A recent report shared that Americans are experiencing more restlessness, nightmares, and generally poorer levels of sleep during COVID-19. I’m certain this is also true for students. As educators, we have a responsibility to consider and plan to support the mental health of students during this time. If we ignore their mental health, we are neglecting one of the biggest issues in our country right now. As principals, we must be thoughtful, visionary, and focused on supporting mental health and wellness during this time. Without this, our students will begin to struggle and may start to withdraw, become depressed, or think suicidal thoughts.

Here are five ways leaders can alleviate the anxiety of students:

  1. Plan

I regularly meet with our school counseling team to plan, organize, strategize, and vision cast on how we can support our students’ mental health and well-being. Without these planning sessions, I find that we only sputter along and fail to implement anything with fidelity. I so appreciate and value our school counseling team, as they are champions for students. They are regularly trying to find new ways to support students and to get creative in how we go about supporting their mental health and wellness.

When planning, be sure to take good notes and reference these notes for direction and focus. Our assistant principal is the go-to note taker, and he does an outstanding job of keeping us committed to what we write down. When planning, we typically gather around a Google doc and give everyone access to edit, plan, and dream together.

Ways to plan:

  • Work together around a collaborative online document such as a Google Doc.
  • Create timelines to help lay out a focus and action plan.
  • Schedule it. Without scheduling time to plan, our efforts often fall to the wayside. Commit to meeting and follow through on it.
  1. Collaborate

Without a doubt, these are not the times to fly solo—these difficult days require the best minds to work together. Plus, most principals don’t have a background in mental health, so it’s important to rely on and lean on the expertise in your school, such as counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and more. I depend on our school counseling team of seven (counselors, social worker, school psychologist) to provide key information, resources, and ideas on how to strengthen the mental health and well-being of our students.

If I did this alone, our students would lose out on the counseling team’s brain trust. Plus, I value how our counseling team members have such diverse backgrounds and expertise. When we collaborate and bring people together around solving a problem, we strengthen the outcome and enrich the experience for our students. Jump on a Zoom meeting with your counseling team, call them over the phone, or invite them to edit a document together.

Keys to collaboration:

  • Listen to all voices—It’s critical to give everyone value and to listen to everyone’s voice.
  • Trust—We need to trust our team members.
  • Rely on them—It’s important to rely on the experts in the room and to provide them the leadership capacity to make decisions.
  • Develop leaders—Foster leadership qualities in team members so the collaboration can continue even when you aren’t there.
  1. Kids Over Content

Stress to your teachers and entire staff the importance of focusing more on the student than the content. “Kids over content” is my mantra, and it’s one that I learned from a friend of mine who is an elementary school principal. His focus is first and foremost about his students and their mental health, wellness, and physical safety. By doing this, we support the whole child and empower them to meet their basic needs before learning. Another way to think of it is “Maslov over Bloom’s.” Students can’t focus on their academic needs when their basic living needs aren’t being addressed. Food, shelter, health, family support, and love are all basic needs of students that may be in peril or jeopardy during this time.

It’s challenging for a student to be studying Shakespeare’s sonnets when their mom or grandma is a healthcare worker and was recently diagnosed with the virus. When this happens, it pushes the academics aside and forces the student to focus on supporting their family, and rightfully so. We need to support that as educators. I like to think of it this way: Ten years from now, students won’t remember the content you taught them, but they will never forget how you made them feel, how you gave them hope, and how you showed them love during this most difficult time. Focus on kids over content, and you will never go wrong.

  1. Grace Over Grades

This isn’t the time to dig in your heels and try to teach a lesson on responsibility. It’s the time to have grace over grades. This reminds me of an educator who shared with me, “Bill, we need floating deadlines.” At first, I thought that’s an oxymoron—I’m not sure that lines up. But the more I think about it, that’s exactly what we need to be doing at this time.

Have floating deadlines to support the needs and well-being of your students. By doing this, you take the anxiety off of them and allow them to focus on what’s most important. In addition, you demonstrate to your students that they are more important than their grades.

Furthermore, many students are lacking the resources to be successful. In many schools, there are huge equity issues regarding Wi-Fi, technology, and other resources. This is yet another reason that we need to provide grace over grades. Let’s ease up on the grading and focus on grace during this time. Let’s just get students to hand work in, work with them to have them complete assignments, and extend an olive branch in allowing late assignments.

  1. Mental Health Matters

Principals need to be leading more than just the learning. Now more than ever, we need to be focusing on the mental health needs of students. Work with your school counseling team to host small group counseling sessions throughout the week, lead a Zoom town hall meeting on mental health, and share access to mental health resources with families even though the school is online. These small group counseling sessions could be on topics such as dealing with disappointment, overcoming anxiety, and working through frustration.

Establish a counseling plan and implement it throughout the coming weeks. By setting up small group counseling sessions, students have an opportunity to work through their fears and anxieties with a professionally trained counselor and a group of students who have similar concerns.

Some schools are also doing a daily question as their way to take attendance. Most of the questions are fun and upbeat, but it’s good to pepper in a mental health question of the day like the one listed below:

How are you doing?

  • I’m doing great!
  • I’m doing pretty well.
  • I’m doing ok… I guess.
  • I’m starting to struggle.
  • I’m having a really hard time.
  • I need to reach out to someone for support.

Share this data with your school counselors and have them follow up with students who express they are struggling. By doing this, you are checking on students and making sure their mental health is supported.

With the possibility of some of your students or families being infected with COVID-19, the anxieties and fears of students are at an all-time high. This is why it is critical for principals to be focusing on mental health. By doing this, we are supporting the whole child and helping them find success in and outside the classroom.

I’d love to hear what you are doing to support the mental health of students during this time. Please comment and share what your school is doing.

Bill Ziegler, EdD, is the principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, PA. He was a 2015 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year and the 2016 Pennsylvania Principal of the Year. Bill is the host of “Lead the Way, A Podcast for School Leaders” that works to encourage, equip, and empower school leaders. He is also the co-author of Future Focused Leaders: Relate, Innovate, and Invigorate for Real Educational Change and his latest book, You Don’t Need Superpowers to Be a Kid’s Hero: Leading A Hero-Building School Culture. Follow him on Twitter (@drbillziegler), visit his website at www.chaselearning.org, or email him at [email protected].


1 Comment

  • Anastasios Koularmanis says:

    Bill, I enjoyed reading your article. We will definitely have our hands full dealing with the social-emotional issues our students will have upon returning to the classroom. Many of your points can actually be transitioned into the everyday routine in September. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas.

    Anastasios Koularmanis

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