Supporting Mental Health in K-12 Schools
Director of Employee Benefits - Northeast WI
Senior Account Executive
Senior Account Executive
One in five children living in the United States has a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder, according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine.1
This statistic is staggering, but we know it is not a surprising one to educators or school administrators. As you have likely experienced, schools have seen an alarming uptick in mental health issues among students since the COVID-19 pandemic began, though, the truth is, student mental health has always been an issue. Every day, students come to class with complex physical and mental health concerns. Rates of psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders have increased since COVID-19.
Although this phenomenon is overwhelming, schools have the ability to support student mental health by using the whole child approach – ensuring the child feels safe, engaged, and supported.2 The feeling of “school connectedness” and providing a safe and supportive environment for students to express their concerns are the key to combatting mental health in K-12 schools.
Supporting all Aspects of a Child
The more support schools can provide to students, the greater impact they can have on a students’ well-being. Attention to how to make a child feel safe, engaged, and supported by using these tools and recommendations below can make a difference in the lives of students.
The Classroom WISE tool is an industry recommended training package for K-12 educators to support the mental health of students using evidence-based strategies and skills. For further guidance on addressing mental health in schools, review the Guidance to State and School Systems on Addressing Mental Health and Substance Use Issues in Schools.
School leaders can also struggle with mental health. Teachers and staff experience a wide variety of stress, and similar to students, it has been exacerbated since COVID-19. Read more about this buzzword, self-care, and ways to remind your school staff on how to prioritize their health and well-being.
How to make a child feel safe
Developing and monitoring a safe school climate is the foundation of education-based mental health. Your school climate reflects the values, goals, norms, teaching styles, development opportunities, and interpersonal relationships among your district’s teachers and students.3
Students spend the majority of their days in the classroom surrounded by other students and staff, and their safety and comfort level can be drastically affected by your school’s climate. We acknowledge the hard work of schools that emphasize fostering a safe, inclusive, and welcoming environment for students and staff – In turn, producing the ideal learning environment.
The School Health Assessment and Performance Evaluation System (SHAPE) is an easily accessible tool for school districts to leverage, at no cost. SHAPE has the ability to address the current climate, evaluate strengths, identify areas for growth, and monitor progress in school mental health across districts.
Restrict access to self-harm materials
Medications and weapons can result in self-harm among students, however, if students cannot access these as easily, the risk of a dangerous incident decreases. We encourage school districts to take the lead in educating the community on best practices to store weapon and medications at home.3 Don’t forgot that your school building should also have established policies and procedures regarding medication and weapons in schools.
More than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, based on the CDC’s data. This, combined with access to weapons and drugs, can result in a recipe for disaster. All firearms and medications at home (including over-the-counter) should be securely stored and locked, and school districts have the opportunity to remind parents and guardians of potential dangers in the home.
A student may experience an emergency-related trauma of displacement or home loss, structural damage or destruction, injury or loss of life, or acts of violence. Compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma are additional, secondary forms of trauma according to the Readiness and Emergency Management of Schools.4
The effects of trauma can drastically affect a child when they no longer feel safe. This will result in social isolation, ongoing difficulty relating to others, difficulty regulating emotions, and negatively impact student performance in the classroom. Note that trauma isn’t the only cause of poor mental health. Students can experience anxiety, eating disorders, or depression that are all leading causes of mental health struggles.
What can schools do to combat the trauma? We recommend that staff are trained on an ongoing basis so they can recognize trauma and its impact, recognize signs and symptoms, and respond by integrating trauma knowledge. Learn more about the different types of trauma and how schools can approach these students.
