Student mental health and well-being attracted a huge amount of attention during the 2021-22 school year. This school year is likely bring a similar level of attention to those issues.
But there are some big differences going into this school year that have many educators hopeful that the 2022-23 academic year won’t be as grim and difficult as the last one. For one thing, most students have been back to full-time, in-person school for an entire year, and are beginning to get used to the routines again.
Plus, educators now have a better idea this school year of what to expect and how to handle students’ social and emotional needs.
“The blinders are off,” said Lydia McNeiley, the college and career coordinator for the Hammond, Ind., school district. “We know the trauma students are experiencing. We know we have to address it. And I think we are starting off the school year knowing that it’s not going to be pretty, but it’s going to be better,” than the previous school year.
Here are some big issues facing schools when it comes to student wellness this fall:
Educator mental health and student mental health are inherently linked
Headlines are full of stories about low educator morale, teachers leaving the profession, major staffing shortages. Teachers’ emotional fatigue naturally has an impact on students, experts and educators say.
“We spend so many hours a day with these children, they pick up on our emotions,” said Tara Kierstead, a school counselor at Hall-Dale Middle & High School in Farmingdale, Maine. “So, the burnout, and the feeling like the world is against us, all of that really does take a toll on the kids.”
District leaders who stepped up their focus on students’ social and emotional needs in recent years often say they regret not including teachers’ social and emotional needs in the mix earlier, said Justina Schlund, the senior director of content and field learning for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, a nonprofit organization.
While no district has hit on the perfect solution, some schools and district leaders have found it helpful to more deliberately solicit feedback from teachers about what is causing their frustration and fatigue, and to act on their suggestions, Schlund said.
Pushback to social-emotional learning is complicating educators’ work
K-12 schools have long been battlefields in the culture wars, but the environment has become even more heated lately as legislatures and school boards debate teaching American history, policies for LGBTQ students, and other politically divisive topics that educators deal with every day.
Now, something as mundane as a presentation for the American School Counselor Association can turn into a social media flashpoint, as Kierstead found when she shared her school’s guidance for helping students navigate gender identity. Her presentation was well-received, but somehow, right-wing social media accounts got hold of it and attacked her.
While most of the pushback isn’t coming from local sources, it’s still challenging to deal with, Kierstead said. And it’s made some teachers wary of social-emotional learning, which is aimed at helping kids’ develop skills like cooperation, resilience, and empathy.
“We want all kids to feel supported and to feel safe. And social-emotional learning is a huge part of that,” she said. The fact that the term has been misconstrued into “something that is just flat out not [what it is] has really put a lot of stress on school counselors, in particular,” she added.
She’s especially saddened by social media campaigns urging parents to prohibit school counselors from working with their kids. “It’s very sad that the new narrative from a lot of people is we are bad people and shouldn’t be around your children,” she said.
Family and community engagement matters more than ever
One bright spot of pandemic-driven virtual learning: Parents became more connected to their schools than ever. Living rooms became classrooms, and teachers a consistent, virtual presence at home. What’s more, many schools began offering online parent outreach events, which made it easier for parents with less-flexible schedules or unreliable transportation to participate.
But when classes resumed in person, some of the goodwill between schools and families slipped, as parents coped with changing COVID protocols. They often blamed teachers for the confusion they felt, or for policies they disagreed with, including those that banned them from entering their child’s classroom to avoid spreading the virus.
“There’s a level of distrust that formed,” McNeily said. “I think bridging that gap, again, [is going to be about] having conversations with families. And letting them know, it’s not me against you. It’s us working together for the benefit of your student.”
What’s more, Schlund worries that some parent perspectives have been drowned out, amid the headline-grabbing debates over issues like critical race theory. “I think some voices are being heard in the big megaphone” of the national media, she said. “I think there’s a huge swath of voices aren’t being heard.”
Kids have mental health needs that stem from the pandemic, and some that don’t
Most students attended school in person for most of last school year. But many were still trying to figure out how to be around other kids their age, follow school rules, and cope with having less autonomy over their schedule than they may have had at home.
This academic year, they are more likely to show up ready to settle into a routine, said Ashley Wright, a school counselor at Gordon-Reed Elementary School near Houston. “I think there’s a thirst for structure. They want that and they just haven’t had it firmly, consistently.”
Over the past few turbulent years, children in her community have been dealing with a lot of change, Wright said.
“There’s been lots of divorces, lots of separation, lots of loss of jobs,” Wright said. That’s contributed to a prevailing sense of loss. Children as young as kindergarten have experienced suicidal thoughts, she said.
What’s more, the kinds of concerns that usually dominated schools’ mental health outreach before March of 2020 are still big problems even though schools have been focused on helping kids recover from the pandemic.
“They’ve gotten more used to being in school and doing school,” Kierstead said. “But that doesn’t mean ... things like cyberbullying and depression and anxiety, suddenly took a vacation, because they didn’t.”
One positive, according to Schlund: Schools continue to place expanding social-emotional learning and improving school climate on the top of their to-do lists. In fact, district leaders named developing “the whole child” and improving school culture as the most pressing priorities in a survey conducted this summer by Tyton Partners.
Students are seeking connectedness and have asked their teachers and school leaders for more time during the school day to develop friendships and deepen their relationships, Schlund said.
For educators, that means “we need to get back to the basics, really,” Kierstead added. “To building relationships and keeping an eye out for the kids that we think are having a rough go of things and making sure all teachers have connections with kids.”