The upheaval of the past few years has underscored the critical need to support mental health for educators and students alike. In 2023, K-12 schools and districts made significant strides in identifying key mental health issues affecting their school community and working to address those needs.
However, challenges remain, and, in 2024, educators can expect school and district priorities will continue to shift toward increasing prevention efforts, reducing stigma for mental health conditions and expanding access to services.
We talked with Natalie Barnard, M.Ed, who is an educational diagnostician with 17 years of public education experience and an assessment consultant for Pearson. Barnard identified three key mental health milestones from 2023 and shared three predictions for 2024.
3 K-12 mental health milestones for 2023
Increased awareness about mental health reduced stigma for both students and school staff this year, Barnard says. She observed three critical breakthroughs:
1. New attention on the risks of social media
While the drawbacks of social media have long been top-of-mind, this year stakeholders coalesced around its hazards more than ever. This was exemplified by the U.S. Surgeon General releasing an advisory that detailed the downsides that can accompany high usage of social media by children and adolescents, including its potential negative impact on mental health.
“It’s the world kids live in now, but sometimes it can be a negative place, especially for someone who may already be suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health issues and concerns,” Barnard says. The new attention to social media’s risks will hopefully lead to more informed, timely action if and when a student needs assistance.
2. Chronic absenteeism points to the need for changes
Widespread absenteeism continued, with schools increasingly concerned over its profound impact, including lower state test scores, reading proficiency and school graduation rates. “The number one goal for school districts is to increase student outcomes, but that means students have to be consistently in the building and actively engaged in learning,” Barnard says.
One of the most critical steps to mitigating chronic absenteeism is understanding why students aren’t showing up. Poor mental health is often cited as a top contributor.
And educators are vulnerable, too, Barnard notes, which contributes to ongoing staffing shortages in K-12 schools. “When highly qualified, certified teachers leave the classroom, our students are no longer exposed to high-quality instruction,” Barnard says.
3. Mental health diagnoses see new importance
The prevalence of mental health issues in today’s youth is galvanizing schools and districts to approach children’s needs holistically, which includes their social and emotional wellbeing. “It’s very difficult for a child who is suffering from anxiety, depression or other mental health issues to focus their minds on learning academic content,” Barnard says.
Many states are responding by increasing funding for mental health services, including adding mental health staff to their districts. She cites the $63 million that the U.S. Department of Education allocated to, in part, increase social, emotional and mental health support. State and local governments are also shifting focus and funds to youth mental health. For example, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers called 2023 the “Year of Mental Health” and increased investment in school-based mental health programs.
Committing resources to universal screening can help identify students who are experiencing mental health issues so they can be adequately treated. In fact, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends widespread screening for anxiety and depression in children and teens.
3 mental health priorities for 2024
“Cautiously optimistic” is how Barnard describes her outlook for 2024. “While we still have a long way to go, and mental health is going to be something we will always need to consider, it’s encouraging to see it being an area of focus at both the state and federal levels of government,” she says.
Three mental health focus areas she expects K-12 schools and districts to prioritize include:
1. Increased attention on social-emotional learning
More focus on the skills that are part of SEL — from goal setting to empathy — goes hand-in-hand with the need to address the whole child. “We can’t ignore that students come from vastly different circumstances,” she says — that could include living with a disability, experiencing poverty or learning English as a second language. Research shows that SEL has clear benefits for students who partake in SEL programs, including improved social and academic skills.
“There’s no doubt that all children benefit from social-emotional learning, but we have to have the staff in place to incorporate this and ensure we are equally balancing academic learning,” Barnard says.
2. Improved support for educators
With educator shortages recorded nationwide and educator burnout making headlines, schools and districts are expected to increase their focus on retention. Increased funding for recruitment and retention is critical to ensure the new investments in mental health support aren’t underutilized.
“We can invest millions of dollars into addressing mental health in K-12 schools, but you must have the right staff,” Barnard says. Educators’ jobs have changed significantly since the pandemic began, leaving them with more responsibilities and bigger learning gaps to overcome.
Schools and districts can support retention in this environment by ensuring job expectations are clearly outlined, providing professional development opportunities and offering support for educators’ mental health and wellness. Data shows that employees who feel strongly that their employer cares about their wellbeing are 69% less likely to be on the hunt for a new job.
3. Increased attention on early learning
Children born during or shortly before the pandemic are now headed to preschool and (soon) kindergarten. Many of these young learners may need more support than past classes required at this stage. Most notably, a study from Columbia University found that babies born during the pandemic scored lower in several areas, including motor skills and social-emotional development, than babies born before the pandemic. Other research found lower enrollment in early care during the pandemic, resulting in reduced learning opportunities and social exposure.
Barnard has noticed an uptick in outreach from schools looking for readiness assessments for early childhood, which she sees as a positive sign that they are navigating these needs proactively. “We know that the earlier you identify issues, the earlier you can intervene,” she says. “Completing school readiness assessments at a younger age means you are setting this child up for better success down the road.”
Building on the past for a brighter future
Barnard doesn’t expect a quick solution to the mental health challenges that schools and districts face. But she is encouraged by what she’s seeing. “States are seeing a need for increased funding, and we are moving in the right direction with the funds and support that are being provided.”
Visit Pearson’s Mental Health Resource Center today to get more resources for supporting mental health in your school or district.