ClassTag Connect / Mar 30, 2021

Mental Health In Schools: A Guide To Best Practices

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Mental health in schools needs more attention and support. Although mental wellness is not a new concern, supporting mental health is a new priority for educators. Leaders who strive to enhance mental health in schools should build on four key resources: specialists, families, teams, and data.


Listen To Mental Health Specialists

Mental health is a complicated topic in any setting. In schools, however, many factors come into play. Generally, educators offer supports that are developmentally appropriate. Teachers are experts at academic development, but they rely on mental health providers for more specialized insights. For example, common school specialists include psychologists, counselors, social workers, and special service providers. In addition to direct mental health services, these experts support different types of speech, occupational, and physical therapy. Colleagues who support mental health in schools also hold licenses and certifications. In addition, they are often members of professional associations. Specifically, two of the prominent organizations that support mental wellness are the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP); and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). NASP hosts an archive of resources and publications for educators and providers. Similarly, CASEL offers background and research for planning and implementation.

Maximize Family Engagement

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ClassTag Connect unifies and streamlines all family engagement activity.

Clearly, mental wellness reflects strengths across many domains. Although school is important, families are more foundational. Educators can support mental health at school, but they depend on families to support mental health at home. In effect, the two settings can reinforce or undermine each other. Consequently, communication and engagement between school and home are essential to promote mental wellness. When schools and districts encourage family engagement, educators are empowered to partner with parents. Specifically, school systems that invest resources to train and facilitate communication with parents, create a resource to support mental health.

Unless a school system has a strategy for family engagement, educators have to improvise plans to support mental health. To clarify, many educators have insights about students’ mental health, but they do not always have a way to share those insights with families. In systems where students see multiple teachers and providers, the lack of a common platform can undermine partnerships for mental health. Conversely, when schools and leaders develop a system to exchange insights with families, students benefit from adult collaboration.

Students who experience mental health struggles often express those challenges at home and school. Because it can be illuminating to compare multiple settings, many assessments of student mental health require observations in both places. Unlike academic performance, which is typically measured at school, mental health should be tracked in all major life settings. Therefore, building channels of parent engagement before you need them is a basic requirement of supporting mental health in schools.

Systems that can log and quantify parent involvement give school leaders an additional, important tool for supporting students. Correlating parent engagement with student mental wellness can motivate parents and educators to set goals and improve the frequency and quality of their engagement.

Build A Mental Health School Team

Caring for mental health is difficult and complex. For this reason, it is imperative that schools build mental health teams to support adults and students. One benefit of a team approach is that providers get access to wisdom and insights from multiple professionals. That practice certainly helps students, because the exchange of perspectives makes every professional better. A second benefit is the mental health support for educators and other providers. There’s a modern saying in the helping professions that we should “Never worry alone.” There’s an even older saying that, “A burden shared is a burden halved.” Taken together, these proverbs illustrate the importance of teaming up to tackle complicated problems.

Compared to other challenges, supporting mental health requires clear boundaries and strong interpersonal skills. It can be difficult to empathize with student struggles without being drawn into the specifics of their personal situation. Many educators and providers enter the profession because they want to help and support children. However, that impulse to help can create vulnerability or liability. Working with a team can mitigate those risks by helping individuals anticipate and prevent inappropriate enmeshment.

A strong school mental health team will include professionals from multiple specialties, as well as generalists and those who interact with students in a variety of settings. If the team doesn’t have parent members, then leaders must develop an explicit process to integrate parent perspectives into the work and planning of the team. Accordingly, making parent involvement a priority for supporting mental health mandates clear support from senior leaders.

Monitor Progress On Mental Health

Like any major initiative, supporting mental health at school will generate a variety of observable and measurable results. Students and adults can report their own perceptions of mental wellness. Parents and community members can share their own awareness of mental health conditions and challenges. As a complex challenge, mental health support will result in a body of evidence including leading and lagging indicators. Lagging (after-the-fact) indicators include student reports of despair, self-harm, or other destructive outcomes. Other lagging indicators could be how teachers or providers report individual and aggregate patterns of mental wellness.

Insightful leaders also know that measuring leading indicators can be a critical approach for preventive support. Tracking parent communications and measuring school performance against engagement targets can help leaders set priorities and provide resources. To illustrate, if a teacher or school demonstrates high levels of engagement, and improving levels of mental wellness, that correlation might support sharing parent communication as a best practice with other schools.

Conclusion

Mental health in school settings is a multi-faceted challenge that requires thoughtful and resourceful responses. Leaders and educators who employ all the assets of specialists, families, teams, and data create conditions to foster mental wellness and support whole-child success.

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