Mid-Year Report: The Top Challenges Schools Are Dealing With
by Effective School Solutions
“The COVID era is forcing school administrators to grapple with a very difficult task — how best to respond to a vulnerable student population who are acting out behaviorally, more now than ever before.” – Effective School Solutions staff member
Heading into the current school year, students, parents, teachers, and administrators were filled with every possible emotion. On the high side, there was hope, joy, anticipation, and above all, relief. At last, we were returning to normal, in-person schooling. But there was also worry, confusion, anxiety, and dread. After nearly two years of disruption — partial, for some, near total for others — how would everyone adjust to the return of fulltime instruction in the classroom?
We are now halfway through the year and the answer is clear: the return to school has been far more problematic than most of us imagined. In hindsight, this was to be expected. As much as everyone would have liked to pick up where we left off before the pandemic — as if resuming a video after pressing pause — the truth is we’ve all been changed by the last two years, and in ways that have made everything more difficult.
“We were caught off guard by our absolute desire for normalcy,” says Thomas Scarice, Superintendent of Westport Public Schools in Connecticut. “And then coming back, we realized that as much as we craved it, it wasn’t normal. And no one was ready for it.”
Scarice’s district was hardly alone. The challenges of the current schoolyear are many and vast, affecting everyone. And as Scarice observes, “There’s no playbook for dealing with it. I can’t draw from past pandemics. Everything is new.”
And everything keeps changing. No matter how thoroughly districts may have planned, the arrival of the omicron variant this fall added a new level of uncertainty to a situation that was already characterized by flux.
“For our staff, students and parents, the anticipation that there could be a change at any minute has stomachs in knots,” says Nicole Hazel, Ed.D., Chief Academic Officer, Freehold Regional High School District in New Jersey. “Will schools close? Will we return to remote learning? The unknowns are really hard to grapple with.”
At Effective School Solutions (ESS), we’re seeing four main challenges across the many school districts we work in.
An Increase in Mental Health Challenges
The biggest issue surfacing in most school districts is the increase in mental health disturbances among students. The whole world has lived through — is still living through — a disruption of unprecedented duration and scope. The pandemic has undermined the basic structures of the everyday. This has been hard for us all, but for young people, it’s been particularly catastrophic.
The decline in mental health among our nation’s kids was approaching crisis levels before the pandemic hit. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidality had been climbing for more than a decade. For young people already grappling with psychological and emotional vulnerabilities, the events of the last two years only exacerbated things.
“Any kid who had issues at home — health issues or just anxiety about going back to school — that all came into our doors in September,” says Scarice. “And it happened while we continued to confront our cultural and racial reckoning.”
The pandemic has brought trauma after trauma. Many young people have seen one or several people close to them die. Grief, fear, and worry suddenly became pervasive. For months on end, life as they knew it — and assumed it would always be — ground to a halt.
During 2020, mental health–related emergency department visits among adolescents were 31% higher than in 2019. And from February 21–March 20, 2021, suspected suicide-attempt emergency department visits were 50.6% higher among adolescent girls than during the same period in 2019. There was also an increase among boys, though much lower, at 3.7%.
This and other research demonstrate the far-reaching emotional effects of the pandemic. But for educators, administrators, and mental health professionals who work with young people, no research is needed. They see the reality every day.
“Our school counselors feel they are in over their head with many students needing a deeper, clinical level of support.” — Anonymous middle school principal
Increased Aggressive Behavior
An alarming manifestation of young people’s distress is aggressive behavior — and it’s rising everywhere, even in schools where such behavior was rare or non-existent.
In some cases, the aggressive behavior has escalated to such a degree that schools have had to temporarily revert to remote learning. As The Washington Post reported last fall, the levels of aggression feel unprecedented. The paper quotes Mo Canaday, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers: “School violence has risen to levels that we haven’t seen, quite frankly.”
As with mental health issues in general, the increase in aggression predates the pandemic. Districts across the county were already calling attention to the uptick in violent behavior at school — often directed at teachers and staff.
