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Adolescent mental health is in crisis.
That’s not a surprise to anyone who works in a school. According to a report from the research firm EAB, “Are Districts the Nation’s Adolescent Mental Health Care Providers? A Mandate to Support Seven Million Students in Crisis,” the past ten years have seen a rise in anxiety, depression, and suicide among students. The report goes on to say school districts are becoming the “adolescent mental health providers of necessity and choice” — that often students have no other options, and even when they do, they’re more likely to use services at school.
Throw in a global pandemic that will likely exacerbate these issues at a time when schools are harder pressed than ever before, and it raises the question:
Are schools ready?
We spoke with ten people on the front lines of education and asked them what the future holds.
Dr. Missy Brooks
Director of Instruction and Special Education
Mountain Brook Schools, Alabama
Dr. Dorothea Gordon
Executive Director of Special Education
Grand Prairie ISD, Texas
Dennis Griffin, Jr.
Brown Deer Elementary School, Wisconsin
School District of Elmbrook, Wisconsin
CESA 6, Wisconsin
Supervisor of Instruction
Mill Pond Elementary School, New Jersey
Downingtown School District, Pennsylvania
Founder, Youth Risk Prevention Specialists
District Instructional Coach
Martin County School District, Florida
RTI/CCSS Trainer & Consultant
School Psychologist and School Administrator
Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Jump to a question
- How ready are schools to take on the responsibility of being the primary source of mental health care for students?
- What do you think schools are doing well to provide for students’ mental health needs?
- Where do schools have room for improvement in providing for student’s mental health needs?
- What impact does the mental health crisis have on education as a whole?
- What do schools need in order to adequately provide the kind of mental health care that students need?
- What part should people in your role play in addressing student mental health needs?
- Look 5-10 years into the future. How will schools be responding to mental health needs differently from how they are right now?
- If you could snap your fingers and make one change immediately to better meet students’ mental health needs — or help school leaders and personnel meet those needs — what would it be?
How ready are schools to take on the responsibility of being the primary source of mental health care for students?
Mark Hansen: “Increasingly ready” is what comes to mind. There are ebbs and flows to mental health and well-being, regardless of what era we’re in. During an era of pandemic times, we will encounter new trends and have to have new approaches that maybe haven’t even been thought of yet. But we are increasingly ready to deal with not just an increase in volume of mental health and well-being issues, but trends such as isolation and loneliness that we anticipate that will be coming through our doors as we reopen our school year.
Suzanne Sibole: I think some schools are very ready. They’ve been anticipating this for some time. They’ve been adding to their staff, training their staff, putting programs in place. Other schools, not so much. I’ve worked in a number of districts in different capacities, and some schools are phenomenally prepared in all facets of social-emotional health, and others haven’t put things into place because they’re not even aware that maybe they should, or that these things are available to them.
Paul O’Neill: I have to be honest, I don’t think schools are ready. I’m not so sure about our readiness pre-COVID, but now post COVID, we’re facing issues and problems that we don’t even know what they are yet. In general, we have a lot of work to do, but hopefully one of the benefits of COVID-19 is maybe this will bring us all together as an industry and shine a spotlight on the fact that there’s still a lot of work for us to do to get ready to provide better mental health services.
Ted Neitzke: I would argue that we have been. The role of teachers and the support structures have always been there. I think the shift is, we are becoming aware that mental health is just like any other part of the body, that brain health and heart health and physical health are one and the same, and it’s no longer a stereotype. It is no longer a problem to go see the counselor. This is just now coming to light because we are now comfortable as an American society having the conversation.
April Strong: I think schools are becoming the primary place because of the variety of roles that exist on a campus already, and the fact that education centers around being able to make changes on the fly to meet the needs of students, families, stakeholders. In our practice, we’re used to adding one more thing, learning something new, or trying something for a solution-based result.
It will never be enough, no matter what we do. I think that schools are doing a great job of modeling partnerships with the right agencies in order to provide enough for our students, becoming a hub for so many different resources in one spot.
Dennis Griffin: I would say schools always have been. What has happened is now that we’ve given it a name, we’ve brought more attention to it. There have always been kids that have come to school with trauma. I understand that a lot of my students come to me with various challenges from their personal lives. I cannot expect them to enter the school, leave all their problems at the door, and then pick them up on their way out.
