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Unpacking the recent education department resource on student mental, emotional, and behavioral health

Unpacking the recent education department resource on student mental emotional and behavioral health

Student and educator emotional and mental health was already fragile pre-pandemic. In light of what has taken place (and not taken place) over the past 18 months, this situation for many individuals and communities has passed the breaking point.

To help in the process of picking up the pieces and reconstructing, the U.S. Department of Education released Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral and Mental Health earlier this month. This resource-packed guidance document is aimed toward states, school and community systems and educators with the intention of helping them promote mental, emotional and behavioral health for children and students from early childhood to higher education. It lays out seven challenges to delivering the support necessary, seven sets of corresponding practice and research-based recommendations and finally projects and initiatives working right now to address these challenges.

Policy makers and professionals within the education system have already recognized the serious impact of isolation, anxiety and loss related to the COVID 19 pandemic on student mental and emotional health. Washington State Governor Inslee declared a State of Emergency in February 2021, stating, “Although we have, for the time being, averted the crisis of overwhelming hospital capacity related to COVID-19 cases, we are in the midst of another crisis related to the mental health of many of our children and youth.”

One CDC report on emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts showed that for girls aged 12–17, visits were over 50% higher from February to March 2021 than during the same period in 2019. Young people from traditionally marginalized communities have been disproportionately affected. Despite emerging evidence that illustrates the extent of the problem, no increase in evidence-based mental health services has yet been made on a systemic level to meet the augmented student caseload. However, efforts like this one spell hope for change.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona urges action. “Our efforts as educators must go beyond literacy, math, history, science and other core subjects to include helping students to build the social, emotional and behavioral skills they will need to fully access and participate in learning and make the most of their potential and future opportunities,” said Cardona in the press release. “Amid the pandemic, we know that our students have experienced so much. We can’t unlock students’ potential unless we also address the needs they bring with them to the classroom each day. As educators, it’s our responsibility to ensure that we are helping to provide students with a strong social and emotional foundation so that they also can excel academically.”

Can education technology support districts in improving mental health for students and staff?

Alongside more acute trauma during these past months, day-to-day annoyances have contributed to the unsettled feeling many students and educators report experiencing. Not to be minimized is the impact, both positive and negative, that remote education and the sudden migration by many districts to digital learning has had on students, families and teachers. 

As technology plays an increasingly central role in education, some critics warn states and local school jurisdictions to be cautious about spending on unproven technology as they invest their share of the $122 billion in funding supplied through ARP ESSER, along with other rescue dollars. One concern, based on past errors, is that such investments over time will do little to improve student mental health and academic achievement. 

Here we unpack each Department recommendation and action steps as they apply to K-12 schools. Additionally, we examine where education technology can play a role in helping schools support student and educator social-emotional learning (SEL), which helps cultivate skills and environments that advance students’ learning and development.

1. Wellness must be a priority for each child, educator and provider

Prioritizing wellness within the entire education community is how the guidance recommends schools address the first challenge of increasing mental health needs and disparities among student groups. Researchers encourage schools to focus on specific strategies and differentiated support to meet the distinct needs of all children and students, including those with disabilities and from underserved populations who are disproportionately at higher risk for experiencing harassment, discrimination, mental health challenges and barriers to effective mental healthcare. Additionally when learning in general is more student-centered, it gives learners a voice and enables them to be an important part of the learning process, which supports their emotional wellbeing.

Educators’ mental health is also a critical consideration, both for their own sake and because students are heavily influenced by their teachers on a daily basis. Burnt-out teachers, pushed beyond their limits and without adequate support, are less available emotionally and mentally for their students. 

Challenge 1: Action items 
  • Conduct educator well-being assessments.
  • Establish a realistic workload and student-to-teacher ratio.
  • Provide time for debriefing after stressful days.
  • Collaborate with other educators on lesson planning and curriculum.
  • Use time-saving tools that improve the quality of student instruction.
Tips for meeting the challenge
  • Become familiar with population-specific challenges in mental health based on disability, school level, race, socio-economic status, language, color, national origin, ethnicity, or immigration status, gender, LGBTQI+ status and religious identity. 
  • Find ways to reduce teacher workload without decreasing the quality of instruction, which helps enable a better life-work balance and social emotional health. 
  • Streamline and reduce time-consuming tasks for educators through technology and collaboration. Not only does this reduce teacher stress and burnout, but helps free up more time and energy to engage directly with students, notes Adelee Penner, learning facilitator with Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium. 
  • Employ a learning management system (LMS) designed specifically for K-12 learning to aid educators in facilitating specific strategies and differentiating learning and support for students. Robert Long, director of Ottawa Catholic School Board, warns that that the vast majority of LMS are designed with post secondary, not K-12 students in mind.

