For school leaders, students’ mental health has become an increasing concern. As the pandemic drags on, schools are doing their best to help their students reacclimate to in-person learning or adjust to remote instruction when school buildings close due to the spread of COVID-19. To understand how students are coping with the stress of the pandemic and what schools are doing to help, we spoke with Angie Charboneau-Folch, assistant principal at Big Lake High School in Big Lake, MN; LaNaiah Frieson, a senior at Calvert High School in Prince Frederick, MD; and Kristen Peterson, an assistant principal at Chesterton High School in Chesterton, IN.

Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the discussion.

Why is it important to nurture the mental health of students in school?

Frieson: Because it promotes success in their future. It gives them tools to add to their toolbox so they can speak openly about how they are dealing and coping with issues that they run into as adults. It also allows them to openly talk about what is on their mind, ask for help, and not feel ashamed about asking for help.

Peterson: Nurturing our students’ mental health today is more important than ever because this generation has grown up in very unique circumstances, between social media at a very young age, in addition to—at least for high schoolers—a large portion of their educational lives have been consumed with the pandemic. There are just so many milestones that were missed along the way because we couldn’t have them in school consistently. If we don’t address some of these mental health issues, then we have a harder time trying to educate them.

Charboneau-Folch: We’re trying to have a “whole student approach,” and a big part of their academic success is nested in their social-emotional well-being. Teaching resiliency and promoting social-emotional competencies and reinforcing positive behaviors and decision-making all get tied into mental health. We’re learning more about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that many of our students are experiencing, but as educators, we only get to see a small snapshot of their lives. There’s a lot behind the curtain that we don’t get to see.

It’s really important for schools to build that positive, safe school environment where kids feel like they have the support and are given the advocacy skills to ask for help that they might need. That way, we’re building that whole connection between school, home, community, and the ability for students to build and maintain healthy relationships with others and themselves.

What’s one program in your school that helps support students’ mental health?

Peterson: One of the programs that we implemented is our advisory class. We take 30 minutes each Wednesday where we address all the Indiana SEL standards in addition to supporting our students with their college and career preparation. Our advisory curriculum includes stress management, time management, digital citizenship lessons, community building, and gratitude lessons. The advisory period offers an opportunity for students to have a go-to person to ask questions. They develop relationships with their teacher and with their advisory classmates, and they start to identify with that group. It is meant to make the larger school community smaller by bringing everyone together, again, with people they don’t necessarily interact with daily. Our counseling office has also provided a virtual calming room, which allows students to work through whatever is bothering them—academics, family, friends, or life in general.

Charboneau-Folch: During COVID-19, my school also created a virtual social work office. We still have many students who are at home and are engaging in school online, and so we have a virtual social work office that provides students with resources for mental health, mindfulness, coping skills, SEL, crisis resources, chemical health resources, LGBTQ+ resources, and COVID-19 information. As a district, we have made SEL a priority. We have an SEL coordinator, and we created a districtwide initiative for our teachers to embed SEL lessons into 80% of the week’s daily lessons. Much of the time, students don’t even know it’s an SEL lesson. We want the SEL lessons to feel natural and not like an add-on.

We have also brought in a group called Rock My Campus for our ninth-grade transition day, which offers SEL-focused workshops. All staff and our ninth-grade students participate. But our partnerships with community resources have been the most impactful. We partner with Central Minnesota Mental Health Center, and we have a co-located mental health therapist that is dedicated to our school district. That therapist sees students in elementary, middle, and high school, and her full-time job is serving our students. That’s been essential, tapping into community resources and providing them space to work in our schools with our students.

Frieson: One program that stands out at my school is CAV Culture (our mascot is the Cavalier). On Mondays, half of the lunch period is set aside for students to just sit and color and enjoy the space to talk with our friends. We have had cookie decorating; we’ve had yoga; we’ve had meditation. The adults have gone out of their way to have students connect to each other in simple but meaningful ways. My school has really shown students like me that it’s OK to take a step back and enjoy these small moments of life rather than just keep going and going.

