Last year, a national state of emergency in children’s mental health was declared by leading children’s health authorities, and there is a nationwide shortage of educators in schools who are equipped to effectively address this crisis.
In the 2020-21 school year, the national number of students per school counselor, who are often providing direct services, was nearly double the recommended ratio. For school psychologists who typically design mental health screening systems and conduct interventions, the ratio of students per psychologist is currently more than double the professional recommendation.
Students are experiencing an increasing variety of threats to their mental health and they are turning to educators for support - 67% of schools have expanded the type of mental health services they provide in recent years. School psychologists and counselors are becoming more overwhelmed, overworked, and burned out as they struggle to meet the growing demand for services and concerns from staff and families.
The demand is being shouldered primarily by women, who make up the majority of the teaching and clinical workforce in schools; 80% of school psychologists and 85% of school counselors are female. This is combined with the increased responsibilities for women during the pandemic. In a recent survey, the majority of female respondents with children reported additional caregiving duties post-COVID.
One school psychologist in a suburban school district shared her conflicted feelings about the work. “In addition to my overwhelming caseload of children with mandated services, I’m supporting students with family trauma related to custody battles or illness. With a new baby and a small child, I have to consider if I should leave the field in favor of a less demanding opportunity.”
Schools and districts must be intentional in their efforts to retain female staff this year. Here are some ways in which schools and districts can retain therapists in the profession when children need them the most.
Understand caregiver responsibilities
After-school meetings and responsibilities can lead to increased stress and burnout. To offer relief, administrators must get creative with traditional and non-traditional benefits. Those leading single-site schools may have more flexibility when it comes to healthcare and employee assistance programs, but there is still more that any leader could do to outsource duties that staff struggle to complete after the school day. Provide staff meals or build partnerships with community businesses; for example, obtain a discount on grocery delivery, offer a drop-off dry-cleaning service, or work to obtain childcare services for staff in and around your building. No matter the chosen method, it’s important to ask teachers about their pain points then work to provide solutions.
Offer flexible and remote work options
Therapy is a caregiving profession and school-based clinicians are driven by their need to serve children. Flexible schedules and opportunities for remote work give therapists a career option that accommodates their familial and household obligations while retaining them in their chosen profession.
In a survey of women across industries, 71% of working moms named flexibility as the key factor in deciding if they would return to work. Of moms who did not return, 80% would have returned to work if they could work remotely. Many school-based clinicians are turning to teletherapy, which allows them the flexibility to choose their schedules and work location, and the ability to protect their time and how they spend it.
“Working remotely has allowed me to be the sole provider for my family and a loving, involved mom while keeping my fulfilling 26-year career going strong,” shared Amy Jones, a remote school psychologist. “The flexibility to work from home saves me energy, time, and money, and it gives me balance. I don’t have to sacrifice my family or my career, and I am more happy and motivated than ever before.”
Empower women with leadership and growth opportunities
Males hold the majority of top district leadership positions. Leaders can take steps to empower the women on their teams, supporting them to reach their career goals. Growth and development is an important part of staff retention; administrative support has shown a positive impact on teacher attrition rates.
Empowering female staff doesn’t mean identifying immediate advancement opportunities within the organization; it’s about offering individualized support for their personal and professional goals. Ensure that female teachers and clinicians are receiving regular touch points beyond required evaluations. Encourage leaders, particularly male leaders, to make room for mentorship opportunities, which are shown to particularly impact new teacher retention.
Schools and districts are experts at measuring student data by subgroups and can apply this same approach to evaluating employee experience. Solicit staff feedback via regular engagement surveys and look specifically at how female staff is experiencing their work. Consider who is sharing in the team’s decision-making and whose voices are solicited, heard, and incorporated most often.
In an era where mental health related clinicians are juggling more responsibilities than ever before, it’s not enough to develop blanket solutions. In order to retain educators in a time of increasing caseloads and widening staffing gaps, schools must offer the flexibility, remote work options, and empowerment that women are looking for.
About the author
Kate Eberle Walker is an education industry leader, author, and working mom with more than 20 years of experience managing, advising, acquiring, and investing in education companies. Currently, she is the CEO of Presence, the leading provider of teletherapy solutions for children with diverse needs. Prior to leading Presence, Kate was CEO of The Princeton Review and Tutor.com, and she led strategy and investments for Kaplan, Inc. Kate serves on several education-focused boards, including Babbel, Barnes and Noble Education, Prospect Schools, and Testing Mom.
Kate is the author of the book, The Good Boss: Nine Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work. She lives in New York with her husband and their two daughters.