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The Five Things Districts Can Do to Address Mental Health Challenges in the Fall (Part 2 of a Series)

By Duncan Young, CEO, Effective School Solutions

Two weeks ago, I wrote about “The Six Mental Health Challenges Districts Will Face in the Fall.” This week, I’d like to share Part 2 of this article, focused on the solutions school districts can put in place to address the mental health challenges discussed in the previous article. As with the first article, all of the themes and quotes come directly from a recent survey that we conducted of the over 200 Effective School Solutions therapists serving K-12 students every day as part of intensive mental health support programs.

Below are the insights from these amazing individuals, responding to the survey question, “What do you believe is the single most important thing that you think school districts should be doing in the fall with respect to supporting the mental health of all students?”

Recommendation 1: Make Mental Health the Priority, and Take Things Slow

One of the main things that districts can do to prepare for the fall is simply to be aware that mental health will be a challenge with the return of students into the school environment. This is of course true for students with previously diagnosed mental health challenges, but will also be true for students who have not previously had challenges as well. This awareness is the necessary precursor for any further preparation that will take place. Importantly, many survey respondents emphasized the fact that academics may need to take a back seat to mental health in the early days of a return to school, and that districts should take things slow and consider a gradual “phasing in” of normal academic activities.

“I think that academics will need to be secondary to mental health supporting students in their transition back to school. Students will likely present with difficulty to transitioning back to school and I think it will be important for students to feel safe and secure in the processes of keeping everyone safe in order to learn. I think that the focus should be on building/rebuilding relationships with students and creating those connections again that are the cornerstone for education.”

“Students are going to have an increase in symptoms (anxiety, depression, agitation) and will need a few days to digest what happened, what will be, and what the new expectations for them will be. So, placing a hold on academics for the first few days just to give everyone the time and space to process.”

“I think districts need to consider a gradual re-introduction to the typical school day. Maybe they start out with half days of school to ease students back into the structured school day.”

“Design a more effective, efficient, streamlined plan for learning (be it online or in the building) while giving students plenty of time and resources to digest, process, and execute the plan.”

Recommendation 2: Proactively Communicate and Be Transparent

With mental health established as a focus area, districts then need to be proactive in communicating that mental health is a priority and that there is an established plan to address it. Many survey respondents mentioned the importance of a back to school assembly and/or formalized communication about “what to expect”, but others also emphasized the need for ongoing, transparent communications over the course of the school year. In many districts, mental health is unfortunately still something that is spoken about in hushed tones- the back to school period represents a great chance for district leaders to initiate a transparent discussion about mental health and to let students know that “it’s OK not to be OK.” Bring the discussion into the light. Additionally, PD for teachers early in the year is a must on topics focused on how to support the mental health of all students. See Recommendation #5 for more details.

“Start the school year off with an assembly (if possible) and help students normalize what happened and is continuing to happen.”

“Providing clear, age appropriate instructions to students (and parents/staff) about what to expect in school and what is expected of them. I imagine it would be helpful for families to have an understanding of what the new rules are for interacting with each other, what happens if they are broken, and how the school plans to handle any crisis that comes up with COVID-19. The school staff also needs to be supported in learning how to best respond to student anxiety and to learn how to manage their own feelings — I mean not just providing one training, but rather regular meetings/support groups for how teachers are managing and to help them build skills. I would also suggest that schools look at ways to support counseling staff, CST, guidance, and the school nurses, as well as interested teachers, in being more visible as leaders for mental health care in the buildings. Hopefully, these folks can be present for the kids and can build partnerships with community resources and families to access help as needed for struggling kids.”

“Support our parents and staff by providing them with information and expectations to ease their anxieties will ultimately help with easing the anxieties of the students. Allowing parents and students the opportunity to return to the building ahead of time to practice what the new school day may look like as it pertains to the classroom set up, wearing masks, practicing social distancing/boundaries, engaging with other staff and students, etc. How will busses be different? How can we make all involved feel comfortable about returning to school as opposed to continuing to home school their children?”

Recommendation 3: Be Empathetic, and Flexible

One of the main obvious challenges right now with planning for back to school is that no one has clarity on what the parameters of the back to school educational experience will actually look like. District leaders have had to be flexible in their planning, and this spirt of flexibility will need to continue into the fall. School staffs should exhibit “radical empathy” and demonstrate flexibility with students in “meeting them where they are” as they attempt to re-adjust into the school environment. Many survey respondents specifically cited the need for a re-think of attendance and discipline policies early in the school year. This does not mean an “anything goes” atmosphere, but simply recognizing that many students will be presented with triggers and stressors when they re-integrate into the environment which could manifest themselves in challenging external behaviors, school refusal, etc. which are really just a response to fear. Leadership should also keep an eye on their own teaching staff and be prepared to offer them additional support if needed.

“I think in the fall, school districts need to meet the students where they are at in regard to this transition back to school. Detentions / suspensions/ tardiness/ absences need to be looked at differently.”

