Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on the hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.
It’s going to take an innovative approach to heal the damage done by the mental health crisis that’s affecting all parts of society, especially our schools. Children, teens and teachers have been disproportionately affected by this crisis. Schools are expected and want to help address the mental health of their communities, but they face unprecedented shortages in the staff and resources needed.
Two years of struggling through the pandemic has only amplified this health crisis, with 63% of teens now suffering from significant symptoms of anxiety or depression. Traditionally, the burden of addressing this growing problem has fallen on school counselors and school psychologists. While counselors certainly play a key role in helping students work through challenges, they are outnumbered 408 to 1 on average. Counselors desperately need support to work with students who are struggling while also helping teach all students critical life skills such as:
- Responsible decision-making
With the rise of mental health concerns among students and educators, it is clear that traditional approaches to mental health support are not enough. The good news is that there are trusted partners who can work with school leaders to support the development of healthy skills, habits and mindsets, both in and out of the classroom.
People come first with mental health support
To truly improve the mental health and well-being of students, educators and families, there is no substitute for human connection. Programs that bring in experienced mental health professionals and coaches — in addition to online learning — can better engage and connect with students on issues that are happening now in their daily lives. Live coaching can help create a safe environment to talk about life’s challenges and evidence-based coping strategies.
It is essential that mental health professionals and coaches represent a wide variety of backgrounds. Diverse representation provides different experiences and unique perspectives to connect and build trust with students from all types of backgrounds.
While technology certainly plays a role in addressing mental health support in K-12 schools, it should help expand accessibility of human interaction and support. Technology can also provide value to students and families by giving them access to on-demand resources and support outside of traditional school hours. For example, schools can implement technology in ways that enhance the core curriculum, such as short video lessons or school-wide mindfulness challenges and other gamified learning activities.
Supporting educator, other staff is critical
To ensure the biggest impact, programs need to support the mental health and well-being of the entire school community. This includes the teachers, counselors and critical support staff such as cafeteria and transportation workers. The demands of the job can often take a toll on their own mental health. Along with raising teacher pay, support services need to be in place to help reverse the trend of teachers leaving the profession.
There’s real power when school leaders initiate compassionate and well-informed dialogues with their teachers and staff. Group coaching provides a safe environment for educators and staff to talk about their challenges and learn evidence-based strategies to improve their own mental health and well-being as well as that of their students.
Schools must create supportive and empowering work environments by providing teachers with the tools, resources and the support they need to succeed. This will foster a culture of collaboration and teamwork, while making educators feel valued for their hard work and dedication.
By taking care of the educators and non-instructional staff, we can ensure that they have the energy and resources to support the mental health and well-being of their students.
Start with connection
Connection should be the starting point of everything that a mental health support program offers. Human connectedness acts as a barometer for social and emotional well-being. Children and teens who feel connected at home and at school are more likely to succeed emotionally and academically.
Developing an environment of care and nurturing that includes more human-to-human connections benefits well-being within the entire school ecosystem. Educators can actively facilitate connection, whether they give students time that is specifically meant for connection and collaborative work or lead classes through activities that help students bond with one another.
Coaches working within the school system can also foster true connections with students and teachers while building and reinforcing life skills such as resiliency and mindfulness. With the program I founded, six weeks of group coaching in a New York City public school in summer 2022 resulted in a 25% increase in connectedness scores — an evidence-based, well-being assessment — showing students developed markedly better well-being for themselves and connection with their families, their school and their peers.
When schools prioritize human connection and support, they create a culture of care and empathy that benefits everyone.
Sonny Thadani is CEO and co-founder of Robin, a mental health and well-being solution designed to support the future of learning through live group coaching, real-life curriculum and community-building school activities. Sonny’s passion for education and mental health came after working with Sandy Hook Promise, an organization dedicated to improving the lives and mental well-being of students across the US.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.