By Renee Prince, LCSW, Director of Mental Health Integration
Schools have been charged with working collaboratively to address and meet the needs of students and staff — especially as it relates to the collective trauma experienced by staff and families alike stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Having a plan in place to support student mental health proactively is not just important in this moment, but also for the future.
According to Turmaud in Psychology Today, collective trauma is defined as a traumatic experience that affects and involves entire groups of people, communities, or societies.
Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association declared a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health, and the Surgeon General issued an advisory on the urgency of addressing the children’ mental health crisis. These were in recognition of and response to the rise and widespread challenges that young children and adolescents face in the context of COVID-19.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s clear that addressing the mental health of students is still important.
The COVID pandemic has continually presented new challenges, and shortages of teaching staff in some districts due to resignations and in response to staff burnout and/or illness. This has led to increase in class sizes, increased workload for teachers who are still teaching, increasing the challenge for children to develop in an environment conducive to learning.
Children are also having to manage and experience the burden and impacts of these new challenges on their mental health. For example, children might be feeling anxious about how they are functioning in school, feeling the loss of a relationship or connection to a teacher that is no longer supporting them, experiencing prolonged grief for relatives due to the illness, or missing social interaction with friends. The extended nature of these adverse experiences are compounded with academic challenges, along with continued difficulty with focusing, work completion, low mood or energy. There is heightened pressure for schools to successfully manage challenges of student behavior, staff burnout, absences, mental health challenges, reduction in staff, while also making up for the academic losses.
How Schools Can Support Mental Health
One of many ways schools can continue to support the mental health of students and increase collaboration and support among staff is through the implementation of a tiered system of supports that is grounded in whole-child design. The purpose of a tiered system of supports is to provide a framework for an adaptive, responsive continuum of integrated supports for all students.
A Tiered System of Supports should reflect the following four key principles:
- Recognize and support the needs of all children
- Provide supports in a holistic and integrated way.
- Require strong collaboration among all adults in a student’s context.
- Operate with an understanding of the impact of trauma and adversity on learning and development.
These key principles lay the foundation to support the system’s ability to be proactively responsive to the mental health needs of students.
Tiered systems of support have three levels of support (Tiers 1, 2 and 3). The crisis component (Tier 3) of a tiered system of supports allows for students who have more urgent needs, such as disruptions in their mental health, mood, behavior, and/or skill development to receive support immediately. Proactively having a plan in place is not just important in this moment, but also long-term, given the scope of student need throughout the country. The number of students who experience some form of abuse and neglect; exposure to family and/or community violence; lack basic resources and experience homelessness; experience systemic oppression and discrimination; and more, has increased, leading to an extended set of needs that schools must still be prepared to meet.
As such, it is imperative that schools are prepared to expand their capacity to support not only additional children, but also staff. Strong collaboration is an essential feature of a high-functioning tiered system of supports. As schools continue to adopt new ways to support their school communities, teachers and student support staff must be aligned on the approach, have clearly defined roles and responsibilities and shared ownership to launch and maintain a successful system.
Turnaround for Children has curated a set of tools and resources to help educators take a collaborative approach to supporting the mental health and urgent needs of the students. Three of these resources are:
- Universal Supports Following a Crisis for School Leaders, who are ultimately responsible for the wellbeing of their staff and students. This document provides some considerations for a leader to design their re-entry plans. One key component of this guidance document is for leaders to ensure they have a crisis team in place and that they schedule a standing meeting for this team to assemble.
- Universal Supports Following a Crisis for Teachers, which provides a clear explanation of a teacher’s role in the plan alongside tangible examples of how to work collaboratively with leaders and student support.
- Universal Supports Following a Crisis for Student Support, which clearly articulates how to create a plan that leverages the strengths and resources of this role and informs leadership and teachers on how to move forward toward more positive outcomes.
Turnaround for Children highly recommends that school leaders consider collaborating with student support staff in an ongoing way to discuss the challenges continuously faced by the school community and ways to internally support the mental health of staff, as well as any potential external resources available to support. Since the start of the pandemic, school staff, students and families alike have had to be flexible and creative as they continue to make adjustments in their daily ways of functioning. We want to leverage the strength and resiliency of staff, students and families as a school community as they continue to support the needs of its members, not only to mitigate the impact of the challenges resulting from this pandemic, but to proactively and responsively develop better systems and processes in the ongoing road to recovery.