By Curtis Linton
Nearly overnight, COVID disrupted millions of kids’ lives. Students saw family members lose their jobs, become sick, and struggle with isolation. Students themselves went from attending in-person classes to learning remotely and not seeing their friends for several months. Due to this isolation, students are less likely to turn to schools when they need help.
The effects of the pandemic have taken a huge toll on students’ mental and emotional health, which already were trending in the wrong direction. As we are recognizing, students reported experiencing poor mental health both before and during the pandemic.
This information is alarming for families and for the educators tasked with ensuring students’ well-being. While schools are back to in-person learning, that doesn’t mean the trauma from social isolation and from losing loved ones will just disappear.
When students face social, emotional, and mental health challenges, the negative impact is lasting. The toxic stress caused by these experiences affects students’ brain development, immune systems, and stress response, which can disrupt their attention, decision-making abilities, and learning.
Every day that students suffer unsupported, they become less likely to remain engaged in school. If students don’t get the social, emotional, and mental health assistance they need, this can have long-term effects on their health and wellness, their education, and their future success.
Working together for student success
Connecting students with the help they need requires a total team effort. It calls for teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, school psychologists, paraprofessionals, and other school and district employees to work together on behalf of each child to ensure that students are fully supported.
When students are suffering emotionally, the first step in getting them the support they need is to know what’s going on. This relies on teachers, paraprofessionals, and other “boots on the ground” educators who are working with students every day to understand the warning signs and report their concerns if they suspect the presence of mental illness or trauma. This evidence should be entered into a good case management system in order to track and monitor the school’s response.
When a student is identified as possibly needing intervention, administrators should convene a collaborative team consisting of a guidance counselor, a school psychologist, the building principal or vice principal, the student’s parent or guardian, and any other relevant professionals. This team is responsible for evaluating the student’s mental or emotional state and providing counseling or referring the student to a mental health professional as necessary. Utilizing a case management system, the team can assign, track and monitor, and effectively report on student progress.
If students are referred to an outside professional, the case shouldn’t end there. Effective case management involves meticulous follow-through to ensure a successful resolution to the problem and to determine what might be learned from the experience.
Communication is key
There is a trend among schools today to use digital technologies such as classroom management software or social and emotional learning tools to automatically “flag” students who might be suffering from trauma or who may pose a danger to themselves or others. While this information is critical, teachers often ask “yes, but now what?”
While these digital tools have their place in helping K–12 leaders identify students in need of assistance, this should be done with the proper tools to case manage the support and follow through. Connecting students with mental health supports is fundamentally a human endeavor, but interpreting the data and understanding the most appropriate course of action needs to be done by experienced professionals who know how to respond to the student’s needs.
This total team effort requires close communication and coordination between staff members. Ad-hoc communication in the hallway between a principal and a teacher or guidance counselor isn’t enough to ensure that no steps are missed and nothing falls through the cracks. Paper files, sticky notes, Excel spreadsheets and email also fall short, because they don’t give all team members complete yet confidential visibility into the information they need to ensure appropriate follow-through on tasks.
What’s needed is a secure, private platform that allows K–12 teams to track and manage all aspects of this collaborative process—including recording their concerns about students, uploading supporting evidence, referring students to social and mental health services, and monitoring follow-up. An example is the MyConcern app, which allows team members to work together more effectively to protect students’ well-being.
While student mental health is a growing problem, taking a team-based approach to solving it—aided by effective communication and the right supporting tools—can ensure that students quickly get the help they need to thrive.
Curtis Linton is executive director of Safeguarding, U.S.A., a provider of software and training to systemically protect students’ well-being through efficient case management and record keeping.