote mental wellness and student relationships, consider instituting or expanding school-based recreational and creative activities or clubs that attract kids with a variety of interests. Community organizations may be willing to help lead, facilitate or even fund these activities. Many after-school or in-school activities can directly contribute to mental wellness, such as yoga, or meditation activities.
Offer multiple options for talking about emotions and problems
As a school-wide initiative, students can be provided multiple options to communicate with each other and with adults outside the traditional venues of school counselors and school psychologists.
Student advising groups, student-run mentoring groups, school counselor classroom visits, virtual chats with teachers or counselors, and scheduled social groups for the most vulnerable are all ways some schools endeavor to expand the reach of mental health and counseling services to promote mental wellness.
Schedule regular check-ins
Recognizing where students are emotionally can help prevent problems or identify them early. Daily wellness check-ins allow educators to connect with students and assess their well-being. These check-ins are based on the common-sense proposition that you can’t solve a problem you don’t know about.
There are several ways to approach check-ins. Some teachers use person-to-person interactions, some use paper forms, and some use virtual check-ins in places like Google Classroom. These check-ins can be highly formalized with specific questions or more informal.
To promote mental wellness and spot problems early, some educators choose to schedule regular person-to-person chat times with individual students. Lasting no more than five or ten minutes, a check-in chat allows a teacher to individually connect with a student, hear the student’s concerns, get feedback, gauge how well the student is doing, and problem-solve with the student.
When implemented school-wide, one-on-one chats are frequently divided among teachers, support staff, and administrators. As an alternative format, some schools assign student mentors or student advisory groups to perform regular one-on-one talks with students.
Reduce stress in the classroom
For some, the classroom can be a significant source of stress, causing or worsening emotional or behavioral problems.
Scheduled brain breaks, quiet places, pillow time, stress displacement activities, and “organization” time can help reduce stress levels, as can reducing overall clutter and noise. Teachers in a single grade can also plan together to collectively prevent homework overload.
Teachers may even consider specialized training in stress reduction and de-escalation techniques to help students manage and control emotions.
Offer options for classwork and homework
Students can be helped in managing emotions and anxiety by being offered alternatives. Not every student has to complete assignments in exactly the same way.
A student anxious about presenting in front of a class can be offered other options for completing their work. For example, the student could record their presentation from home and play the video for the class when it is their turn to present. Creative and inventive educators can always dream up anxiety-reducing options for students that still achieve the goals of the coursework.
As teachers and administrators return from a well-deserved break, it’s well worth the time to prepare for the mental wellness needs of the incoming class of 2021. Like most, our students have experienced an unprecedented disruption in their lives, but they have fewer skills and resources to manage the experience or prepare them for a return to a semi-normal environment. With planning and investment in mental wellness and community partnerships, schools can do more than welcome children back this fall, they can help them move forward.
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