Back to School: How to Start the Year Off Right
By Lucille Carr-Kaffashan, Ph.D.
Students returned to the classroom this fall with a mix of emotions more powerful than the usual melancholy about the ending of summer. After two and a half years of disruption and uncertainty, some students eagerly anticipated a further return to “normalcy” while others faced the new school year with significant distress related to increased academic, social, and behavioral demands.
At the same time, adults began the new school year with their own stress and ambivalence. Teachers and other school personnel, still weary from the difficulties associated with educating students during a pandemic, face the challenge of helping students catch up academically while at the same time addressing growing social and mental health problems. Parents and guardians have anticipated the new school year with fingers crossed: that school will stay in session despite the risk of COVID rates surging in the fall and winter, that their children will remain safe, and that their children’s stress levels will not lead to or exacerbate learning, behavioral, and/or emotional problems.
So, what can be done to mitigate these very real concerns?
The Scope of the Problem
School professionals are acutely aware that children’s mental health problems have been steadily increasing over the last decade, so much so that the US Surgeon General issued a rare public health advisory and call to action this past December. Mental Health America (MHA) recently released some screening statistics that underscore this sense of urgency: during the first half of 2022, 82% (N=662,823) of children under 18 screened at risk for a mental health condition. In June 2022, 56% (N= 3,850) of 11–13-year-olds who took a depression screen reported experiencing frequent suicidal ideation, which was the highest rate of any age group. According to the CDC, in 2019 9% of high school students reported attempting suicide in the prior 12 months compared with 6.3% in 2009, and since the start of the pandemic, there has been a 31% increase in emergency rooms visits for suspected suicide attempts among people ages 12 to 25.
Adding to the country’s mental health crisis is that despite significantly increased demand for services, there is a critical shortage of trained mental health professionals. Not unlike educators and other health professionals, some weary mental health practitioners have left the field or retired early. And while several states are offering financial and other incentives to fill or accelerate the training pipeline, and telehealth restrictions have been loosened, there continues to be long waits for service across the country.
At the same time, although many districts across the country have allocated newly available funding to create or enhance school-based mental health services, vibrant mental health programs do not simply appear overnight. And just like in the community-at-large, for many schools the need exceeds the available resources.
What School Professionals Should Know About the Sources of Student Stress
In its recently released Back to School Toolkit, MHA discusses several factors that can negatively impact the mental health of a young person. These include:
- The lingering effects of the pandemic, including the ongoing risk of infection from newer strains of the disease, the ongoing financial strain experienced by many families, and coping with the many losses associated with it.
- Gun violence, including both the very real safety concerns within our schools and the social divisiveness about how to address the problem.
- Social unrest fueled by extreme political views, racism, and a growing lack of respect and tolerance for those with different opinions, perspectives, experiences, etc.
- The still not fully understood effects of growing up in a world dominated by electronic devices and the participation in social media.
- Grief associated with both pandemic-related and other losses.
- Difficult home circumstances and living in dangerous/deprived communities.
- Insecurity and feelings of disconnection from both peers and teachers, especially in the context of extensive social media involvement and the long period of pandemic-imposed isolation.
Except for adapting to illnesses and death related to the pandemic, and to the extended period of isolation, none of these factors are new, of course. For many students, however, their pre-existing mental, emotional, and behavioral problems have intensified. Teachers can expect to see greater anxiety, sadness, fearfulness, aggression (including participating in bullying behavior), and school avoidance as well as increased sensitivity to triggers by those children with trauma histories.
In its recently released Back-to-School tip sheet, NAMI advises teachers and parents to expect a lot of mixed feelings and reactions. Younger students may experience heightened separation anxiety after having extended time at home with their parents and have more difficulty adapting to the rules and conventions of the classroom. Students with little privacy at home, or from high-stress families, may find it a relief to be back at school amongst peers and supportive teachers. Students who have experienced bullying or racism, or who live with autism or with severe social anxiety, may dread the return to the classroom, to the cafeteria, to the bus, to the playground. As always, attention to the needs of each individual child is what’s called for.
NAMI also cautions that while it is likely that most students will experience some anxiety and sadness, it is important to learn to differentiate these reactions from serious mental health disorders. They advise keeping an eye out for students who are increasingly more socially withdrawn, are missing multiple days of school, are falling behind academically, or who are expressing an interest in death, self-harm, or suicide.
Districts Can Identify a Plan for Each Source of Student Stress
Teachers, school counselors, and administrators can use the list of factors discussed by MHA to create a checklist of possible ways to support struggling students and their families as well as the entire school community.
Lingering effects of the pandemic
- School personnel should reassure students that health and safety protocols are still in place, and frequently remind them about good health practices like handwashing, etc.
- Teachers can ask both students and caregivers about what pandemic-related losses and ongoing stressors have affected their families and encourage students to share their questions and feelings as they come up.
- Despite occasional disruptions still to come, school personnel should establish and closely follow routines and structures to help ground uneasy students.
- The beginning of the school year brings with it the opportunity to review school security procedures and to re-train both students and staff about safety protocols.
- The district’s protocols and resources for conducting crisis evaluations and threat assessments should be updated and communicated.
- Relationships with community ER and mental health agencies and with local law enforcement leaders can be revisited and renewed.