Missy Brooks: I’m not sure we are ready, and part of the problem with that is funding. We’re not really funded for any of this. We’re looking at all kinds of different models to see how we can provide the service, because that’s going to be vitally important, even more so now after school closures. There’s going to be a lot of anxiety coming back. We’re even seeing that with some of our teachers too. It’s not just the kids. We’ve seen a huge rise in anxiety, depression, all kinds of mental health. I don’t know if it’s because we’re freer to talk about it, but we are seeing increased amounts of issues with mental health.
Jim Wright: Right now we’re probably under-prepared, in part because we simply don’t have that kind of staffing. Schools can do an amazing amount of things to prepare and support students around issues of mental health. They can reach out to area agencies to make referrals, et cetera. But to go that next step and to say that schools are going to be that primary contact point for mental health services for students, I don’t think we have the funding, and I don’t think we really have the plan in place to make that happen yet.
Todd Shirley: The field of school counseling, I think, is ready to innovate, adapt, and come up with ways to help people.
The problem is, the way a forest fire clears out brush that accumulates, this [pandemic] has forced me and many others to hurry up and get acquainted with technology that we always meant to. And because of that, I would say we’re not so ready. We don’t have a reference for tele-health, for distance learning. School counseling services are following those things, but it’s completely new to us. If we had a playbook about the ethics involved with this, it could help us weigh our decisions.
In general, what do you think schools are doing well to provide for students’ mental health needs?
Dennis Griffin: We’re taking the time to identify which students need more, and not just assuming. We’re reaching out to families a lot more. We’re trying to give teachers professional development around what it is that will help them be successful in class and shift from just being content-based. Those are the things that we have to applaud. I think more money and resources are going into education with regard to mental health. Certain schools and certain districts around my area are hiring more school psychologists, hiring more people to help talk to kids on a counseling level. Even now, certain case managers come in and meet with the principal and the teachers to say, “This is what’s going on in this young man’s outside realm.”
Ted Neitzke: The strongest thing that I’m seeing is a drive, an understanding of the whole child that comes into the building, a focus on empathy, and then providing the environment that is safe for them.
Suzanne Sibole: I’ve seen districts that have in-school health clinics, which I think is phenomenal. They attend to physical health, sports, physicals, reproductive health, strep throat, throat cultures, things like that, but also mental health, and they make referrals to in-house mental health professionals, school social workers, school psychologists, people who are trained and licensed to do mental health, intervention, and treatment.
Schools that have preventative programs, that are doing peer activities where the students take over and educate their peers about mental health and how common it is, introduce the statistics about adolescent mental health and try to reduce that stigma so kids are more comfortable reaching out. I think those are some really great things, too.
Mark Hansen: I think we’re being responsive to individual needs, but it’s a little bit like triage. So when the need comes up, I think we’re able to serve kids. We’re able to connect families and kids to outside providers. We become the bridge to the mental health community for kids or families that have needs. I think the identification process has become better, so we’re able to intervene more quickly than we would have in the past.
Where do schools have room for improvement in providing for students’ mental health needs?
Todd Shirley: I’ve seen fear related to standardized testing. I’ve seen that shape things and pigeonhole classrooms and force an assembly line model. That breeds a lot of anonymity. Students kind of lose their identity because they now are known as data or as a problem. That is crushing.
Equally destructive is the ratio of students to adults in the building. I know several English teachers that have 150 students that they have to grade work for. So you have students that get lost in the current system, and their mental health gets much, much worse. The best thing we can do for student mental health is increase the ratio of adults to students so it’s less anonymous, less isolating.
Ted Neitzke: We need to start to realize that high school teachers are not [just] teachers of content. [One] teacher says, “I teach American history.” And [another] teacher says, “I teach children.” I think that our teacher preparatory program needs to remind people that, while you are a content expert, you need to be a kid person.
Dorothea Gordon: We have to be intentional about our professional development, and to include all of those stakeholders, specifically teachers in the classroom. And I’m going to go back to our auxiliary personnel, our bus drivers, our cafeteria staff, our building monitors, our security team. Are we intentionally involving all of those? Are we involving our school resource officers in identifying whatever triggers that the scholars may have? I also think we need to do better in providing those community wraparound services.
