By Diane Staehr Fenner, PhD
In my last blog post for K-12Talk, I described how it felt to be an educator and a parent during what we have come to realize were the early stages of the pandemic. Now, more than a year and seemingly a lifetime later, I’ve had plenty of time to ruminate about what’s been most crucial to me during this time. As an educator and author who primarily supports multilingual learners and their teachers, I’ve witnessed teachers’ Herculean efforts to foster relationships with their students and ensure students stay engaged in their education, often at a distance. At the same time, as a mom of three kids in middle and high school, I’m often up in the middle of the night, worried about how the pandemic has affected not only my own kids’ schooling but also their well-being.
Through both of my roles, I’ve personally witnessed how students’ mental health has become a more frequent topic of conversation since the pandemic began. The reality of living through a pandemic has exacerbated many students’ previously existing anxiety and depression and has created new mental health issues for others who did not suffer prior to COVID-19. This post is prompted by a sense of urgency about the need for schools to respond to students’ mental health concerns as educators envision what school might look and feel like in the next academic year.
National Trends in Mental Health and Education
During the pandemic, teens’ suicidal ideation and attempts have increased by 25 percent or more compared to similar periods in 2019, according to surveys given to all patients visiting a large pediatric hospital emergency room. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that in 2020 the proportion of pediatric emergency admissions for issues such as panic and anxiety increased 31 percent for adolescents compared to the previous year. Those statistics speak to some of teachers’ and parents’ greatest fears.
These days, the overlapping concerns of mental health professionals and educators are fortunately gaining more attention. In fact, U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona recently shared that there is a shift happening in educators’ focus on students’ mental health, which previously tended to be “after the fact.” He sees this time as an opportunity to “redesign our schools and make sure that [mental health services are] baked into the DNA of schools as a core service, in a way that reaches more students in a wider manner.” Underscoring the government’s commitment to prioritizing students’ mental health, new federal aid funding can be used to provide mental health services and supports to students.
Student Mental Health is an Urgent Matter for Schools
Although I recognize that schools have already been providing services they had never previously imagined—ensuring many more students and families are getting food, providing access to technology, and even finding students who have fallen off the attendance grid—there is still more to be done in order to support students’ mental health. Right now, educators are overwhelmed with the logistical arrangements of reopening schools in person during a pandemic: getting kids safely into buildings, working out schedules, and figuring out busing. However, we can’t prepare students to ramp up their learning without also supporting their mental health. During the remainder of this academic year, and in preparation for the coming one, it is essential that schools integrate mental health with academics and destigmatize mental health awareness.
I am especially anxious about students of color, students in poverty, multilingual learners, and LGBTQ+ students not getting the help they might need for myriad reasons.
In order to effectively tackle the current mental health crisis among students, schools must employ a multifaceted approach in which parents, educators, students, and communities share a consistent message that we care about students and that their mental health is just as important as their academics. Here, I suggest three areas of focus for schools reevaluating their approach to student mental health.
1. Connect with families and the community around mental health
As schools bring more students back in person, it will be critical to interact with families to learn more about what their children have been experiencing during the pandemic that might not be immediately apparent to teachers. To be able to tap into that knowledge, schools should consider how they will learn more. For example, they could have conversations with families but will need to take certain factors into consideration, such as: will there be meetings between teachers and parents? What will they look and feel like? What happens after that? Schools could also send out surveys to parents to try and learn about what students’ experiences have been in terms of their mental health during the pandemic and what parents’ priorities are moving forward. To obtain input from multilingual families, parent liaisons could make phone calls in students’ home languages or make a socially distanced home visit with an interpreter, keeping in mind the need to be culturally responsive and sensitive.
In addition to connecting with families, schools could strengthen their ties with local community providers that offer mental health support to children and adolescents to determine how to make services more accessible for students and families and integrate these services into the school day. We would need to be creative here—could qualified therapists come to schools and/or provide teletherapy in coordination with schools? As part of outreach to parents, schools’ back-to-school nights for parents could also contain information on support for students’ mental health. In partnership with community organizations, schools could be proactive in providing suggestions to parents on therapy and counseling options outside of school. As educators, we consciously need to send a message that mental health is a priority and that parents should not feel stigma or shame in seeking support for their children’s mental health needs. A school-based parent group could help parents going through similar situations connect with each other as well as pool resources and advice in a safe space. If schools are proactive in connecting parents with these services and each other, it will lessen the stress on parents who might be hesitant to ask for help and will further serve to normalize the importance of mental health.
