Embracing an Opportunity to Reimagine Student Mental Health

Stephanie Taylor

It’s important to be clear that the mental health of children has been underserved for years—the pandemic did not change that. And, the broad picture of the necessary things that we should do to promote children’s mental health and help them to grow into socially and emotionally competent adults has not changed either.

What the pandemic did is make it harder for everybody. It highlighted any gaps that adults and children had in their mental health, in their general coping abilities, in their ability to connect with other human beings, and it actively inflicted new trauma. The sooner that we address this long-running deficit in critical mental health services, the more we reduce the chance that there will be long-lasting or unalterable damage. 


What schools should be striving towards right now

Schools want to support students’ mental health and well-being. The challenge is how to do it. We need to recognize all the hurdles our schools have in their way. Funding and staffing are always a huge hurdle for schools, but so is the perception about their function, which ultimately dictates how time is allocated in a student’s day. Many people view schools as primarily academic institutions. If state testing scores are low, the perceived solution is to spend more time on that academic subject. Unfortunately, all the factors that affect academic success, such as mental health, are often the items that don’t make the cut when funding, staffing, and scheduling decisions are made. 

This unfortunate pandemic has provided an opportunity to reassess performance measures for schools. Until it is universally recognized at the federal, state, and superintendent level that mental health is going to be taught, tracked, and outcomes monitored, it will never be prioritized in the same way as academics and the systemic changes that need to happen in order to make improvements will never happen. That’s just the reality of it: all of us are that way—if we can’t track something and see how what we’re doing matters, we’re less likely to continue doing it.


Academic performance is directly impacted if mental health isn’t being addressed

More and more, the definition of what constitutes school skills or academic skills is expanding. Are social skills part of academic skills? The pretty standard answer today is yes.  But mental health is still seen as part of a medical scope and not the scope of schools to provide. However, it’s important that we take it one step further—to consider social-emotional skills to be educationally relevant, not only to be impactful on academics, but to actually constitute their own category. 

So far, schools have been able to address some social skills and do some things that are school-wide but many haven’t had the opportunity to look at it in a systematic way. It is hard to focus on mental health skills—it’s hard to move things around to find the time and staff for them, and to “pay for them upfront,” but the schools that do, find that it ties into better academic performance later. It’s just that it’s very hard when there’s no budget set aside, no time in the day for it, and you’re getting judged on something else. So those three things combined are the proverbial “perfect storm”—no money, no time, no measurement—and make it really hard for schools to invest in that upfront payment. I’m very sympathetic to that—I’ve been there. 

If you’ve ever read the book Schools Cannot Do It Alone, author Jamie Vollmer talks about how original schools literally taught reading and writing and math - and that was it. And they did that in the same school day that still exists now. Then he talks about how many things have been added over the last 70ish years in education. Now it’s computer skills, science, humanities, history, PE, languages, and all the other important things, but the amount of time that students are in school hasn’t changed much. So now we’re teaching a lot more content in the same amount of time, and we’re expecting all of them to have decent outcomes. That’s just not realistic. Schools already do not have enough time to address everything they need to.

And so the question becomes, How do we fit it in? Do schools have a designated mental health class that students take, just like other subjects? If so, what do they take time away from? Or does the day get extended? How much time is the right amount of time for optimal outcomes? 

That change has to start at the local level. I think it has to be about talking to your superintendent, your local leadership. We have to start by saying - this is something we believe in, and we feel like it has to have some time during the day, but we can’t do it in the scenario that we’ve been given so how can we all do this? 

There are really great one-off programs—some schools out there are doing amazing work to make things happen for the students. But none of that is going to be widespread or replicable across the entire group of schools, until these changes are escalated and happen at a district and state level.


What an educational model for mental health looks like

There is an opportunity here as part of a post-pandemic shift in which mental health issues are more widespread than they’ve ever been. Now is the time to start conceptualizing what that shift would look like if we agreed mental health is an educational issue and not just a medical issue or a subset of academic skills. How do we redefine what is the educational model for mental health?

If we could imagine what was best for our students, and if we could make the day and their schedule how we want it for them, and we could add in the content that we want them to learn that we know would help them perform better in academics, help them have better social skills, help them feel good about themselves and be happier, more productive human beings, what would that look like for us? That’s what the reimagining of educational models would look like based on each population of students, because there’s not going to be one universal answer. Yes, time is going to be a constant, meaning we have to have time to address this. Money and personnel are going to be constants—we have to have those to address the needs. But after that, it really comes back to what data we are using to decide what the students need. Different populations of students have very different needs. Communities are different. Cultures are different. We need to look at each individual school population. 

I think in this perfect world where I’m designing an educational model of mental health, I would say there’s no tier one, there’s no tier two, there’s no general ed, special ed, there’s none of that. It’s simply this: what skills are the students missing, and is that skill more conducive to being taught in the whole group, small group, or individual? Then we might say for certain children, “We thought a small group would work and it worked for almost everybody else but it didn’t work for them.” We need to recognize their individuality and work on whatever that student needs. We would base the grouping on the skills and their best way of being taught rather than moving students through a tiered system, per se. A truly individualized approach (with some basic structure) guided by experiences mental health professionals is my perfect world.


How a clinical network fits into an education model of mental health  

How each individual school addresses their needs is going to be different because, as I mentioned, we all know it takes budget, staff, time, and data measurement. Those are the four universals but after that there are a lot of ways that something could be implemented, and the more flexibility a school has to be able to implement those things, the more successful they will be. 

For one, having access to a broader network of people is going to be essential because you’re going to need lots of hands on deck, probably more than a school typically has on staff, and schools are going to need to be able to access those people during the times of day that they need them for these concentrated mental health skills, but maybe they don’t need them the rest of the day so having flexibility in staffing would be a big help for schools. 

Second, it will be important to have options for students who are not physically at the school: homeschooled students, hospital and homebound students, etc. There are also a lot of students in virtual schools, and we already know that many are not getting any mental health services either because the virtual schools don’t offer those services or because removing the student from the school setting makes it seem like some mental health issues are resolved.

So it is important to have a platform that is engaging and can be used for a lot of different scenarios. It’s important to recognize that some students might need to connect with somebody who they don’t have the opportunity to see in their community. For example, in one scenario all the counselors that are employed at a school might be men and a female student would feel much more comfortable talking to another female. In other scenarios, a student might be very culturally different from the community that they live in and the idea that they could talk to somebody who is culturally similar may be essential to establishing trust for some students.

It’s not just about supply and demand of staffing. It is also about how to help students make the best connection with the person they are interacting with and receiving the mental health instruction from.


Getting started

If I were talking to administrators who say they want to get something going and need to know where to start, I would say the one thing they should start with is adopting social-emotional learning standards and making them part of their accountability measurements each year.

If I were talking to a school district trying to do something at their local level, or people in a singular school building who are trying to do something, I would say that carving out the time of the day is the first thing they should do—everybody agreeing that there should be one designated time. If that means in your building you’re going to add 20 minutes to the school day and shorten classes by a few minutes each, that’s something you can do at the individual school level. You can at least designate and try to carve out some time. You may not be able to take away from other things but you might be able to add in. There’s always somewhere to start.


About the Author

Stephanie Taylor, Ed.S, NCSP is the clinical director of psychoeducational services at PresenceLearning.

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