How to make a child feel engaged and connected
“School connectedness” is the sense of being cared for, supported, and belonging according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC outlines that fewer than half (47%) of youth reported feeling close to people at school during the pandemic. Below are ways schools can take action to help their students establish a sense of belonging2:
- Promote clubs, volunteering, and charity work for students to be involved in
- Establish a mentor/mentee program to allow students to develop connections with older peers or teachers to provide support beyond the classroom
- Create opportunities to enable parents and guardians to be involved in their child’s school, through regular meetings and parent workshops
Establishing “school connectedness” is directly linked to a positive school climate. When a child feels safe and supported, it is because the school climate allows them to create genuine and meaningful connections, while growing academically. Prosocial behaviors build self-esteem, so remind staff and children that everyone can make a difference in making their peers feel a sense of belonging.
Districts have the opportunity to remind parents and staff about ways to approach conversations with children regarding mental health. In many cases, children hide their emotions, so remind children that their feelings matter and you care about their mental health. If you notice a child acting withdrawn, recognize their struggle as a sign to approach them and ask questions. The key takeaway here is to actively listen and make an effort to understand what that individual is experiencing, while providing support.
How to make a child feel supported
Minimizing the stigma and instilling resiliency
Schools must continue to work to minimize the mental health stigma. Many students don’t seek help for their mental illness because it is seen as a sign of weakness. Schools can reframe this stigma and normalize the idea that students AND adults use therapy. Teaching students how to display resilience in the face of adversity, rather than ignoring the issue or hiding it, will result in better mental health as well.
Schools have the opportunity to openly discuss problems they are seeing in their districts, and provide resources to combat the issues. Schools can leverage newsletters, web sources, and on-site events to help spread the word about mental health services available to students.3
There is a huge value when students have the ability to connect with local resources in schools (other students, staff, school counselors, etc.) and in the community (local provider delivery systems, mental health professionals, and county/municipal resources).
Connection to life fatigue
The growing mental health concern among students coincides with the phenomena of life fatigue we are seeing in employees in every industry. These resources address emotional, physical, and financial health – all aspects that contribute to life fatigue that students and staff may face too. Take a look at these sources and see how your district can leverage community resources.
Adjust approach to intervention
When a child expresses problem behavior that displays unmanaged anger, withdrawal, or self-harm, many schools have switched from punitive to support-based approaches. Rather than punishing a student who acts out, the student might be offered an opportunity to engage in mental health activities offered by the school, including spending time with counselors or at a “re-set center” for space to process complicated emotions.3
Rather than meeting negative behavior with negative consequences, schools must address the root of the mental health issues among students.
Signs of poor mental health among students
Educators are some of the best individuals to determine early signs of mental health problems among students. This is because educators see firsthand how students interact with their peers and handle high-pressure situations (like taking exams). Although their job is to educate students on the curriculum, mental health can drastically affect the student’s ability to stay motivated in the classroom.
Here are some early signs of mental health issues, so that school counselors, nurses, and other administrators can be alerted5:
- Suddenly overwhelmed for no reason
- Involved in fights or desire to hurt others
- Feeling sad or withdrawn for conversations for more than two weeks
- No eating, throwing up, or using laxatives to make oneself lose weight
- Drastic changes to the student’s personality
- Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
- Extreme difficulty in concentrating
Educators should be aware of behavior issues and how they can translate into early signs of poor mental health. Providing education to staff, parents, and other students will allow for early detection. It’s also important to determine young individuals at risk of experiencing mental health problems, especially students who have experienced trauma or presenting early signs of poor mental health.
Life fatigue and the growing mental health crisis are on school districts radars. Schools are being heavily relied upon to address student mental health. The whole child approach – ensuring the child feels safe, engaged, and supported – is essential to reducing this growing crisis in your district.
- Make sure the child feels safe by monitoring the school climate, educating parents on weapon and substance access, and recognizing trauma signs
- Make sure the child feels engaged and connected by organizing a diversity of extracurriculars and providing students with active listeners (parents and staff)
- Make sure the child feels supported by normalizing challenges with mental health and using intervention techniques with your established mental health teams: counselors, social workers, school psychologists, etc.
- Educate teachers and staff on early signs of mental health