2. Enhance mental health literacy, reduce stigma and other barriers to access

The second challenge is perceived stigma surrounding mental health. This is a primary reason many people do not seek nor accept treatment for their mental health needs. Among other outcomes, unmet mental health needs are linked to a higher risk of self-harm and suicide. In the classroom, unmet mental health needs often play out in disruptive behavior. When the response to this behavior is exclusionary discipline, it decreases the likelihood that these students receive much needed social and emotional support at school. 

It is imperative to build mental health literacy throughout the education community which includes shifting erroneous attitudes and perceptions about mental and emotional health. On the individual classroom and systemic level, discriminatory practices which disproportionately affect students who struggle with mental health challenges, must be eliminated. 

Challenge 2: Action items 
  • Model understanding and appreciation for mental health and related challenges. 
  • Educate students and teachers about mental health issues and how to identify them.
  • Take advantage of wellness campaigns, informational websites and embedding services within education programs to help educators and staff know how to look for signs of social, emotional and behavioral needs.
  • Look for behavior and mood changes in children, students and staff.
  • Be explicit about ways to get help and create a positive process for teachers and providers to seek assistance
Tips for meeting the challenge for students with special needs 

Children and youth with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by misconceptions around mental health.  As evident during the pandemic, physical presence and face-to-face communication is irreplaceable in teaching and when supporting students with disabilities. Yet with some learners, educators are able to communicate directly and discreetly with students using technology. In the classroom teachers can offer individualized instruction and ADA supports that appear on the student’s screen without peers having to know. This can greatly aid in the student not feeling singled out for learning differently. 

For all students including children with disabilities, Adelle Penner advocates for students being given choice and voice in their education. “Having choice as a student learner means I can actually contribute to my own learning environment. I can reduce the stigma because I can show what I know, understand and can do in the way that works for me.” It is up to educators and administration to support educators in creating space for student agency and choosing educational tools that make it easier.

3. Implement a continuum of evidence-based prevention practices

To prevent ineffective learning practices, the Department recommends adding evidence-based practices that follow a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS), which promotes a more organized and effective structure for schools and districts. As part of their core mission, schools should ensure that all students have access to primary prevention (tier 1) supports which establish a positive, predictable and safe school environment. 

Practices such as positive greetings in the morning, individualized support systems and predictable and consistent routines can help create a less stressful atmosphere for learning. A mindfulness-based practice can also be adopted to teach students resilience and other coping skills. Combining SEL and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) has been linked by research to increased improvements in overall mental health.

Challenge 3: Action items for educators
  • Establish consistent and predictable routines
  • Reinforce a few positive expectations through clear teaching and prompting
  • Deliver engaging and culturally-relevant academic instruction
  • Provide specific and supportive feedback. 
Tips for meeting the challenge
  • Provide students with a consistent interface when working digitally to reduce anxiety, confusion and unnecessary stress. Students share that the Hāpara Student Dashboard has helped them organize, structure and schedule their assignments. Meanwhile it supports their executive functioning around making decisions, setting goals, and being responsible for their own learning.
  • Use messaging tools to facilitate clear direction and communication from instructors. 
  • Use a dashboard tool to manage daily routines, streamline grading and scheduling and provide student feedback. 

4. Establish an interconnected educational, social, emotional and behavioral-health framework 

One way to address the challenge of fragmented delivery systems is by creating positive learning and social environments at school. These are linked to children feeling safer, learning better and developing more authentic trusting relationships with classmates and adults. The guidance suggests integrating practices within an MTSS framework. This may include giving students time to communicate and socialize with their peers, prioritizing time for explicit instruction during class time as well as designing a system of support run by kids, teachers or family members in the community.

Research demonstrates benefits in integrating education with mental health support such as social emotional learning (SEL). “SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships and make responsible and caring decisions,” per the CASEL 5 framework website. Teachers using RULER, the Yale center’s approach for teaching SEL competencies, model for students the ability to recognize, understand, label, express and regulate their emotions in all interactions.  

Challenge 4: action items
  1. Prioritize time for explicit instruction and support around social, emotional and behavioral health
  2. Integrate social, emotional and behavioral health practices within academic content
  3. Include SEL for educators as part of professional development
Tips for meeting the challenge

Addressing whether ed tech can help promote social emotional learning, Jorge Valenzuela, nationally renowned educational coach, curriculum specialist and author, notes that ed tech tools can definitely be used to promote SEL when teachers use them to augment lessons if activities with tools are framed correctly. For example, using Jamboard or Nearpod as reflection tools or Zoom breakout rooms for collaboration can help boost social emotional learning. All these tools and more can be embedded in Hāpara Workspace to give students a single, easy-to-use platform for learning.