Suzanne Sibole: Hiring enough staff that is well trained to know what to do when there are mental health concerns. Schools that aren’t already doing extensive training of staff could improve by bringing in experts to talk about warning signs, what to do if you see this, to understand things like, if a student has experienced domestic violence or a student has PTSD, such and such behavior on your part could be a trigger. Most teachers I’ve talked to would tell you, “Yes, we really, really need that,” because they’re nervous about this. They don’t want to do the wrong thing. And many teachers have not been trained in that.
Jim Wright: If there’s a downside right now in how schools are responding with their mental health staff, I think it’s that they tend to over-rely on direct counseling and don’t always use the full array of services that these mental health professionals can offer.
In the midst of any individual student crisis, they do a great job of scrambling to respond, but we don’t have good proactive, preventative systems in place to head off some of these issues and identify kids at risk before smaller problems cascade into larger mental health issues.
I would look at that RTI/MTSS approach, putting the psychologists, counselors, social workers right in the center of helping to design that systemic kind of school-wide approach.
Mark Hansen: Becoming more intentional around the social-emotional and academic development of all learners, teaching things like grit and resilience, treating the social and emotional development like we treat the academic development, will become increasingly critical. Failing forward has been something that doesn’t always successfully get taught. We’re really good at the academics, but how do we take care of the social-emotional development of kids? It’s increasingly critical.
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What impact does the mental health crisis have on education as a whole?
Paul O’Neill: True learning and discovering the possibilities of potential can’t be achieved if you’re not feeling safe.
Missy Brooks: It goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy. If you don’t feel safe in your building, you’re not going to be able to learn. A lot of times, we may provide a safe environment, but if they’re not feeling safe internally, if there is something that’s worrying them so much, we can’t reach them. It’s kind of like if a student is starving, well, they’re thinking more about food than they are about what we’re teaching them in science that day.
Suzanne Sibole: It’s really hard to learn when your mind is somewhere else. When you can barely get up in the morning and get out of bed and go to school, when you are feeling like a failure, thinking suicidal thoughts, anxious about school, possibly have an early onset of a psychosis — you know, students experience some of these things — how do you possibly learn and achieve in the classroom when that’s happening? But beyond that, how do you develop the social skills you need to develop as an adolescent? If you feel insecure or not good enough or suicidal or worthless, how are you going to interact with others and build those skills?
Mark Hansen: One of the drivers for me entering this profession was that as a high school student, I lost my best friend to suicide. And it has taught me lessons that drove me to become an educator to help kids.
Ultimately, that same tragedy has appeared on our doorsteps repeatedly in our community. It wasn’t that long ago that I went to my 12th funeral for suicide in a five year span. This is not okay. We’ve got to put a marker down as educational leaders and say that the dramatic rise in teen suicide in this country is a crisis. The challenge is, everything’s a crisis right now in our society. So how do we balance physical health with mental health needs? Because when you’re in a pandemic, isolation is often an unintended consequence of having to isolate from being in social contact with people.
What do schools need in order to adequately provide the kind of mental health care that students need?
Todd Shirley: More personnel. We’re getting away from the idea of one teacher with 150 students in her English classes, with 40 who need specially designed instruction, and another 15 with physical handicaps. That’s asking more than one person can do. How are people not getting missed with that?
Paul O’Neill: We need to extend beyond our district and form partnerships with local agencies who can speak with our teachers and staff so we’re prepared to use universal language to identify warning signs, have an awareness, articulate, and be able to inspire conversations.
Why can’t there be tele-screening with licensed and certificated personnel that work for a childcare agency? Consider the different experience: a kid that is in crisis and suddenly has to be put in an ambulance and taken to a hospital, versus a kid who is in crisis who can go on Zoom or Google Meet and talk to a mental health professional and receive the support they need without being rushed to a facility.
Dennis Griffin: There is training that we need, I’ll be honest. But a lot of that training has to happen within schools where we sit down with each other at a table, try to figure out a plan, then come back and say, “What can we do better?”
Far too often, we’re looking for magic bullets and we need to understand that there never was a magic bullet. Once we get rid of that mentality, I think it will open us up to be more vulnerable and have more conversations, to shift the narrative of what kids need. We fail to realize that there’s a connection between what’s happening outside and what’s coming into school. It’s building a relationship with community entities and families where we say, “Okay, here’s our pot of resources. What all can we do?” Instead of just making it a school thing, making it a community thing.
