The Intersection of SEL, Mental Health Care, and Challenging Behaviors

By all accounts, Chris had been an average student. He made good grades, but not perfect. He got along well with most of his peers. Teachers enjoyed having him in their classes. But things have changed since Chris returned to school this year. His grades dropped. He seemed to get angry at other students frequently. Chris even began talking back to teachers and other adults with whom he’d related well only two years ago.

Stories like this have become all too common in schools across the country this year. Students returned to a school different from the one they had left. Regardless of where a student lived, there were changes. Some students were learning virtually, some in person. Some students were required to distance and wear masks; some weren’t. Some students struggled to get back into a typical routine, complete and turn in assignments, and interact with others in person. Many struggled with the added stress and trauma of illness, fear, and even the death of loved ones. The results are alarming.

According to several recent studies, concerns over students’ social-emotional wellbeing and mental health have reached crisis levels. Sixty-one percent of teens are now thinking more about their social-emotional safety, while only 12.5% have confidence that their school is doing its best to create an atmosphere of safety (Navigate360 & Zogby, 2020). In one study, more than half of 11-17-year-olds reported having thoughts of suicide (Mental Health America, 2022). Health providers and insurance companies saw a 97% increase in mental health claims for 13-18-year-olds in 2020 (Fair Health, 2021).

Reports such as these have resulted in leading education and health agencies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (2021) to declare student mental health a national emergency The U.S. Surgeon General’s Office (2021) issued an advisory about protecting youth mental health stressing what educators, school staff, and school districts can do (see below).

U.S. Surgeon General’s Office Recommendations

Further, the U.S. Department of Education (2021) released a report designed to help schools identify related challenges and provided recommendations for addressing them. Most notably, the report included recommendations to prioritize wellness for every child, student, educator, and provider, to enhance mental health literacy and reduce stigma and barriers to access, implement a continuum of evidence-based prevention strategies, establish an integrated framework of educational, social, emotional, and behavioral health support for all.

A Tiered Approach

The common theme is the need for high-quality Tier 1 social-emotional learning (SEL) for all students with additional mental health and behavioral support for students requiring more intensive interventions (see Figure 1). At the Tier 1 level, provide high-quality SEL and mental health curricula to all students to foster the skills needed to develop and maintain social, emotional, and mental wellness. At the Tier 2 level, utilize additional supports, including small groups, individualized lessons, and progress monitoring to help students who need more intense instruction to support wellness. At the Tier 3 level, individualize SEL, mental health, and intervention lessons and support measures to meet the needs of students requiring even higher levels of support.

The intersection of SEL, mental health awareness, and appropriate responses to challenging behaviors becomes clear. Students equipped with the social, emotional, and mental health care skills needed to develop resilience will fare better than those who are not. Those students who still require greater levels of support can receive it through additional individualized interventions and education. This includes those students who had already been identified with social, emotional, mental health, or behavioral needs before the pandemic, as well as other students who may have experienced trauma throughout the pandemic. Addressing this intersection requires taking a whole-child approach to SEL, mental health awareness, and restorative practices to help students respond to challenges in a healthy way.

Levels of Care

Implementation of high-quality SEL, mental health awareness, and restorative practices rarely starts in the classroom. In most cases, it takes leaders who are invested in the process and who recognize the importance of taking this whole-child approach. Administrators and school leaders can:

  • Create a plan of standardized management of challenging behaviors.
  • Encourage honest and supportive conversations about the struggles that staff are facing now.
  • Train staff on trauma-informed practices.
  • Provide tools for school staff (at all levels) to support their own social, emotional, and mental wellbeing.
  • Develop a district or schoolwide suicide prevention policy.

Inherent in This Process is the Involvement of All School Staff

Every adult at your school who comes into contact with students has the ability to impact students positively or negatively. Include staff working in the front office, the cafeteria, the library, the nurse’s office, or anywhere else in the school as you strive to support students’ social-emotional learning and mental health awareness.

  • Facilitate honest and supportive conversations.
  • Show appreciation and understanding of the stress others experience.
  • Start a random acts of kindness program.
  • Implement a suicide prevention program.
  • Support mental health care of all school staff.
  • Train staff to use restorative practices.

Let us not forget the role that parents and caregivers play in supporting students’ social-emotional and mental health. Many of the families of your “challenging” students may be in crisis themselves. We all saw the stories and still do in some areas of essential workers working tirelessly, of people losing loved ones, of people living in fear, of people losing jobs and not knowing how they will provide for their families. We also saw stories of families coming together and reconnecting. We cannot assume that we understand where families are, how they experienced the pandemic, or how that has impacted interactions within the family.

But we can offer support to caregivers

  • Offer regular family workshops using a variety of formats and ways for parents and caregivers to participate (e.g., in-person, virtual, synchronous, asynchronous, etc.).
  • Provide many opportunities to encourage communication.
  • Provide content to help caregivers talk with their children about difficult topics.

Administrators, school staff, and caregivers who get the support they need will be better equipped to support the students we are all trying to serve. As you begin to dive deeper into the topics surrounding SEL, mental health awareness, and restorative practices, consider how you may involve students themselves in the process. Students of all ages may simply need a time and place to talk with a trusted adult about their experiences. Some students may be able to tell you what they need.

All students will need support

  • Include crisis lines (phone and text) on ID cards and post all around the school.
  • Implement a random acts of kindness program for students.
  • Use storytelling and community circles to build relationships.
  • Create a calm-down corner or sensory box in each classroom.
  • Ensure that students know when and where they can meet with trusted adults.
  • Pause for daily mindfulness and check-ins.
  • Use brain breaks.
  • Create a mentoring program between students and adults and among students.
  • Focus on restorative practices rather than punitive responses.
  • Incorporate SEL and mental health awareness at all tiers of instruction.

Next Steps

Recognizing the intersection of social-emotional learning, mental health awareness, and challenging behaviors is an important first step in supporting students today. Students who have healthy social, emotional, self-care, and coping skills are more resilient and better able to manage the challenges of the post-pandemic age. Developing those skills for students who may be struggling currently will no doubt improve their long-term outcomes. Additionally, as students are better able to manage their internal selves, they will be better able to focus on learning. We see evidence of this in countless studies showing the academic gains experienced by students who participate in social-emotional learning programs. Further still, when students can manage social and emotional demands while proactively caring for their mental health, classroom distractions caused by challenging behaviors diminish, allowing individual teachers more instructional time.

Pause and consider how your school or district currently addresses social, emotional, mental health, and behavioral challenges. Do you use a whole-child approach? Are the programs or curricula used consistent in their terminology and message to students? Can they meet the needs of students at all tiers of instruction? If not, then perhaps it is time for you to take a closer look at how you can use the intersection of SEL and mental health awareness to minimize the challenging behaviors and support students where they are.


American Academy of Pediatrics (2021, October 19). A declaration from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association: Declaration of national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

Fair Health (2021, March 2). The impact of COVID-19 on pediatric mental health: A study of private healthcare claims.

Mental Health America (2022). The state of mental health in America.

Navigate360 & Zogby (2020, August 28). A sobering reality.

U.S. Department of Education (2021). Supporting child and student social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs.

U.S. Surgeon General’s Office (2021). Protecting youth mental health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory.

Dr. Crystal Ladwig is the Vice President of Curriculum for Mental Health and Wellness with Navigate360, a company dedicated to safety and wellness solutions for schools, where she leads the development and implementation of social, emotional, and mental health curricula for students, staff, and caregivers. Dr. Ladwig works with school leaders across the country to support their efforts to help students thrive.

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