‘Somebody cares’: How schools are helping with student well-being

The group is one way that Ms. Truluck, a counselor at Palmer Middle School in Kennesaw, Georgia, reaches out to students experiencing heightened loneliness or other mental health concerns stemming from changes to their lives in the past year. She and her colleagues also run a popular stress busters group, host a book club, and run virtual lunch sessions featuring games and music.  

“Anything that facilitates connections with students” is critical this year, says Ms. Truluck, who was selected as the 2019 Georgia school counselor of the year.  

A year after schools shuttered in response to the coronavirus pandemic, educators are increasingly vocal about mental health challenges and meeting student wellness needs. More schools are incorporating discussions about well-being into the school day and are training staff and students to recognize distress and how to get help. Leaders are making tough choices, like giving up buying new furniture in order to hire more social workers. Schools are also offering students some agency – allowing them to take the lead in delivering support and instruction. Educators hope the efforts will offer lifelong support.

“I think there will be a resiliency out of this generation of students who have lived through this,” says Susan Arvidson, a lead school counselor for St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. “That will be their strength, to lead us in the next generation because they’ve been through something so difficult.”

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Ongoing research reflects how students are faring. A survey released in January by YouthTruth, a nonprofit, found that older elementary and secondary students identified depression, anxiety, and stress as their top obstacles to learning. Students identifying as Black or African American, or as Hispanic or Latinx, reported more obstacles to learning. Last week, a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly a quarter of parents whose children (ages 5 to 12) are learning remotely or through hybrid instruction report their children are experiencing worsened mental or emotional health since the pandemic began. Just over 15% of parents with students in school full time reported their children had worse mental health. 

Before the pandemic, momentum existed in some places to address student mental health needs, with calls from politicians and educators growing now. State legislatures in Texas and Michigan are considering bills aimed at student wellness – requiring mental health classes and increasing the number of counselors, respectively. And Chicago Public Schools announced on Monday it will spend $24 million over the next three years on an initiative that will bring a behavioral health team to each school to address student, staff, and family wellness. 

Federal funds for education in the three COVID-19 stimulus relief packages passed in the past year stipulate that the money can be used by K-12 districts for student mental health support. The most recent American Rescue Plan provides $122 billion for public K-12 education, with state and local school districts given flexibility on how much they choose to spend on mental health. 

Hiring more staff to help with everything from leading small groups to finding missing students is often a priority for districts. The average school counselor in the United States is responsible for 450 students – well above the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommendation of 1 to 250.

Some districts and individual schools have been addressing shortages throughout the pandemic: Dallas Independent School District hired more school mental health professionals this past year and College Achieve Asbury, a charter school in New Jersey, sacrificed new furniture in order to hire more social workers. 

More push to teach directly

Along with adding staff, schools have also been considering how to build lessons that support well-being into the school day. Incorporating social and emotional learning in classrooms has been a trend for years, but educators appear to be turning to such practices more during the pandemic. In a fall 2020 ASCA survey, 63% of school counselors reported spending more time on social and emotional learning over the past year.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning – the organization that defined social and emotional learning more than 20 years ago – has received an increase in requests for support from districts and states since the pandemic began, says Karen VanAusdal, senior director of practice. 

Social and emotional learning isn’t intended to take time away from academics, says Ms. VanAusdal, but is grounded in studies showing learning is more effective when students are self-aware, can regulate themselves, and have strong relationships with teachers and peers. 

“If you just … double down and spend more time on math and reading, it won’t accelerate the learning as it would if you were integrating social-emotional and academic learning together,” she says.  

Some observers say schools need to be more focused on measuring and tracking student wellness. An analysis of 477 school districts in the fall of 2020 by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that while 66% of the schools’ remote learning and reopening plans mentioned students’ social and emotional well-being, only 7% had a systemwide approach to collecting data on student well-being.

At Ridgeview Charter Middle School in Sandy Springs, Georgia, just north of Atlanta, administrators chose to add a formal social and emotional program this school year. Counselors work with teachers to deliver lessons on topics like perseverance and problem-solving. 