Missy Brooks: More and more kids are coming with anxiety, so I do think there’s some professional learning for districts to provide for their teachers. Teachers need to understand, “If you’ve never experienced true anxiety or depression, you don’t know what it’s really like and how debilitating it can be.”
Suzanne Sibole: I think they need buy in from staff. Find different ways for people to collaborate and be involved. Not everyone has to do something active, but if they can philosophically buy in and support the efforts of those who do want to do that, I think that’s important. We need that from administrators, we need it from all staff.
And having licensed people on staff, if you can. I know some districts’ school counselors have clinical licenses, too, and their job descriptions include both. Whenever I call a parent and say, “You know, we do have someone in school who can see your child,” they’re excited and thrilled. They need to be aware that that’s available.
Jim Wright: My big concern now is with the COVID shutdown and the associated economic recession. There are going to be real cuts to school budgets. Very often the personnel who are on the firing line for possible reduction are going to be mental health personnel.
I would advocate for this if I could, but I’m not even pushing necessarily to increase our mental health supports. I would simply want to hold on to the ones we already have.
But no matter how many mental health people we have in a school system, they can’t do it all. We have to have a plan that says, “Okay, given our existing mental health personnel, how are we going to expand the ability of that primary responder as a classroom teacher, to be able to provide that classroom support?”
Mark Hansen: We need to intentionally teach social-emotional development to every learner in our system, and having a curriculum that can be rapidly scaled out to all learners is super important.
We need to train our teachers on trauma-informed care and how we help kids that don’t have all the support structures of a traditional childhood. And how do we teach empathy and care for the adults that will then wrap around that child so they can be more successful?
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What part should people in your role play in addressing student mental health needs?
Todd Shirley: I think people in our role should be central, should be steering the ship.
My job day in and day out is to keep my hand on the pulse of the student body. That’s valuable information that can steer decision making. With the background that other school counselors and I have, education and personal experience, we are pretty equipped to work with students who are emotionally disturbed.
[School counselors] should be more central in the decision making and policy writing, because we are constantly getting information on trends. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to hear a series of things that indicate a problem across your student body. Cyberbullying didn’t exist 20 years ago. We’re in a position where we hear about that stuff the most. I hate to think of that experience, the information we’re collecting in our role, not being utilized in some way.
Paul O’Neill: We have to make sure the staff is well-equipped. If the staff is well-equipped and well-trained and well-prepared to deal with our most important clientele, the students, that’s where my function comes in.
Aside from making the students feel safe and welcome, it’s also important to make the teachers feel safe and welcome and the staff feel safe and welcome. Right now, in a time of such uncertainty, feeling safe and welcome are things that are going be difficult to establish. How are we making sure that we’re all remaining safe? And that’s not only a physical safety, but that’s a mental safety. The two work hand in hand.
April Strong: In my role, it is so important to stay continually educated. If there’s an opportunity to be trained in youth mental health, first aid, go for it. I say, take it all, so that you can have as much knowledge as possible when you’re working with a teacher, you have a full toolbox of strategies, ideas, tips, and tricks that can address the specific needs they are experiencing with the students. Knowledge is power. Hashtag #neverstoplearning!
Dennis Griffin: One of the things that I’ve always tried to do is be visible, not as an evaluator, but as a supporter. “Do you need anything?” I try to make sure I get around in the mornings and say good morning. I try to make sure I visit classrooms on a regular basis. When you do those things, you’re being proactive in eliminating some of the trauma pieces.
Dorothea Gordon: We should be their advocates. That is our role. We are to provide those resources that our scholars need in order for them to feel safe, ensuring that their basic needs are met. We’re going to make sure we have those social, emotional resources addressed first and foremost, providing those counseling services if our scholar needs them to address their mental health.
Also, connecting parents to the resources that are in the community — social workers, school social workers, school counselors — so that the family can feel safe. Our role is to be a cheerleader, letting them know, “We’re here to support you. We will get through this.”
Missy Brooks: We need to be prepared to build relationships with students. It’s more about the relationships that you build with students, rather than the content. The content will come, but it will come better if you have a relationship with them.
