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[Interview] What Should Schools Do Right Now to Care for Students’ Mental Health Needs?

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Note: The interview responses below have been edited for clarity and brevity.

2020 has been a hard year: schools and workplaces have sent people home, unemployment is skyrocketing, loved ones have died.

As schools closed, students found themselves navigating a new way of learning from home. For some, it was okay. For others, difficult home situations, hunger, lack of access to technology, and social isolation made learning impossible or close to it. Then, when protests and online conversation erupted in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, many students (and adults) wrestled to process a pressure cooker of emotions.

This year’s events landed on top of already rising rates of anxiety and depression for students, and the compounding effects on the mental health of students (and staff) have yet to be fully seen. Because of the pandemic, students who relied on school services for mental health care may find access to those resources much harder to obtain.

In May and June, we spoke with people in a variety of education roles about the readiness of schools to care for students’ mental health. One question we asked:

What should schools be doing right now to care for students’ mental health needs?

Dr. Dorothea Gordon, Executive Director of Special Education, Grand Prairie ISD, Texas:

Are we identifying students? Are we assessing those needs when they walk into our buildings, and also when they are on Zoom lessons? Are we being skillfully aware of those interactions? That’s something we can do right now.

We also want to continue to provide for their basic needs. When I say “basic needs,” definitely continue with the federal feeding program. We need to continue with that to ensure we’re addressing those basic needs.

Another thing that we need to do is continue to engage the community, because now that we do not see them for six hours at a time or more during this pandemic situation, we need to make sure that our community members understand or are aware of the symptoms that they might be showing in order to get the scholars and families the resources that they need.

Mark Hansen, Superintendent, School District of Elmbrook, Wisconsin:

Most schools, including ours, know the kids who probably suffered the most isolation, had structures that weren’t as supportive as we would like them to be. Checking in with those kids now, doing virtual home visits. In our district our students kept their Chromebooks over the summer so we have a mechanism to get to kids, escalating the connectedness to our kids who might be more susceptible to risk than others.

Suzanne Sibole, School Counselor and founder of Youth Risk Prevention Specialists:

Reaching out. Some schools are reaching out virtually, reaching out by phone if you have students you are particularly concerned about, maybe a family member has been affected by COVID or that student has contracted it, or it’s just that that student struggles.

It’s hard to do. It’s summer, teachers are off contract. I know there are many teachers that are super committed, counselors and administrators that are very, very committed to their kids, but some might not be available and might not be able to do that. So I think one thing is reaching out as much as possible. Checking your email. I’m off contract for the summer from my school job. However, I try to check it every three or four days. I had one email that just said, “Ms. Sibole, I need help.” And that was it. I contacted the student right away because I thought, “I don’t know what she’s asking for exactly.” I feel like we need to keep monitoring our email if we can, if we have access to it over the summer.

I know many schools are gearing up for this, for mental health concerns. So educating, sending out information to school staff: “These are some things we can expect. We can expect fear, we can expect anxiety. We can expect depression, grief, because of being isolated or losing family members, so these are some of the things to watch for, and this is what you do when you see them.” And I think it’s important that that take place before school starts if at all possible, or at the very beginning of school, because people need a chance to study that and understand and ask questions so they know how to respond to students.

Paul O’Neill, Supervisor of Instruction, Mill Pond Elementary School, New Jersey:

We’re certainly not clinicians. We’re certainly not providing deep psychological services and things of that nature. But students are coming to us with emotional trauma, or in deep psychological situations where we need to make sure that we have access to people that can help us screen better, and people that can guide us to make sure that we’re giving the proper level and the proper amount of services at that given time.

April Strong, District Instructional Coach, Martin County School District, Florida:

I’m fortunate to have been trained as a youth mental health first aid trainer through the National Behavioral Council. There’s also mental health first aid for adults. Mental health first aid has been around for a while, and that training has been really helpful to our district. We’re only in year two of it and we’re trying to train everyone.

It’s going well, but we could definitely improve by making a larger team so we can educate more throughout the school year. What I hear through these trainings from educators and support staff is they want more strategies. The training allows you to learn how to give first aid, much like CPR, what steps could you follow? You’re not a medical professional, but you would know how to help until help arrives. But the deeper question that educators ask often is “What specific strategy?” As an instructional coach, that weighs on me because I’m used to giving them strategies in my role.

