The new calendar year ushers in a fresh budget and planning cycle — both to allocate dollars for the remainder of the current academic year and to look ahead to the next one. Educators are still sifting through the recently passed Congressional budget to see what it means for them, but one thing is for sure: Even with funding boosts in various areas, there never seems to be enough money to cover all the needs and initiatives that a given school or district may have.
As schools and districts look to provide more support for students and educators to combat the surging mental health crisis, many will need to get creative to find adequate funding sources. Fortunately, there are several ways to do so, says Dr. Christopher Hammill, director of sales for education technology company Pearson and a former K-12 superintendent and building administrator with three decades of experience. “District and leadership operations was my specialty, and I became particularly adept at budgeting when serving as a superintendent at the height of the recession in 2009 and beyond,” he says.
Hammill shares several ideas for how educators can find the necessary dollars to address these pressing demands and offer the support their community requires.
Current challenges facing schools
Most educators know all too well the burdens hindering their ability to provide ample mental health support. Hammill describes it as an “unfortunate perfect storm,” citing three aspects:
- First is the sheer enormity of the situation. Students continue to report increased rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges, underscoring the need for more resources, including social emotional learning support, to aid students in and out of the classroom.
- Second, while academic underperformance is pervasive, the two most affected groups are English as a Second Language (ESL) and special education students. “The most effective interventions for these students are face-to-face interactions and small group cohorts, which the pandemic took off the table,” Hammill says.
- Third is the massive personnel shortage and continued turnover throughout the educational system. “There are fewer people at every level — teachers, support staff, principals, directors of special services, central office administrators and superintendents,” Hammill says. “That leads to fewer helping hands to address mental health concerns.”
Finding the budgetary support to meet mental health needs
While the data shows that student (and educator) wellbeing is at a low point, administrators face additional, competing needs that must be funded, such as sweeping supports to close learning gaps. To ensure mental health supports receive adequate funding, Hammill suggests educators take the following steps:
1. Identify the extent of the mental health problem in your school or district.
While the research regarding the pervasiveness of mental health issues is considerable, a solid first step is conducting diagnostic evaluations to quantify the struggles in your own student body. Screeners such as SSIS-SEL and BASC-3 BESS can help. “Persistent mental health issues can make it hard for students to learn,” Hammill points out. “Think about how something that’s stressing you out in your personal life impedes your ability to focus on work. Students face the same issues, coupled with the fact that their coping skills are less advanced than those of adults.” By knowing the extent of student concerns, educators can put the right resources in place to enable them to move forward.
2. Revisit your strategic plan as a school or district.
To arrive at the right destination when it comes to improving wellbeing within your school or district, you need a roadmap. And developing that roadmap requires understanding the landscape of your school or district as it relates to mental health issues within your student population. “Tie the need for addressing these issues to the fact that better individual mental wellbeing is not only helpful for improving students' outcomes but also will improve your culture within the classroom, school and district,” Hammill says.
3. Understand your funding and how to use the tools in your kit.
The start of a new calendar year has many schools and districts beginning to release budget forecasts for the upcoming academic year. That’s why now is the time to brush up on funding options. “Whether they’re a veteran or rookie administrator, they need to understand their funding sources and ways they can use them,” Hammill says.
The first potential funding source is the general fund. But that pie is already sliced quite thin, Hammill points out, noting that most of the money coming in is used for salaries and benefits. As schools level up their mental health supports, however, they may find themselves tapping into that funding. “We're seeing an interesting trend where districts are creating positions to oversee and manage mental health interventions within their district, using titles such as director of student wellbeing or director of student mental health,” Hammill says.
The second potential funding source is non-general fund money, and one of the most obvious options is tapping funds allocated specifically for social-emotional learning as awareness grows around the value of boosting life skills such as self-awareness, communication and decision-making. “Schools need to understand if there are any legislative mandates out there that may provide additional resources, as some states have funded mandates in these areas,” Hammill says.
In the case of an unfunded mandate — in which schools are not provided with funding to implement new legislation — schools may need to see if they can release funds from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or Title 1 money, which can be used to supplement core instruction. Take the cost of a screener, for example. “If you have 200 special education students, you can offset the cost for those 200 via some special education dollars, then fund another cohort with title dollars,” Hammill says. “In that way, schools can whittle down the total cost so the general fund impact is minimal.”
4. Determine how to implement solutions within existing personnel constraints.
Educators continually need to do more with less. “They already work harder, so now it’s about working smarter, and digital tools and platforms can help bridge that gap,” Hammill says.
Digital screeners enable educators to triage students quickly and identify the type and extent of help they need. For example, some students might require individual attention, whereas others are best served by a whole class session offering the required support. “Digital screeners like those from Pearson allow districts to target their limited resources faster and more efficiently,” Hammill says. The results can also be used as benchmarks so schools can track their progress in areas of concern.
These tools are most effective when supplemented by a robust professional development offering, Hammill notes. “Given the high attrition in the educational sphere, a solid professional development plan is imperative to combat the institutional loss from people leaving the profession or retiring,” he says.
“At the end of the day, we're all educators. Here at Pearson, we are just sitting in a different seat on the bus,” Hammill says. “We all need to work together for the betterment of students.”
For more tools, resources and other information to help you help your students perform at their best in the classroom and beyond, visit Pearson’s Mental Health & Anxiety Resource Center.