Mark Hansen: I liken my job to a person who has to block, plow, and pave for other people to get things to the finish line. I’m not going to be the one out there training people on QPR, but how have we prioritized the mental well-being of our kids, of our children, of our community, as the highest ranking officers in our organizations?
Are we talking about it publicly? Are we prioritizing it publicly? Are we providing training mechanisms so others who will deliver the front-facing services to kids are fully equipped? As a superintendent, am I making the health and safety of our children the number one priority of everything I do right now?
Look 5-10 years into the future. How will schools be responding to mental health needs differently from how they are right now?
Paul O’Neill: I don’t mean this in an insulting way, but in our industry we’re very good at buzzwords. We’re kings and queens of the acronym. Those are all things that we do very, very well.
We’re going to need to do more walking of our talk. We’re going to need to not only have a basic level of discussion, but it’s going to need to be identification, next steps, reflection, and then back to the table again to evaluate what’s working. There’s going to have to be frequent conversation. There’s going to have to be accountability checks, accountability partners, and aligned with the right people that are guiding us in the direction to really do the meaningful work that we need to.
April Strong: Access to more support. More access to treatment or medication, if that’s what’s necessary. The resource officers and social workers and stakeholders having a better understanding of what education means, and the educators having a better understanding of social work and officers and everything else.
Dennis Griffin: I do believe that a lot more of the colleges, teacher preparation programs, administrative programs, are going to have to make a shift at some point to help educate around trauma that kids experience.
Missy Brooks: I would hope that the entire way we do school changes. What that looks like, I’m not 100% sure. Should there be some sort of blended model? Should there be more student voice and student choice in the things that they have to do? I would hope that schools are more flexible and less, “My way or the highway.”
I think we might see different structures in place. Different kinds of scheduling, built-in time in the schedule for building relationships and not just going to class for content.
Suzanne Sibole: I think they’ll be better prepared. I really do. I think the COVID crisis has served as an impetus to get people more prepared. I think they’ll start to see, “These are some gaps that we have, and we need to do something about this,” so they’ll collaborate more, maybe look at other districts who have things in place.
I think they’re kind of scared, a lot of districts. That fear is a great motivator, generally. And I think it will push schools to have more staff, to have that staff be better prepared, to know what to look for, to network and have memoranda of understanding with agencies in the area to either come into the school or to be a referral resource. I really see that happening.
Jim Wright: I don’t know that I would have had an easy answer for that before COVID, but when I saw how quickly some school systems have adapted to online learning, I can really see a place for online mental health support as well.
One of the great barriers to getting high quality mental health services to kids is simply having good qualified personnel available. If we can find a way, whether it’s group counseling or individual check-ins, obviously with a high level of computer security, to be able to deliver those services remotely to our students, I see that as being an area of real growth.
I’m hoping we’ll also see more systematically the adaptation for behavior and social emotional concerns of that structured RTI/MTSS approach. Many schools have adapted it for academics. We’re still in the learning stages of adapting it for behavior and social emotional, but think about what that implies. Schoolwide we’ll have screening tools for social emotional concerns, proactively identify kids before it becomes a crisis, plug those students into schoolwide supports in a way that will often head off greater crisis problems down the line.
Mark Hansen: We’re going to have a good blend of proactive strategy and triage strategy. We’re going to have a safety net built for all kids. And when that net doesn’t necessarily serve all kids, we will have strategies that keep all kids safe all the time.
Ted Neitzke: Oh man, that’s going to be exciting. Five years from now, with the amount of focus on the whole child, making sure that each kid has what they need in order to be successful, and a significant infusion of empathy, and then developmental understandings for those children? That’s going to be awesome. And as long as we can maintain that core focus and break the stereotypes that kids and adults who struggle with mental illness aren’t broken — right? They’re just sprained — that will be great. That takes a mindset shift, a cultural shift, and an understanding. And that takes time.
The teachers coming out of school right now understand mental health. The teachers who are in schools really get that, “Wow, this is a real thing.”
These kids can be amazing. I think that we are living in a time when we are observing the greatest generation of Americans currently in our schools. They’re more understanding of other people, generation Z. They’re more empathetic than any other generation. They are more caring. They’re more accepting. I think we’re living in some amazing times and it’s only going to get better.
If you could snap your fingers and make one change immediately to better meet students’ mental health needs — or help school leaders and personnel meet those needs — what would it be?