I think we can do better at partnering to learn what are those strategies. Every case is so different, but I wonder if there’s some sort of playbook or checklist or something that gives the empowerment over to the adult who would be with the student: more strategies in the moment.

Dennis Griffin, Jr., Principal, Brown Deer Elementary School, Wisconsin:

How do we proactively talk about what’s happening to let kids know “we’re here to support you,” to help them navigate between right and wrong, and making sure that they’re getting the right message about why things are happening or why we need a change. That’s the complicated piece.

How do we proactively start to educate our families as well? Someone I know said, “You know, I need help explaining this to my daughter. I need help explaining this to my son. Where do I get the resources to talk about this? Who can help me talk about this? Because I don’t have the experience.”

We’ve started to really use Zoom a great deal. What if school educators started to talk more about racism, talk more about differences and acceptance, and talk about how we can be the change in a world on Zoom platforms? And we bring families, and we bring the kids together and say, “What questions do you have?” The more challenging conversations you have with someone, the more and more you start to trust them, and you will go back and engage in further dialogue, especially if there’s an action plan and you can feel yourself growing in the process. That’s one way that a safe space is really created.

Dr. Missy Brooks, Director of Instruction and Special Education, Mountain Brook Schools, Alabama:

We’ve got to think even down to our scheduling of students and what that looks like. We’ve been in the same model of school forever — do we need to relook at what school looks like? Are we as a school entity and the way we work putting pressure on students so that they’re underperforming?  Are we contributing to the anxiety? And if we are, how do we fix that with some structures that we have in place like scheduling and even bringing speakers in to talk about things openly? Do we have advisory programs so that every student is plugged in to one particular person, so that at least they can say, “Yes, there’s one person in the building who cares about me”?

I think we need to look at structures like that, and we can do that immediately. That’s not something that requires more money. It just requires creativity.

Ted Nietzke, Executive Director, CESA 6, Wisconsin:

The direct strategy is to minimize the threats. Acting out in violence, the increase in depression, children acting out, what’s happening is, there has been a breakdown in the chain for minimizing the threat for that child, and that’s what has to happen.

Right now with kids at home, online learning, and all the equity issues that are created as a result of that, there are a lot of little threats there. If I am engaged as a third grader and I live in an urban setting, but I don’t have access to the internet, or I don’t have the materials, when I come back to school, the threat becomes the gap that’s been created between me and my colleagues, where they have more information than me, which makes me feel small, and that’s going to get me to act differently.

For me the root issue is minimizing those threats to kids. And that’s creating a warm and engaging and safe environment, going back to the key idea of empathy, trying to work with and understand that. When we go back this fall across the nation, the gap has grown significantly. As a result of that gap, the threat has grown for those kids to feel inept, and we’ve got to figure out a way to bridge that fast.

Jim Wright, RTI/CCSS Trainer & Consultant, School Psychologist, and School Administrator:

I would start by wondering, what are going to be the mental health implications of a COVID shutdown? We certainly are going to have students who fall behind academically, and that will create feelings of anxiety, frustration, disconnection in school. And those are obviously mental health manifestations. So I would start by connecting with teachers across my school to get a sense of who are those really disengaged students. Those students would go onto my watch list as the fall semester begins, to really check in with them and get a sense of their mental health adjustment.

We also have to realize, of course, that the whole COVID crisis will bring its own mental health repercussions. There are some students who will have lost family members to this virus. I think we need to be checking in there as well. We need to be thinking about grief counseling.

I want schools to start to think about the possible mental health repercussions of COVID and ask themselves, “Okay, how can we check in with our student population now to get a sense of who should really be on our radar?” And then we have to prepare because of that vast uncertainty. Is there a way in the fall, if schools decide to continue to do remote learning, to check in with students, with parents if need be, to facilitate referrals to outside agencies to really help students to cope with any emerging crisis situations?

But we’d want to start now by simply surveying who might be at risk and how we might want to think about responding, either remotely or onsite.

The above responses are just one small part of a larger interview about student mental health. Read the full article here