Well before the COVID-19 pandemic and the response to acts of police violence, it was common to hear news stories and read studies regarding increased levels of student stress, as well as rising rates of anxiety and depression. As students entered the 2020–21 school year, stress and anxiety soared.

In some cases, stress can be an effective motivation to respond to issues, meet deadlines, perform, or flee for safety. However, long-term stress can be harmful to physical and mental health—and according to the National Institute of Mental Health, over time it can lead to mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Although it may be years before we fully understand the impact of events of 2020 on students, we have a responsibility to mitigate that impact now.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental illness was already among the most common health conditions in the United States, and school-aged children are not immune. Studies show 1 in 5 children have currently—or at some point in their life—dealt with a debilitating mental illness. Too few students—only 20–50 percent—receive needed treatment. According to the American Psychiatric Association, racial and ethnic minorities are significantly less likely to receive mental health services. Lack of treatment has a significant impact on behavior at home, in school, and in the community, and unmet mental health needs are a significant obstacle for student achievement.

Developing positive mental health in children means developing mindsets for success, learning strategies, self-management, and social skills that not only promote positive mental health development but also improve student behavior and increase academic achievement.

Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning (SEL) provides many benefits to schools; research is clear it has a significant impact on academic performance and behaviors. Utilize SEL in all tiers of instruction and support to promote positive mental health and improve student outcomes.

Tier 1: Ensure that student standards such as the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) “Mindsets & Behaviors for Student Success” are taught to all students. These standards define the knowledge, attitudes, and skills students need to achieve academic success, postsecondary and career readiness, and social-emotional development. School counselors can provide lessons that implement these standards, co-teach with teachers to connect SEL with the academic curriculum, and provide teachers with strategies to embed SEL in the classroom.

Tier 2: Allow school counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers time for individual and small-group counseling for students who have been identified for short-term interventions, addressing academic or behavioral concerns before they lead to more difficult problems or mental health issues.

Tier 3: Refer students and parents to the school psychologist, school social worker, or district and community resources that provide intensive academic and behavioral support. Refer to community agencies for mental health treatment. Encourage families to consent to two-way release of information between the school and mental health provider so school counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers can consult and collaborate with community mental health providers and create a seamless support system for students.

Specialized Instructional Support Personnel

School counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers can be overburdened with excessive administrative and clerical responsibilities that prevent or reduce focus on their expertise. Avoid overusing specialized instructional support personnel (SISP) in administrative and clerical responsibilities that—while necessary to run a safe and effective school—can be equitably distributed among multiple staff members. Protect SISP staff time to allow them as many opportunities as possible to promote mental wellness and academic achievement.

Then, go a step further and establish the expectation that SISP use current best practices in the field to provide students with programs shown to improve student outcomes—including prevention and intervention activities related to achievement, attendance, and discipline.

Frameworks such as the ASCA National Model: A Framework for School Counseling Programs and the National Association of School Psychologists’ Model for Comprehensive and Integrated School Psychological Services improve student outcomes. Empirical research studies have shown improvement in student achievement and mental wellness, including:

  • Increased academic performance, especially in high-poverty schools
  • Closing of achievement gaps for students of color
  • Increased access and success in AP courses
  • More informed college decision-making
  • Improved student behavior
  • Higher scores on SAT/ACT
  • Early identification and prevention of depression and suicidal thoughts

In addition to establishing the expectation of best practices, include SISP in leadership and school improvement teams to bring their perspectives of mental wellness and academic achievement to the table. Their participation brings a wealth of knowledge on improving student outcomes as schools develop policies, define goals, set expectations, and build a culture of success for all.

Identify Students Who Need Support

Review and analyze student data to identify students who may need mental health support. Achievement, attendance, and discipline data not only help educators identify students struggling with academic issues but can also reveal students who are having difficulty balancing mental, social-​emotional, and physical well-being. Some may need additional support beyond what schools can provide to reach their full potential.

Create Collaboration

Data review is vital to identifying student needs, but collaboration among school staff and between educators and parents extends the resource net to support students struggling with mental health needs. Early warning signs include behaviors such as:

  • Changes in school performance and attendance
  • Changes in mood
  • Complaints of illness before school
  • Increased disciplinary problems at school
  • Problems with relationships at home or community

Administrators can establish the expectation that school staff refers students to the school counselor or other SISP when early warning signs are recognized and that two-way communication occurs between school staff as much as confidentiality limits allow.

Positive School Discipline

Students need to feel safe at school, but physical safety must be balanced with psychological safety. This balance is an important component of creating a school culture that promotes a sense of belonging in the school and encourages positive relationships among students, and between students and adults that support success. All of these factors together promote positive mental wellness. As defined in A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools, effective school discipline:

  • Is viewed within the context of a learning opportunity
  • Seeks to teach and reinforce positive behaviors to replace negative behaviors
  • Is clear, consistent, and equitably applied to all students
  • Employs culturally sustaining practices
  • Safeguards student and staff well-being
  • Keeps students in school and out of the juvenile justice system
  • Incorporates family involvement
  • Advocate for Resources

Schools are expected to be many things to many people. This lack of access to mental health treatment is a community issue, not just a school issue. Schools need to continue to provide universal Tier 1 support for positive mental wellness for all students and targeted and intensive interventions for Tiers 2 and 3 support for students who have academic or behavior needs. Collaboration with community agencies is likely needed for many students who need Tier 3 intensive interventions.

School administrators can provide a significant voice in discussions of mental wellness, as well as therapeutic treatment of mental health issues from community resources. Through their interactions with district leaders, school boards, and the community, administrators can advocate for:

  • Strong school/district relationships with community mental health services
  • Appropriate roles and responsibilities of SISP in school/district policies and procedures
  • Memoranda of understanding that define levels of communication, the responsibilities of schools and agencies, and roles of key employees
  • Funding for therapeutic mental health services in the community to match the needs of the community

2020 will be remembered as a year of great challenges in all areas of life, and mental wellness is one that must be addressed. Although schools are not the answer to filling the gap in mental health care, they do play an important part in positive mental health development that will help students grow and develop into global citizens and lifelong learners.

Eric Sparks is the assistant director for the American School Counselor Association. He formerly served as a high school counselor and as director of school counseling for the Wake County Public School System in North Carolina.