“Without question, I feel that the most important thing for districts to hold as a high priority is the importance of teachers/admin/all school staff being patient and flexible with students as they (potentially) transition back to a setting that will most likely come with a lot of triggers, as well as be overwhelming at first. I think it could be very beneficial to students in the fall to each receive a check in session at the start of the school year to identify what fears and concerns exist within the student body.”

“I feel districts are going to have to get creative and be flexible (within reason), for everyone: kids, parents, staff, etc. We don’t know how things will look when we get to the fall, but we will have to get creative in scheduling and planning, especially with tackling the issues. I think it’s going to take consistency with regards to not giving up on set plans and be willing to change plans to fit the needs, presenting problems, and the mental health of the students and their families.”

Recommendation 4: Implement Some Form of Universal Screening

A number of survey respondents recommended some form of universal mental health screening as an important part of the back to school process. This could take one of two forms. First, there are formalized, online screeners that can be administered prior to the school year. BH-Works is a great tool that is used in some of our partner districts for district wide mental health screening and comes with a powerful set of reporting capabilities. Mental health screening could also be more informal, consisting of a series of one on one check in meetings between students and school staff, perhaps assisted by a short questionnaire asking questions about back to school readiness. Districts should consult their legal staffs to ensure the proper consents are put in place for initiatives like this.

Universal screening. Identifying all the students that are at risk to ensure the right programming/plan for the transition of those identified students are put in place.”

“I think schools need to almost create some type of triage system which could look something like morning and afternoon check ins with their students, whether it’s the first 20 minutes of the first class of the day and the last 20 minutes of the last class of the day. This would allow students to feel supported and express themselves openly if they are comfortable doing so, while also normalizing their emotions around something that has been very abnormal over the past few months.”

Recommendation 5: Put the right mental health programming in place

This is the big one. Recommendations 1–4 deal with making sure the right school culture is in place to support mental health and making sure there are procedures in place to support students in need. Districts, however, also need to make sure they have the right mental health safety net in place. Our organization, Effective School Solutions, always advises districts to align their mental health support systems around a clear continuum, and we have created an RTI Framework for Mental Health Support for this purpose. With the mental health challenges presented by a return to school, it ensures that a vital solid continuum is in place.

Teacher professional development is one key area that districts should focus on. It’s incredibly important that in this new environment that all educators have a clear understanding of how to identify mental health warning signs, how to direct students to the proper forums for care, and how to de-escalate challenging externalized behaviors in the classroom.

Many of our survey respondents also referenced implementing the Nurtured Heart Approach®, an approach created by the Children’s Success Foundation. NHA® is an SEL which provides a great philosophy for handling intense student behaviors with positivity. This is a key part of our work with schools and is a great fit for what is needed this fall.

Additionally, a number of survey respondents pointed to this as a moment where districts should consider a more systematic integration of mental health and SEL topics into their overall curriculum. For example, September could be “Mindfulness Month” with related activities integrated into all classes, October could be “Resiliency Month”, etc.

In addition, our survey respondents had a plethora of other great programming idea for districts to consider:

· “The most important thing schools can do is to ensure there are adequate mental health and social emotional supports for ALL students. This is a collective trauma that will continue to present many layers of impact… support must be extensive and wrap-around for all levels of need.’

· “The most important thing that school districts should be doing in the fall with respect to supporting the mental health of all students is taking the time to prepare teachers and support them in restructuring their curricula to address and make room for mental health awareness, issues, and warning signs.”

· “Staff training on strengths perspective tying that into the Nurtured Heart Approach®. I believe that our students will need to be more empowered than ever transitioning to the future learning platform regardless if it may be on site or virtual.”

· “A component to consider would be small student workshops to focus on areas that include self-harm (and what that looks like), suicide awareness and crisis. The smaller the groups, the more we tend to get out of students as they are more comfortable asking questions and providing feedback.”

· “I believe that the most important thing districts should be doing is to incorporate social / emotional check ins and self-care activities throughout the day. Students will need an increased amount of emotional support in order to meet academic expectations.”

· “Schools providing support groups at the start of the year or in a few weeks prior to the start to help students adjust to being back at school and among peers.”

· “Education about signs and symptoms of anxiety, grief, and trauma and teaching basic emotional regulation skills. They may be able to include this in homeroom or during gym/health classes.”

· “Education to School Counselors, CST, etc. on how to best support students and provide them with the knowledge to run groups and facilitate classroom engagement. I often find that these individuals want to help but lack the proper resources to do so in an efficient way.”

· “Educate the administration on how to best to support their staff during this time. Identify signs and symptoms to look for in adults experiencing high levels of anxiety, stress, grief, or compassion fatigue. A local list of resources provides assurance for them.”

In summary, back to school will no doubt present a new landscape of mental health challenges to which all districts will need to adapt. This CAN be done, however, there are tangible steps that district leaders can take to create a safe and welcoming environment for students. Time is of the essence, however, to be prepared for back to school. Planning should start now.

Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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