“There are myriad factors that contribute to acting out aggressively,” says Bridgette Vidunas, LCSW, a New York psychotherapist who works extensively with teens. “Conflicts at home, personal problems, untreated mental illness, and undiagnosed learning issues can all lead to aggressive behavior. In addition, irritability and aggression can mask the sadness and hopelessness that accompany depression.” Societal factors, too, such as racial inequality and frequent mass shootings can stoke anxieties and increase tendencies toward violence and aggression.
Now, the collective trauma of the pandemic has been added to the mix. In susceptible kids, the levels of distress, frustration, and upset can find an outlet in aggressive behavior. In a recent report on violence in schools, “63% of school attackers showed signs of severe depression, sadness, or isolation or openly talked about experiencing these emotions.”
Without question, addressing the needs of these vulnerable young people is vitally important for their own well-being and for the wellbeing of their peers, teachers, and wider community.
Given everything our kids have been through over the last two years, is it any wonder that some of them simply want to stay home and avoid school altogether? While time away from friends, peers, and favorite activities has been devastating for many young people, for some it has, paradoxically, made the return to social situations more fraught than ever.
Kids who already felt some anxiety about school before the pandemic may be the most resistant to going back to school this year. But even those who have no history of avoidance might find that the pandemic and its prolonged isolation have triggered new worries and fears.
According to clinical experts, as many as 56% of kids who resist going to school have a primary anxiety disorder diagnosis, such as generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, or social anxiety. School avoidance can also be a manifestation of and/or can occur along with other significant mental health disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. If these or other mental disorders are present, it’s imperative that they’re also addressed with therapy and medication as appropriate.
“All hands are on deck trying to support students who will not get out of the car in the morning.” — Anonymous high school teacher
Teacher and Staff Burnout
Students are struggling. But they’re not the pandemic’s only casualties in our schools. Teachers and school staff are confronting their own crisis. In fact, a recent poll conducted in January by the National Education Association — the nation’s largest teachers’ union — clarifies the enormity of the situation. In responding to the poll, 55% of educators said they were planning to leave the profession sooner than they had originally expected. That number has risen significantly since just last August. Of those polled, 90% cited feelings of burnout as a serious problem. All across the country, the reports from teachers are the same: they feel overwhelmed, overburdened, unappreciated and woefully under-supported.
Thomas Scarice says he sees this in his own district and recognizes it as a serious problem. “Everybody at every level is exhausted,” he says. “And the disrupted home-life/professional life balance has taken a toll on our teachers.”
The reasons for the burnout are many. Ongoing staff shortages mean that everyone is having to stretch to cover gaps, piling ever more on their plates, which are already overflowing. And even the most resilient students need more from teachers this year. As Scarice says, “Kids forgot how to do school.” That means teachers can’t take even the most basic activities and routines for granted. Every aspect of the school day requires significantly more energy and effort.
There is, of course, the pandemic itself — an unprecedented trauma that has touched all of us. Many educators have suffered their own grave losses during this era. Whether they’ve lost loved ones or simply endured the hardships and deprivations of the pandemic, their baseline well-being has suffered.
And then there are the overwhelming challenges of the student mental health crisis — challenges that teachers — committed and skilled as they are — are simply not trained or equipped to handle. In an article in The Washington Post, one teacher summed the current year up: “Hardest year in 32 years of teaching. . . . I know I’m not alone. It’s being felt all across the nation.”
“We are overwhelmed with caseloads of students needing more support.” –Anonymous high school counselor
ESS Can Help
For educators and staff on the frontlines and feeling overwhelmed, help is available. ESS has a long history of treating mental health challenges within the various Multi- Tiered Level of Supports (MTSS) programs that it offers to districts throughout the country. It’s our mission to help all students learn and succeed, and to support educators so they too can thrive.
Contact ESS (firstname.lastname@example.org) to learn how to implement proven Trauma-Attuned, MTSS mental health programs in your district.