Joan Wasser Gish is director of systemic impact at the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development’s Center for Optimized Student Support.
Schools are on the front lines of the national mental health emergency recently declared by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Educators, it seems, expected the crisis.
They know kids, after all. Budget decisions made long before children and youth returned to in-person, full-time school anticipated that children undergoing a year and a half of isolation, deprivation, stress — and in many cases, trauma and grief — would return to school with a range of social, emotional and mental health needs.
Signaling an important shift, a recent report by RAND highlights a June 2021 national survey of school districts, showing educators are maintaining a focus on academics while investing more in student mental health, after-school programs, relationships and a sense of belonging, and access to essential resources like technology, food, healthcare and housing stability.
More schools are asking children and families about their access to basic needs, health and mental healthcare. They are screening students not only for vision and hearing, but for depression, anxiety and suicidality (ideation, plans and attempts).
Boston Public Schools is putting social workers and family liaisons in every school, and contracting with community-based mental health providers. Metro Nashville Public Schools has tapped 6,000 teachers and administrators to serve as navigators to its students, so each student can be known and connected to resources. New York City Public Schools is expanding community schools that provide a range of services and opportunities to children and families: tutors, dental care, robotics and music lessons, adult education and connections to social services.
This more comprehensive approach to supporting healthy child development and learning is driven by three things:
- First, educators are accounting for the impacts of social isolation, disruption and school closures on students. More students have suffered depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicidality than in prior years.
- Second, there is increasing awareness that students’ readiness to learn, including the capacity to understand and organize information, is tied directly to their social, emotional and physical wellbeing.
- Third, federal funds are infusing local schools with the resources to invest in social workers, afterschool and tutoring programs, technology, food, and student health and mental health.
Many of these are areas educators have long wanted to prioritize, and now, funding makes it possible.
Plans submitted to the U.S. Department of Education explaining how states intend to spend federal pandemic relief funds affirm this trend. According to FutureEd, a think tank affiliated with the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University, all states are extending learning time through expanded summer and extended day programming; two-thirds of the states are funding tutoring programs; and 40 states have “pledged funding to address students’ social-emotional and mental health needs, recognizing the isolation and, in many instances, trauma that students and staff members experienced during the pandemic.”
FutureEd notes Oklahoma is investing $35 million for 300 school counselors and mental health professionals. Texas and Wyoming are using screening tools to identify students’ mental health needs.
Naysayers fret that schools are doing too much, that a focus on student well-being jeopardizes the important work of teaching and learning. But the case for ongoing investment and support for high-quality implementation of comprehensive approaches is strong.
Research shows schools that are effectively integrating comprehensive supports are improving student social-emotional and academic outcomes. What evidence-based approaches have in common is that they take a universal approach to student support, serving all students rather than only those in crisis. They focus on the “whole child,” and they are integrated into the day-to-day functioning of the school, facilitating information, coordination and cohesiveness across efforts to address crisis, trauma, safety, social-emotional learning and academics.
BARR Center, for example, has implemented a high school model that uses teacher teams to look at each student holistically and provide a range of academic and comprehensive resources. BARR’s results show higher math and reading scores, improvements to students’ experiences in school, and reduced opportunity gaps for marginalized students.
City Connects, which is incubated at Boston College, where I work, trains school counselors and social workers as “coordinators” in pre-kindergarten to grade 8 settings serving high proportions of low-income students. The coordinators work with teachers, students and families to develop and deliver personalized plans of school- and community-based resources, relationships and opportunities for each and every student in a school.
When students get this comprehensive approach to support during elementary school, it yields lifelong benefits, including improved academic performance on statewide tests, reductions in chronic absenteeism and high school dropout rates, and greater likelihood of enrolling in and completing post-secondary programs. Results hold for immigrant students and Black and Latino boys.
Importantly, taxpayers benefit from investment in high-quality approaches to integrating comprehensive supports for students.
A study by the Center for Benefit Cost Studies in Education at the University of Pennsylvania found schools that implemented City Connects used personnel more efficiently and accrued $5,400 worth of community services per elementary student, driving child well-being and academic outcomes. By using school- and community-based resources more effectively and efficiently to improve student outcomes, researchers found for every dollar spent on education, social services, health and mental health care, youth development and City Connects implementation, there were $3 in benefits to taxpayers.
The student mental health crisis has been building for some time, and it can no longer be ignored in the wake of the pandemic. Educators see merit in providing a continuum of support that helps students to build resiliency and engage in learning, evidence-based models demonstrate how it can be done effectively and cost-efficiently, and policymakers are providing the resources to do it.
Together, these trends are giving rise to the “5 Rs era” in education, where schools deliver — alongside the classic "3 Rs" of reading, writing and arithmetic — relationships and resources that are key to responding to student needs in the COVID era, and to supporting student success in the 21st century.