What student-led programs in your school support students’ mental health?

Charboneau-Folch: We have a student group called EPIC (Everyday Positive Individual Choices). When EPIC first started, it really focused on helping students abstain from substance abuse and advocate for individual positive influences. This year, through a Positive Community Norms grant funded through the state of Minnesota, we were able to expand EPIC and build new ways for students to have a stronger SEL voice in our schools.

School leaders work with different student organizations like our student council. We have a student representative elected to the school board, and we empower that person to have a voice on the board. We’re working with our student council to put together a Day of Wellness community event. We’ve gotten our student council and our EPIC kids involved with those things, so that student voice is heard. Our philosophy is, “We’re a school of the students, for the students, by the students.” Making sure that student voice is represented is even more important than ever, especially when it comes to mental health.

Frieson: I am on a senior panel of student leaders through our CAV Student Leaders program, sponsored by our Assistant Principal Cathy Sutton. Through our program, we do advisories. Each member of the senior board creates their own advisory lesson, and then we distribute the lessons, train other students in the CAV Student Leaders program to deliver the lessons, and then present it to our whole school. I was the first one to create our first-ever completely student-created advisory lesson this past September. It focused on how to cope during the pandemic. Our program promotes discussion on empathy and gaining new perspectives from our students, like how international students were impacted by the pandemic, how students in our school were doing mentally, and things that they experienced and that nobody knew that they had gone through.

Peterson: We offer our students many opportunities to join a club that they identify with at school. If a group wishes to form a new club, it is really easy for them to create their own. We allow them to go through that process—which isn’t very extensive—if they want to add a club. We have everything from Dungeons & Dragons to Earth Club to all the traditional clubs. One of the newer clubs is SEGO, which is Self-​Esteem Growth Organization. SEGO was initiated in our middle school and then was carried on when those students moved into high school. We also have Natural Helpers, where our students take pride and ownership in helping each other. We have an Alchemy Day, normally in March, where we train students to help other students identify and understand how we are all different but also discover all that we have in common.

We also use advisory to offer students an opportunity to support each other. We do peer-to-peer scheduling in our advisory class, where the seniors meet with the freshman advisories to answer their questions about courses and programs, like our IB program or our internship program. And then we also have students design a lesson, normally in the spring, by grade level. So, we’ll have some freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors all volunteer to create an advisory lesson for their age group. It’s always interesting to see their perspective after being through advisory themselves for the year. The students are in charge, and it’s nice for us to sit back, listen, and learn from them, as well as figure out what more we could be doing to reach them.

What can school leaders do to help students look after their own mental health?

Frieson: It is very important that our school leaders really emphasize the fact that students have the power to change their situation. One way educators can do that is to help students in need—for example, those who have ADHD—initiate their own 504 plan. Many people with ADHD go undiagnosed. So, if school administrators could help students learn how to get diagnosed and then start the process of creating a 504 plan, I feel like that would help accommodate them more in the classroom, and therefore allow them to learn in an environment in which they feel welcome.

Another way I feel school leaders can help is to advertise the resources that they have in their school. At Calvert High School, we have a school psychologist, and I’m pretty sure 75% of the students don’t know that we have one. So, for the students whose families can’t afford therapy, just advertising the fact that you have those resources at your school will better help students learn how to advocate for themselves and talk about their mental health in safe environments. Every Monday, our principal, Darrel Prioleau, comes on the morning announcements and just talks to the students. This is a great time to let the students know about the school’s mental health resources. I also believe that a weekly mental health email check-in is beneficial. It doesn’t have to be elaborate—just a quick form for students to fill out that allows them to feel seen and heard. It can be a place where they can just jot down how they’re feeling and evaluate their emotions.

Peterson: The biggest part of an administrator’s job has become trying to counsel students through daily issues. So, first and foremost, we must establish relationships with our students so they feel like they can come to us, and not look at us as just disciplinary figureheads. They see us as someone who is a resource that, if they’re having a hard time, or need a safe space, they can come to us to work through their struggles.