- Administrators can re-assess Tier 1 MTSS services, expanding and/or refining screening measures where appropriate.
- Professional development about how to talk to children about gun violence can be offered.
- Tolerance/appreciation for differences, listening skills, and conflict resolution skills can be incorporated throughout the curriculum.
- Schools can sponsor cultural appreciation events and teachers can invite students to share their cultural traditions in the context of classroom discussions/activities.
- Since current social unrest can undermine a sense of safety, it is critical that districts revisit anti-bullying protocols, and ensure that they are vigorously enforced.
The Dominance of Technology and Social Media
- Experts on the benefits and pitfalls of technology can be invited to address both parents and students.
- Workshops to help parents learn how to monitor their children’s devices and social media usage can be offered.
- Local law enforcement officials can be invited to speak with students about the risks and laws associated with electronically sharing sexually explicit material.
- A curriculum to teach students responsible, safe, and balanced use of technology can be developed.
- School personnel can have discussions about what they model for students regarding the use of phones and other devices with a goal of being more intentional about it. What boundaries or lack of boundaries are being modeled? Teachers can plan “unplugged” segments of each class when all electronic devices are shut down while individuals talk to one another about the day’s lesson. Some class assignments can be crafted in such a way that specifically require other ways of communicating and gathering information.
Coping with Grief
- Teachers can make a point to inquire about deaths or other recent losses experienced by each student and invite the student to share memories and feelings as they emerge.
- As part of the school’s Tier 2 MTSS services, short term groups can be offered on grief and loss for selected at-risk youth.
- An assembly and/or mental health newsletter can be created for parents and for children that discusses common grief reactions and emphasizes that not everyone grieves in the same way.
- Teachers and other school personnel can take the time to acknowledge their own experiences of grief, especially those related to the challenges of the pandemic.
Difficult Home Environments
- Knowing about a students’ difficult home and/or neighborhood environment can be extremely challenging and frustrating for teachers whose ability to impact these circumstances is severely limited or non-existent. That said, administrators and teachers should do whatever they can to remind each other that simply being themselves, that is, being a caring and consistent presence in the lives of each student, goes a very long way.
- Processes for reporting suspected abuse as well as the defined criteria for making such a report within their communities should be reviewed early in the year.
- Awareness of a student’s home environment can help teachers be more sensitive to the challenges that the student might have in completing assignments, etc. With this knowledge, the teacher is in a better position to help the student problem solve.
- Information about resources for families with food insecurity or other financial pressures should be regularly distributed to parents and teachers.
- Given the large number of students who have experienced adverse childhood events (ACES), incorporating or refreshing professional development activities about trauma-informed practices are essential.
Feelings of Disconnection
- As reported by NASSP, education researchers consistently point to students’ sense of belonging to the school community as a key predictor of academic engagement/achievement, positive social functioning, and both emotional and physical well-being. When students feel they belong to the school community, they are more likely to thrive and ultimately to graduate. The pandemic has taken a toll on students’ connectedness to both peers and teachers. According to new research released by Qualtrics in early August, only 51% of high school students feel a sense of belonging at their schools. Likewise, only about a third of students feel comfortable approaching a teacher about a personal issue or are confident that the teacher would be sensitive to their issues.
- Teachers can promote a sense of belonging by activating student empowerment in the classroom. They can engage students in developing and enforcing classroom structure and rituals, promote collaborative problem solving, adopt classroom “mantras” for self-acceptance, forgiveness, and encouragement, and emphasize effort over outcomes.
- Encouraging both verbal and other forms of expression within the classroom can boost students’ sense of belonging.
- Teachers can be encouraged to reframe children’s behavior as responses to stress and a communication of needs rather than as oppositional or naughty behavior. Various trauma informed approaches and behavioral strategies such as the Nurtured Heart® model can be adopted to provide guidance for teachers.
- The district can facilitate connection by refreshing its clubs and after school activities and taking a more proactive approach to connecting students with similar interests.
- The district can create or revitalize school-based family activities that help boost a sense of belonging among parents and other caregivers.
- In early August, Edutopia published an article outlining 6 questions that teachers can ask students to help them sort through and cope with everyday stressors. This simple list of questions, if repeatedly presented to students, can promote cognitive flexibility, and can teach them a problem-solving strategy that will have life-long implications.
Some Final Thoughts
No list of ideas for creating a safe and welcoming school community will be of use if the individuals responsible for educating students are themselves exhausted and burnt out. The beginning of a new school year creates an opportunity for educators to step back and reset. It is time to articulate new rules and boundaries for oneself and for dealing with others.
Teachers should be encouraged to re-think work-life balance, e.g., by setting and honoring arrival and leaving times, and by setting boundaries with families and students for how late and in what way they can be contacted after normal school hours. They should look for ways to remain socially connected, both with colleagues and family/friends to counteract their own stress and isolation. They should be encouraged to ask for help and to find ways to collaborate more to foster efficiencies. Administrators can initiate time-saving discussions, looking for ways to make meetings tighter and more efficient, and to consider conventions that might be of questionable value (e.g., looking at the requirement for weekly lesson plans). Employee assistance programs (EAPs) and mental health benefits should be updated if needed, and staff should be encouraged to prioritize their own mental health.
The staff of Effective School Solutions wish you a safe and happy year of growth in 2022–23!