“It’s our job to do everything we can to support that student so they are ready to learn,” says Kathleen McCaffrey, an assistant principal at the school.

In Minnesota, St. Paul Public Schools has been bringing students back to the classroom since February. Elementary students, the first to return, were excited to see their friends, says Ms. Arvidson, who works at the district level training school counselors. But staff are spotting students with lagging social skills, decreased academic stamina, and problems staying in chairs. 

“We can’t just bring them back to school and pour in math problems without giving them time and space to process what’s going on,” she says. 

“Somebody cares”

Ms. Truluck, the counselor at Palmer Middle School in Georgia, found student emotional health improved after school resumed in person five days a week last fall. But about 35% of students remain learning virtually and Ms. Truluck stays especially attuned to their needs, since many say they miss seeing friends and teachers in person. She arranges small group sessions with multiple computers and cameras so that the students in person and remotely can see each other well.  

At the end of last school year, 90% of students who participated in the school’s stress busters group reported decreased stress levels from learning coping skills, according to Ms. Truluck – and their school attendance levels increased.

“Seeing my counselor and talking helps me relax and feel like somebody cares about what I feel like,” wrote one student about the stress busters group this year in a handwritten note.  

Middle school populations can sometimes be more vulnerable, given where students are in their transition to adulthood. Some middle schools are letting them lead the conversations about mental health. In Jacksonville, Florida, students asked to make a short video after seeing other materials created by the district’s central office and realizing they might be able to better connect with their peers. In the recording, filmed and scripted by students at Mandarin Middle School, kids gaze into the camera and cheerfully offer their “top 10 stress busting tips.” 

One student advises her peers to decrease negative self-talk: “‘My life will never get better’ could be transformed into ‘I may feel pressured now, but things can get better if I work at it and ask for help,’” she says. 

The video, produced just prior to the pandemic, was shown at all middle schools throughout Duval County Public Schools last spring. It is part of a Wellness Wednesdays initiative started in 2019 – the year after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida – in which all middle and high school classes pause once a month for 30 minutes of mental health instruction. The video will be shown again to all sixth grade students this spring, with student conversations afterward.

The district has seen a slight increase in depression and anxiety diagnoses and a rise in reports of suicidal thoughts or attempts since the pandemic began, says Katrina Taylor, director of school behavioral health. 

Duval County Public Schools has provided youth mental health first aid training to 4,000 out of 13,000 staff members so they can assess student risk of suicide, with plans to eventually expand the training to all employees. The district also plans to keep offering virtual mental health counseling sessions over the summer so school therapists can connect with students who travel.

“Now that we have the virtual tools, they can be at auntie’s house in Atlanta and we can still provide those services,” says Ms. Taylor. 

Parents need help, too

Schools can’t help students without working with parents as partners, many educators say, and the pandemic has bound teachers and parents closer together than ever before.  

Even before the pandemic, school staff often worked with parents to let them know that mental health struggles aren’t a poor reflection of their parenting, says Ms. Taylor. Her Florida district sent parents of elementary-aged children a book of calming techniques, like breathing exercises, that parents can do at home with their children. 

Brad Glenn, a parent of a seventh grade student at Ridgeview Charter Middle School in Georgia and an elected member of the school’s governing council, says school administrators listened to parents and took student mental health into consideration when they changed their remote learning schedule earlier in the year to give students more time off their screens. 

Now, he’s working with the school district to try and find a safe way to run intramural athletics to replace a canceled sports season. “Now more than ever it seems so important to get out, get a little physical exercise. You get that mental exercise and the social and emotional, too,” he says. 

For Ms. Truluck, the counselor, this year has reinforced why she enjoys teaching coping skills to her students. She guides students to recognize their interests and discover what helps them feel calm, activities such as journaling, sports, art or music therapy, or spending time with family. 

“Whatever resonates with them and helps them decompress after a long day of remote learning or school, that’s what we really encourage, so they can find what works for them,” she says. “It’s helping them now, but also in life down the road.”

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