Our current sophomores left school in eighth grade due to COVID-19, and they are just now experiencing a semi-normal year. What school leaders are now finding is that we don’t know our sophomores, so, at one point, I just started calling down the kids who were on my caseload. I wanted to simply talk to them, learn their names, and get to know them. We want them to know that we are a resource for them.

Administrators also have to find ways to deescalate situations for kids. Our current freshmen haven’t had a normal year of school since sixth grade. That’s pretty traumatic. Middle school is paramount for teaching students a lot of the skills necessary to be successful in high school. So, we need to de­escalate and reframe situations for kids, providing that safe space. And then, self-advocacy is huge. We try to get kids to understand that there are people who want to help, but students have to communicate with those people, so that we know what they need.

Charboneau-Folch: It is really important to show you care. A few years ago, we did a relationship challenge for our staff to tell students, “Hey, you’re the reason that I come to work every day.” Telling students that goes a long way in building a safe school environment where kids feel like they’re seen and heard and that their voice does matter.
This year we have been really focused on intentional connections by working together with our teachers, looking at our data, looking at some of the students that we feared might fall through the cracks, and being very intentional about making connections with those students, and finding what it is that works for them. We had a teacher who was trying to make a connection with a student and found out that she was really into Merengue dancing, and so, at the end of each PE class, they would dance the Merengue together. That was a connection—it’s finding out their interests and what it is that makes them feel important.

School leaders also need to make sure that students’ basic needs are met. Additionally, using restorative justice practices and a student-​centered approach to behavior have been more important than ever. We focus on what we call the Hornet Way: our student code of conduct. We recognize our Hornet Heroes and students who are doing the right thing and making sure that they get noticed as part of our morning student announcements. On our Hornet Broadcasting, we do staff spotlights so students can get to know not just the teachers, but the custodial staff, or the lunch staff, and different people in the building. Building relationships is key.

How has the pandemic affected student mental health, and what has the school done to support students?

Peterson: My school has forged a partnership with Crown Counseling, which has provided us an opportunity to recommend kids who we feel could benefit from their services. Our students can access the calming room via the counseling services website and social media, but so can parents and teachers. Many adults have been on the site to access resources like meditation exercises, coloring pages, and puzzles. Additionally, we try to survey our staff at least twice, if not four times per year, to find out what they think our students need for advisory lessons. Reintegrating our students back into the school environment has been a top priority.

Charboneau-Folch: When I think about the pandemic’s effect on students, I believe the true effect was it limited our staff-to-student connections. The relationships that we normally form with our kids have suffered because we haven’t seen them every day. In Minnesota, we shut down during March 2020 through the rest of that school year. And then last year, we had different learning platforms between hybrid and distance learning and then back to hybrid. In spring 2021, we were able to go back to full in-person for the last trimester, but we still offer Big Lake Online for students who want to continue in the virtual platform, and we have hundreds of students who do so.

But one of our challenges has been how do we connect with all of our students—the ones that we see in person and the ones that we still don’t see? We’ve been offering SEL optional lessons for our online students to join virtually with our social workers to do the lessons once a week. As I previously stated, all of our teachers are embedding SEL lessons right into their daily lessons, so we believe our virtual students should benefit from the same SEL lessons. We have also created an eight-week “Our Well-Being” video series with other local school districts and community organizations to prioritize well-being strategies. And then this spring, we’re working on a wellness event with other local school districts and community resources to have the ability for everyone to get together, have some fun activities, but also be able to teach well-being resources during this event and connect families to other community resources.

One very important step we have taken is for our social workers and counselors to get a release of information to work with students’ therapists that they see outside of the school day in order to align our efforts and strategies to better provide support for the student while they’re in school.

Do students feel like there’s a disconnect between their student lives and the adults in the school community?

Frieson: I definitely believe that students are feeling the disconnect because during the pandemic they weren’t able to physically go to their teacher and ask them all their questions about the material they were learning. They weren’t given easy access to tutoring help that didn’t involve logging onto a Teams meeting and then having to deal with the potential connection errors or having multiple people in the meeting. It was hard for students to feel motivated to get help from their teachers, which caused a rift between the students and the teachers.

