With dire statistics about how COVID-19 is already impacting the mental well-being of students and school staff, as well as the lingering duration of the public health crisis, administrators and school psychologists are assessing their approaches and planning for more supports where needed. They’re also finding confidence in their growing capacity to respond to the trauma their communities are experiencing.
“I think the pandemic actually put us all on the same field, as far as we are all struggling with this,” said Peter Faustino, a school psychologist with the Scarsdale Public Schools in New York and a New York state delegate to the National Association of School Psychologists. “We're all having these really strong emotional reactions, and so maybe that's why it was a little bit easier to have those conversations.”
The spectrum of pandemic-related trauma — from illnesses, social isolation, financial hardships and more — is vast and can be an overwhelming responsibility for school leaders. A Gallup poll conducted last summer showed nearly 30% of respondents said their child was "already experiencing harm" to their emotional or mental health because of social distancing and school closures.
Additionally, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed mental health-related emergency visits for children ages 5-11 increased by 24% between April and October 2020, compared to the year before. Emergency visits for children ages 12-17 increased by 31%.
The growing acknowledgement of racial injustices and systemic racism also is contributing to students and staff stress, said Dr. Isaiah Pickens, a clinical psychologist and CEO of iOpening Enterprises, which works with school districts across the country on trauma-informed and culturally responsive classroom strategies.
"I do want to point out that even though we are experiencing a really hard time right now, this isn't the beginning of this hard time for a lot of students who experience inequities historically," Pickens said. "This, in many ways, is just being spread to more students at this moment."
Here, Faustino and Pickens discuss proactive ways schools are addressing students and staff mental health.
Making time to strengthen relationships, find peace
As schools switched to a remote or socially-distanced mode, opportunities for informal exchanges and connections on the school bus or playground disappeared. It’s essential to dedicate time for those interactions between students and peers, as well as between students and teachers, where they can share their life experiences, Pickens said.
Strengthening relationships can build psychological safety, which can help students manage stress when things get overwhelming, he said. Even when students don’t participate in these dedicated activities for social connections, just knowing there are opportunities for less structured, non-academic engagement and conversation can be comforting for some students, Pickens said.
Faustino said some schools have built wellness days into their schedules, dedicated to meditation, mindfulness and other creative opportunities. The Cobb County School District in Marietta, Georgia, built a Virtual Calming Center with links to support hotlines, relaxation exercises and animal webcams. Additionally, CASEL, along with several contributors, emphasized the importance of student-family-school communication and connections in a school reopening guidance document.
Understanding students’ academic or behavioral challenges
Using trauma informed practices and positive behavior intervention and supports can help schools respond to students' social and emotional needs, as well as academic struggles. Both use a multi-tiered system of support, which provides services to all students and then builds the intensity of interventions for students in greater need.
Pickens said helping teachers understand and recognize students’ triggers or warning signs as it relates to trauma can give teachers opportunities to identify and react to behaviors proactively. Additionally, using restorative practices can help heal damaged relationships and prevent punitive reactions to behaviors manifested by trauma, he said.
“It's not about necessarily eradicating the challenges, but it's about feeling that you have the tools to manage the challenges more effectively,” Pickens said. “And I think that that's where a lot of schools have felt somewhat stymied at times — to be able to give those tools to students.”
Knowing when a student needs extra supports
Many schools surveyed students, families and staff to ask about their mental well-being and if they need additional supports. The Georgia Department of Education, for example, published a toolkit to help schools gauge barriers to learning, as well as follow-up actions to take.
Additionally, the Kentucky Department of Education issued guidance that included recommendations for monitoring for targeted supports and “maximizing ways to ensure your school is friendly, welcoming, helpful, non-judgemental and caring.”
Faustino said his school considers the duration, frequency and intensity of concerning behaviors, which helps to identify those who need additional supports. Communication with parents about warning signs from a student is also essential as students spend more time learning from home and not in the school building, he said.
Schools also have been receiving assistance from various school stakeholders, including PTAs, student governments, national organizations, local nonprofit agencies and more. That collective effort of caring for the social and emotional status of a school community can bring relief to school leaders who need partners in responding to trauma, Faustino said.
Creating a schoolwide mental health response plan
Developing an action plan to address student mental health during the pandemic has to be more intentional, said Faustino. That’s because organizational, in-person practices may be difficult to replicate online. School staff responsible for assessing student mental well-being may need to meet more often to make sure the needs of students who require more intensive supports are met.
Faustino also said knowing how to distinguish between students who have pre-existing traumas, students who need to connect and vent, and students who have developed bad habits during the pandemic has also made school staff better able to target their responses to individual student situations.
Pickens advises that system-level approaches are comprehensive and include long-term efforts, such as data collection to gauge whether practices are effective. “Administrators should not think about this as putting on the Band-Aid in the moment but to really think about this in a sustained way,” Pickens said.
Addressing the mental well-being of school staff
Pickens said many school staff are experiencing secondary trauma, because they are trying to manage their own stresses while also responding to their students’ and families’ challenges and concerns. Caring for staff mental well-being must also be a priority, he said.
“Sometimes we're telling our teachers to just like keep going, keep going, keep going, and we're not giving them tools to heal first,” Pickens said.
Faustino agrees schools should not overlook staff well-being. “I think a lot of teachers and school psychologists ended up putting their own well-being on the back burner or downplaying it because they wanted to remain strong and courageous for the kids that were in our care.” he said.
Although there are many strategies, such as Zoom meet-ups, socially distanced walks, praise from administrators and other opportunities for staff to receive support, the critical step is for school leadership to keep communicating compassion for this difficult time and normalizing the fact that it’s OK to ask for help, Faustino said.
“I think it was actually more of a challenge to help staff address their own anxieties,” the school psychologist said.