“Nothing is perfect. That includes ed tech. However, before anything becomes a mindset, it must be a framework first. Using evidence-based strategies and vetted educational protocols for teaching and learning provides teachers the needed frameworks or recipes for helping young people with critical SEL,” explains Valenzuela.

5. Leverage policy and funding

Policy and funding gaps gravely impact students’ mental health because they are not able to get the help they need. Many children with documented mental health needs with no or limited no services. 

There is also a gap in strong and effective policy to get rid of harmful disciplinary practices like zero tolerance, corporal punishment and seclusion, which disproportionally affect chidren of color and children with disabilities. Unfortunately, not all states implement policies that prohibit inappropriate disciplinary practices like seclusion and restraint. 

Challenge 5: Action items 
  • Implementing support groups and making sure school policies align with the students’ mental health requirements.  
  • Unite with other educators to advocate for expanded funding for mental health
  • Share success stories of innovative programs with policy makers to influence future decision making.

6. Enhance workforce capacity to address gaps in support

Gaps in professional development and support in schools largely affect students from underserved groups who are less likely to seek social or emotional help outside of school. To address this lack of mental health support, funds from ARP and ESSR should go to onboarding additional mental health specialists such as social workers, psychologists and counselors. 

For children with intensive mental health needs, more well-trained and experienced clinicians are necessary, whether they are school or community-based. However, to respond to the general social, emotional and behavioral needs of all students, school and program staff should be trained to support and respond to them as an integrated part of teaching and learning. They also should be aware of communication and collaboration strategies to cope with clinicians for more intensive mental health needs.

Additionally all staff should be trained in promotion and prevention (tier 1), as well as early intervention (tier 2) programming. Ongoing coaching further deepens teachers’ mental health knowledge.

Challenge 6: Action items 
  • Partner with community mental health providers to seek outside support for students and teachers. 
  • Make sure mental health clinicians are visible and accessible to school personnel.
  • Provide time for planning and collaboration to align educational social-emotional approach to instruction.
  • Expand functions of existing school and district-level staff to deliver comprehensive mental health support where their skills align with need.
Tips on collaboration across disciplines 

Technology can support counselor and teacher collaboration. Adelee Penner shares that such collaborations can support mental health as well as contribute to learning. She recently observed how teachers were using language as they asked students to attend to their work and meet their goals in the Hāpara Workspace, a platform where teachers and learners create highly personalized learning experiences that deepen collaboration and differentiation. She discovered that by changing some of the context, teachers changed the entire culture of that particular Workspace. An example of collaboration in a digital space could be a counselor observing and coaching teachers on the language they are using, as well as how lesson tasks are being designed, which can improve how students respond and view the work they are doing. 

7. Base decision making on data to promote equitable implementation and outcomes

Accurate data allows schools to make informed decisions on mental health and academic needs, and can be used to plan programs for students. Constantly analyzing and keeping track of data helps support the mental health requirements of students and teachers. Unfortunately, schools encounter several barriers to collecting and assessing usable data on their efforts. Among other things schools and districts struggle with while monitoring student progress in respect to program involvement include: documenting how programs are impacting student progress on the social, emotional, behavioral and academic levels, employing this data to refine, strengthen and scale up successful programs and taking steps toward replacing or eliminating those that are not working. 

Challenge 7: Action items for districts
  • Establish measurable goals of desired mental health outcomes.
  • Review data before school begins and throughout the school year to strengthen school-wide prevention efforts.
  • Adopt a structured and comprehensive universal screening process to look for early indicators of student social, emotional and behavioral strengths and concerns.
  • Train all school or program personnel to recognize mental health risk factors and to apply universal screening for every student three times a year.
Tips for meeting the challenge
  • Used with caution, web filters can support districts in suicide prevention. 
  • Use tally sheets at the classroom level to determine which expectations students show the most difficulty meeting. 
  • Promote accountability across all levels of the school system as child well-being is foundational  to both ensuring and enhancing full access to education.

Moving forward intentionally

As states around the country begin investing rescue dollars, data compiled by FutureEd on education recovery plans submitted to the Department of Education shows that 40 states have pledged to address the social-emotional and mental health needs of students. 

Funding is now available. There are plenty of successful programs and evidence-based research to guide the way. We should not miss this unique opportunity to set up functional and sustainable mental health supports that include nurturing K-12 educational environments for all the nation’s children and youth.

Explore SEL strategies that will help you create a more positive and equitable school and district culture.

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