Prior to the reentry of students for the 2021–22 school year, I, as a student leader, sent out a schoolwide survey to my peers, which they could answer anonymously, asking them how they coped with the pandemic, if they wanted to talk about anything they experienced, or if they were worried about the reentry of in-person learning. I just gave them space to talk. I got over 200 responses from students detailing how they were impacted by the pandemic. A lot of the students explained how they were dealing with intense depression and immense lack of motivation with their schoolwork. They revealed that they became the providers for their families; they had to go out and make money so their family could have food on the table. A lot of them weren’t able to get help or seek counseling, and many students just struggled with the fear that the pandemic brought, like bringing home COVID-19 to their families.

Reentering a brand-new school year, where we were thrown back into what we used to know, was scary because they weren’t the same students. As I mentioned earlier, I created the first lesson for our advisory called “Welcome Home.” The lesson covered everything that students would need to cope this school year, and it stressed the importance of feeling OK to go for help. I taught them that it’s OK to realize that we can’t control everything and put emphasis on things that we could control versus what we couldn’t, and how we can move past that. That’s one way our school has initiated talking about seeking help for our students, because a lot of times they felt like they couldn’t talk to anybody about that, especially in a virtual setting.

What can students do to help other students with their mental health?

Charboneau-Folch: The first thing is to be kind. Like I said earlier, we don’t know everyone’s background, their story, their struggles, or the way that the pandemic has impacted them and their families. But the number one thing that kids can do is be kind, compassionate, and empathetic to each other. Students can model self-awareness, self-​management, and build those healthy relationships with one another again. They can be responsible for their decision-​making and social awareness, and not just be kind to each other in person, but also on social media platforms. Students need to learn self-compassion, self-care, and healthy boundaries. I think those are important to be able to provide healthy connections, peer to peer, with the different student groups that every building has.

I think the other part that students can do is, “Be the one.” Be the one to say, “I’m not doing all right; are you doing all right?” Be the one to engage in these conversations to reduce that stigma. Be the one to connect their peers and their friends to resources, whether it’s in the building, a school social worker, a school counselor, outside community resources like therapy, or other adults who can support them. I think that’s really important, to be the one to hold out their hand to help a peer through their struggle.

Frieson: One thing I always tell my peers after an advisory lesson is that mental health awareness starts with yourself. It starts with realizing that as a 14- to 18-year-old, you aren’t going to know the answers to everything. You’re not going to always know how to respond when somebody comes to you and tells you that they’re depressed or comes to you with something very heavy on their heart. Just being patient with yourself and being patient with others goes a long way. If you see somebody sitting alone at lunch, go sit next to them. Introduce yourself. Be very inclusive with everybody around you. When somebody is telling you something that’s been on their heart, make sure that you are actively listening and show that you care. Don’t try to dominate the conversation; just let them get it off their chest, and then be there for them, and show them that you care in any way you can. But also remind yourself that it’s OK to not know what to do. Sometimes, what you have to do is go to a trusted adult and let them know, “Hey, this is what my friend is dealing with. Maybe we can find some ways to help them.” Just being an advocate for your peers. It really goes a long way.

Peterson: I agree with LaNaiah about listening. Whether we’re students listening to students or adults listening to each other, we are quick to just think of our next comment instead of actually listening to what they have on their minds. That’s a skill that is somewhat lost right now, but if it could be developed a little bit further, I think it would go a long way. I also encourage students to put an end to a drama cycle. We try to get them to tell their friends: Stop engaging. You don’t want to hear any more about it, and then it will stop. Self-​advocating—if they recognize there’s a concern, encourage their friends to go to that trusted adult, let somebody know who might be able to help. Encouraging them to have those conversations with a resource, whether that’s another student or adult, someone that they feel like can maybe help them through the situation.

We’ve created some trusted relationships, and they know the door is always open, and they can talk to us whenever they need us.