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Supporting student mental health in schools

Educator offers various strategies for working together to support students’ psychological and social wellness.

5 min read

EducationEducational Leadership

student sitting against school locker with his head buried in his arms on his knees for article on student mental health

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Pedro Olvera Headshot for article on student mental health

From anxiety and depression to autism and attention-deficit disorder, students in kindergarten through 12th grade live with psychological, social and emotional challenges that don’t disappear once they enter the school building. One in 6 US children ages 6 to 17 experience a mental health disorder yearly, making student mental health a key challenge.

  • 1 in 36 (2.8%) 8-year-old children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, higher than the previous 2018 estimate that found a prevalence of 1 in 44 (2.3%), according to the Centers for Disease Control.
  • 10.8% of children between the ages of 5 and 17 were diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder between 2016 and 2018, up more than 4% since 1997.

The government is worried about student mental health

As a bilingual educational psychologist, I know that student mental health challenges aren’t diminishing in the post-pandemic world. The Centers for Disease Control’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey noted that more than 40% of high-school students reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and more than 20% said they’d thought about attempting suicide. This prompted the government to allocate more than $188 million in federal funding to hire school-based social workers, mental health counselors and school psychologists. 

School psychologists play a crucial role in supporting their students’ well-being and academic success — and right now they’re in high demand.

In 2021-22, each school psychologist was responsible for, on average, 1,100 students, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. That ratio should be closer to 500 students for every psychologist. To make up for gaps in service and better serve students, school administrators must engage with educators and staff at all levels and look for innovative ways to connect families to other resources in their schools and communities. 

Overcoming barriers to mental health access

Several beliefs prevent eligible families from accessing mental health services for their children, including:

  • The perceived stigma of having their child identified with a social, emotional or psychological challenge. 
  • Nuances in the English language, which may cause non-native speakers to opt out of services offered. For example, families:
    1. Might not speak or read English or understand American special education laws.
    2. Could worry that extra support services will burden them financially.
    3. May believe that findings from a student evaluation could result in their child being removed from their care. 
    4. Might assume their child would automatically be prescribed medication.

As communities continue to experience long wait times for counseling services, school psychologists are called upon to serve as the first line of support. We must remain mindful of cultural differences that could pose barriers to seeking services. 

Strategies for your school community

We know that if we don’t adequately address student mental health, we can’t improve academic outcomes. Improving social and emotional wellness requires awareness from educators at every level and buy-in from students. 

Some strategies can facilitate awareness and connection.

  • Teach kids how to identify and name their feelings, giving them the language to do something about it. 
  • Take mental health temperature checks to develop connection and trust. We want every kid to feel connected to someone so they can speak up and advocate for themselves. 
  • Forge strong relationships with teachers. Teachers see their students every day. They notice changes in mood or dress. They read their journals. They are the ones who develop rapport with students. 
  • Meet students where they are. Previously, interventions focused on changing the behaviors of a child to meet our perceptions of how they should act. Today, we focus on accepting the person as they are.
  • Collect student mental health data to give your school clear objectives and a path to success. Provide teachers with two questions they can ask students so they can help you collect data and better identify any changes in behavior.

Strategies for engaging parents 

Home-school partnerships go a long way toward illuminating the connection between student mental health and school achievement, even if a child isn’t currently experiencing any challenges. 

  • Establish regular communications with parents. 
  • Accommodate parents’ schedules after school hours and on weekends. Some parents might avoid meeting with you because they’re unable to leave work without repercussions. 
  • Be open to using virtual technology to support communication. When kids are in crisis, parents can quickly reach out virtually.
  • Work with community agencies to extend school support to the home. By collaborating, we can help families with children in crisis manage their own mental health.

In addition to making parents feel welcome, we must underscore that we’re all working toward the same goal.  

Consider supplementing your program with outside expertise

School psychologists are critical to students’ well-being and academic success. Still, they are responsible for performing various activities and serving hundreds of students.

As competition for these critical roles intensifies, schools need help attracting, supporting and retaining the best school psychologists, speech-language pathologists and occupational therapists. 

Contracting these services with an outside resource can help schools reduce the stressors and demands on overworked staff, giving them more time to focus on their students. These partners can help schools tap into a national network of clinicians who share their passion for student success. 


Pedro Olvera, Psy.D., L.E.P has been a bilingual school psychologist in public and private settings for over 21 years. He is a published writer and teaches coursework at Cal Baptist University in Riverside, Calif., in assessing ELLs, cognitive assessment, and enhancing collaboration with culturally and linguistically diverse families, as well as providing clinical support and professional development with BlazerWorks.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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