State-specific documents to help educators analyze child well-being metrics such as positive social skills outcomes and school-based indicators for student mental health are included in a tool released by Chiefs for Change, a network of state and local school system leaders.
The tool also will provide guidance for building state-level partnerships that could maximize resources and avoid duplication of efforts. Additionally, it will help school districts identify gaps in programming where federal relief funding could be used to address students' needs.
The state-level tool complements a previously released resource from Chiefs for Change directed toward helping local K-12 leaders support student well-being. The pandemic has led to a national emergency in children's mental health, which will require coordination of response at local, state and federal levels, experts say.
The return to full-time, in-person learning this school year after remote or hybrid learning during the pandemic has exposed educators to the trauma students are experiencing due to grief and periods of isolation, said Chiefs for Change CEO Mike Magee.
That has led to an increased need to understand students' struggles and significantly step up capacity to provide support, he said.
"The right approach was not going to be to sort of willy-nilly try to build something, but to really have some tools that allowed systems' leaders to reflect on the nature of the challenges they were facing, the capacity they had to deal with it," Magee said.
The district- and state-level tools take a holistic approach, meaning solutions aren't based on adding a specific intervention, such as a certain number of school counselors. Instead, the tools encourage deep understanding and reviews of data, coordination among partners, and evaluation of whether new or existing supports can or will be effective.
"It's really about how do you situate that [the information gathered] in an overall strategy around student well-being, healthy school culture, belonging, making students feel safe and welcome in school," he said.
Specifically, the state-level tool helps provide a "landscape analysis" of timely and accurate information about student mental health status and disparities that may exist, the capacity to respond, and the partnerships and coordination between state agencies and nonprofit organizations to assist local and state efforts, Magee said.
As superintendent of public instruction for the Ohio Department of Education, Paolo DeMaria said he and his colleagues wanted to demystify the complexity of student mental health response. Their work predated COVID-19, having begun as the state reacted to the opioid addiction crisis.
The pandemic accelerated attention toward student well-being, said DeMaria, who left the Ohio DOE in September 2021 and is now president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education.
Ohio state officials and staff were hearing about effective initiatives at local levels and in other state agencies and wanted to elevate those best practices, DeMaria said. But the state didn't want to endorse a one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, it focused guidance for local districts on creating partnerships and integrated plans for student wellness response, as well as on opportunities to blend federal, state and local funding for interventions.
"Any superintendent who picks up the phone to somebody, nobody's going to say, 'No, I don't want to work with you' ... they'll at least have the conversation, and many times that leads to some sort of productive arrangement that allows it to be a great way to address some of the needs of the children that are in your school." DeMaria said.
Effective student wellness response isn't just tied to crisis situations, he said. Proactive social-emotional learning is critical, too. There's value to "that awareness of one's own emotional state and how to adjust for that," which allows people to participate in a variety of social settings, he said.