An EAB (the organization formerly known as the Education Advisory Board) survey released in February 2020—before the impact of COVID-19 drastically increased the need for mental health supports—found that while schools are the de facto providers for mental health services for youth, many don’t have the capacity to meet the needs, primarily due to a lack of qualified service providers. The report included four primary recommendations for schools to address the needs (Prothero, 2020):
1. Use virtual treatment options such as telepsychiatry to fill gaps in areas where mental health providers are scarce.
2. Have a thorough plan for reintegrating students back into school life following a mental health-related leave of absence.
3. Create "early warning" systems through trainings and partnerships that help school staff identify students in need.
4. Have ongoing mental health awareness campaigns throughout the year.
While many human experiences are universal, it is rare that the entire nation and the world has a shared sense of stress and grief in the exact same time frame. This shared experience means that all of us will return to school in the fall having suffered; however, not all suffered equally. Metaphorically, we were all in the same storm, but some weathered it in the comforts of a yacht while others furiously paddled over the waves as they were pelted by rain in their canoes.
The COVID-19 pandemic uncovered a level of inequity that has existed for many years and in many ways, but many of us could not see it until we learned about families who relied on schoolprovisioned free or reduced lunch who suddenly had no food in their cupboards, for example. While almost everyone suffered during this public health crisis, those who had less before, have even less now and need our support in even greater ways—with the basic needs that are building blocks to well-being as well as access to quality mental health services.
For schools already stretched thin, partnering with families and community and civic organizations may provide that essential support. Consider turning to local churches, student support groups, and nonprofit foundations to obtain additional support. However, make sure to be attuned to the ways families may or may not already be affiliated within their communities, also realizing that not all student and family needs will be obvious to you at first. Identifying these resources, among others in the community, ahead of hearing about them from students and families is an essential task in preparing to return to school.
Professional Development to be most effective during these transitions, school staff will likely need to gain some new skills and some new awareness or education about particular issues and will rely on their leadership for direction. Certainly, skills related to technology use and online learning are critical. However, teachers who have an expanded toolkit for connecting with students, addressing equity, demonstrating empathetic support, knowing where community and school resources are, and designing learning activities to strengthen student and family resiliency will be positioned to provide valuable guidance to students and families. During the next few months, professional development activities that help staff understand how they can be the lever for uplifting students and families will help set the stage for greater progress in mental health, resilience, and learning domains.
Teaching coping and resiliency skills to all students schools can work together with community organizations and family members to build programs that bring caring adults into the school building to work one-on-one with students to build essential stress-coping and resiliency skills. Administrators can also invest in social emotional learning (SEL) programs that teach these skills in structured, evidence-based curricula. The most popular programs in New England include:
• Zones of Regulation
• Second Step
• Conscious Discipline
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has a program guide that can help schools weigh different factors of SEL programs when choosing a program for their school community. Cost is often the biggest barrier to implementing such programs. Thankfully, there are many free valuable resources online to guide schools in providing SEL instruction and coping with this “new normal," including Mental Health Technology Transfer Center School Mental Health regional and national resources, and this Edutopia article written by a special education teacher that includes free printable worksheets to complement a four-step process to building resilience in students (Lew, 2018)
Adapted from Michele Lew’s “A 4-Step Process for Building Student Resilience” in Edutopia
1. Teach students to identify their stressors.
2. Identify what students normally do when presented with their stressors.
3. Brainstorm alternative ways to respond to stressors.
4. Provide practical application and maintenance to coping skills.
By design, schools are uniquely positioned to provide what community mental health providers cannot: Early identification of trauma or stress, and initial prevention efforts. Taken in turn with the fact that most youth who are receiving some sort of social emotional support or counseling are receiving it in school, schools have a particular responsibility to increase prosocial support and prevention efforts to mitigate some of those potential outpatient referrals before they reach the point of crisis (National Association of School Psychologists, 2015).
Foster Resilience in Students To be even more effective with SEL instruction, in addition to direct instruction of these skills, schools can weave SEL components into regular classroom lessons. For example, during a history lesson about civil rights, the concepts of empathy and compassion can be examined, in addition to issues of equity, racism, and injustice. We explore this idea and more in the book Mindfulness Practices: Cultivating Heart Centered Communities Where Students Focus and Flourish (Mason, Rivers Murphy, & Jackson, 2019).