Todd Shirley: I would prioritize sleep among personnel and students. If I had my way, you would no longer see teachers, counselors, principals coming into school with these giant caffeinated drinks. I see the health of a lot of teachers really deteriorate, and everyone talks about being sleep deprived. It has a huge influence on mental health and quality of instruction that is typically ignored.
We’re all operating on credit because we’re all tired. Biologically, the antiquated bell system and the school hours of a school day do not fit with students. Additionally, I wish a lot of students had an extra year or two of education before they entered the working world, because their brains just aren’t ready yet.
We’re going too fast with things and sleep is suffering. It’s kind of like if we were training Olympic runners but we were giving them cigarettes regularly. That’s what we’re doing with the school system, where we’re putting all those demands on them and we’re making it harder for them to get a good night of sleep.
The other thing, if I could snap my fingers, is anything to make the experience of school less anonymous and to keep the ratio of students to teachers closer to an ideal standard of maybe 1:20, or 1:15 even. If I had the ability to do that, I would do that tomorrow. And I think all these other changes we would hope to see would fall into place if we had that.
Paul O’Neill: I think the biggest thing, if I had a magic wand, is a resurgence of a focus on the total, whole child. We’ve got to think of the whole picture, just not what that kid brings to the table as a test score or as a placement. “We have 30 kids in AP history. We have this many kids who are advanced, proficient.” All of those things are important. I’m not minimizing any of them. But in order to achieve those lofty achievement goals that are more academic, we’ve got to make sure that these kids are okay.
Mark Hansen: By the end of third grade, every child is a proficient reader.
Ted Neitzke: I guess my snap would be an immediate emergency mindset in the community to engage resources and strategies so people are working together. Right now we’re working siloed in isolation, and really, really good things are happening. But there is a lot of power and confluence when you bring together all of these different groups, when the county and the city and the nonprofits and the schools are all on the same page and can park their egos.
April Strong: That [mental health] would be an acceptable topic. That we’re not ashamed. We’re not hiding. We’re not afraid to say that “I feel this,” or “My sister, brother, mother, whoever, is going through that.” I wish that we got to a place where it’s, “How are you?” And if the answer is “Not good,” the next question is, “What can I do?” Or knowing the resource to connect to. I would love for that stigma to be gone.
Dennis Griffin: I would snap my fingers and I would embed a greater sense of empathy within everyone. Without the ability to understand another person, you can’t connect. Without the ability to take the time to say, “I appreciate who you are right now, but I am here to learn from you to learn with you and for us both to evolve,” it takes a high level of empathy and you can’t rush that.
Dorothea Gordon: Feeding our scholars. They cannot learn if they’re hungry. They cannot learn if that basic need is not met. I would ensure that we had some type of food pantry, if not on every campus, available within the district, maybe one or two, maybe three, depending on the size of the district, where our families can have access to the food. They need to feed their brain in order for us to get about the business of serving them and teaching them.
Missy Brooks: Honestly, if I could snap my fingers, I would love to have somebody fully dedicated to mental health in every one of my buildings so that as things arose, they could work with a counselor, they could work with the teacher, they could work with parents. Right now I think there’s a piecemeal approach to that, and if you had someone in the building that knew the kids, that knew the structure of the day, that knew those things, I think it would make a huge difference.
When we put School Resource Officers in every single building, the cool thing about that is the kids really began to build relationships with that SRO. It’s not just a police officer in our building, it’s, “You’re a part of us. You’re part of our family,” and that’s been really cool to see. I would hope that the same thing could happen with a mental health provider.
Suzanne Sibole: I would like to have a climate of greater empathy in a school, where everyone understands or at least listens to and is open to learning about others’ challenges and differences.
Jim Wright: When I think about the strongest and most empathic and most effective teachers, and how very often they’re able to help students with real mental health issues to really find success in the classroom, I would want every teacher to have the appropriate toolkit to be able to competently and comfortably manage many of the mental health issues that kids bring into classrooms. And I’m not trying to say this is beyond imagining, because many teachers do this already, but if I could take that sensitive, appropriate, in-the-moment, supportive performance of our strongest teachers and make that the routine toolkit for every teacher, that would be what I would ask for. Because obviously when kids struggle, they’re often struggling in classrooms. Those classroom teachers have such potential to be that empathic, connecting person.