2. Increase teachers’ awareness of student mental health issues and provide support
Teachers and schools must determine their priorities for students during their first full year back to in-person learning. Even for schools that have been open to in-person learning this year, students have experienced disruptions and loss. It’s been well over a year of trauma and grief for many students, and it will take time to resume former patterns of learning and connections with teachers and peers. First and foremost, students must feel safe, secure, and heard. Essentially, we must validate what they have gone through in order for students to begin to learn effectively in person again.
Even though we can’t expect teachers who already have so much on their plates to serve as psychologists and counselors, they can look out for behaviors and be alert to when they need to let other professionals know that a student may need help. Teachers should be provided training for detecting and responding to signs of mental illness and identifying students at heightened risk of suicide or self-harm. In fact, some states already mandate this type of training for all teachers, and we can explore what this training entails in terms of content and delivery.
Even without state policy in place, educators can work together to create a safety net for students, comparing notes with their colleagues to ensure no student falls through the cracks. For example, a creative writing teacher might realize a child is struggling when they write a journal entry about feeling isolated. A P.E. teacher might notice a student often asks to sit out of class due to stomachaches, which could be linked to anxiety. An administrator might see that a child always sits alone at recess. Using such information, schools could create a plan for individual students in which their emotional well-being is discussed approximately once every academic quarter. Some districts have plans similar to these in place for English learners’ progress acquiring language and content. Along those lines, we could envision a mental health plan for all students in which teachers and counselors note what they’re observing, which supports students may need, and what progress they’re making. If counselors and social workers are stretched too thin, willing teachers could connect with a small group of students to have regular check-ins and keep up with how they are coping.
3. Integrate mental health support for students into the school day
Finally, students themselves need to recognize the importance of their own mental health as well as acquire strategies to cope with today’s realities of stress and anxiety. This all starts with strengthening teacher-student and counselor-student relationships, which may have faced challenges during distance learning or socially distanced schooling. In order for students to understand the need to be aware of their own mental health, teachers can begin by having open conversations orally or in writing with students to find out how they’re doing. Teachers themselves could consider sharing personal stories with students of how they were feeling at various points of the pandemic and what they’ve been doing to cope. Students need to hear that teachers have also experienced stress and uncertainty. As educators, we need to share our vulnerability with students to help form connections, help them relate to us and be more willing to open up. This is especially true for students of color, who may be less likely than white students to feel comfortable reaching out to a teacher or counselor if they need mental health support.
Additionally, teachers can set aside time for relaxation and fun in the school day, prioritizing time for classmates to reconnect with each other in both structured and unstructured ways to foster a strong, supportive classroom community. We can help students brush up on social skills that may have been put on the back burner during learning at home in physical isolation from peers. Administrators need to support teachers in building time into the day for these seemingly non-academic pursuits that will ultimately benefit students’ academic progress.
Most schools have some curriculum related to mental health, often as part of a student’s physical education and health class, but the quantity and quality of this content varies and may be in need of an update to reflect the current times. Avenues for students to focus on their mental health should not be compartmentalized into one class or with one teacher or counselor. In order for students to receive a consistent message that mental health matters, teachers can use strategies to reduce anxiety and encourage calm and mindfulness. All the while, we must recognize that mental health services from professionals will be needed and should not be complicated for students to request and access at school. To that end, some districts are eyeing ESSER funds for student mental health services and supports, such as providing telehealth therapy and counseling services to students during the school day. For schools that already provide mental health services, students should be made aware of what services are available and how to obtain them on a regular basis.
During the pandemic, I’ve been simply amazed at educators’ creativity and flexibility in the face of adversity. Now is the time to imagine what students’ well-being might look like if we could connect with each other and share resources and strategies to support students’ mental health as we plan for the remainder of this academic year and the next. While there are no tidy, foolproof solutions, we need to start talking about and focusing on students’ mental health as much—if not more—than we speak about so-called learning loss. For some kids, having these conversations could literally be a life saver.
Diane Staehr Fenner, PhD is president of SupportEd, LLC, a woman-owned small business located in the Washington, DC region that provides professional development, technical assistance, and research to empower ELs and their teachers. Diane is a former ESOL teacher, the author of five EL books, and is a frequent keynote speaker on EL education across North America.