As schools around the country open their doors to welcome back students, educators and administrators are eager to jump into academics. From kindergarteners through high school students, teachers are feeling the pressure to use every instructional minute to fill learning gaps and address concerns that have emerged over the past three school years.
It is essential that this hyper-focus on academics does not exclude energy and attention on student mental health. In order to cultivate meaningful and holistic growth and development, it is critical that schools proactively and continually consider and support student mental health and wellbeing throughout the school year.
Mental Health is a Precursor to
Learning & Growth
Mental health struggles for students–especially adolescents and teens–have been well-documented over the course of the pandemic. Research has shown that poor mental health has negative effects on students’ ability to learn, creativity, connections with others, physical health, and overall motivation and productivity. Said differently, when students are feeling isolated or sad, they are unable to collaborate with peers or deeply engage in content at school. Further, emotional distress or depression can be a cause of repeated absences, disengagement, or behavioral concerns at school–disrupting the learning environment for all students in a classroom or school community.
Counselors as Mental Health Leaders
As a growing number of students across the K-12 spectrum have reported declines in emotional wellbeing through the waves of challenges and disruptions–including the hopeful transition back to a form of normalcy–it is critical for counselors to be mental health leaders within a school. They must ensure that school staff are paying attention to students’ mental health, normalize mental health needs and support, and work with other educators to build in regular opportunities for all students to take mental health breaks and pause, breathe, or move as needed.
Help Identify Needs.
Counselors can ensure that educators are paying attention to the mental health of all students, especially during high-stress times such as transitions between breaks, exam periods, or other testing windows. They can make special note of students who have struggled in the past and put in place proactive measures to support their needs. They can share signs of anxiety, depression, or any worrisome behaviors that may be manifestations of mental health struggles so teachers and other staff are prepared.
Counselors are mental health advocates within a school building. When concerns about student behavior or academics emerge, counselors can expand conversations to include student mental health in both understanding the causes and taking steps to support the student.
Communicate Important Information and Resources.
At the beginning of the school year, counselors can ask administrators to include information about school and district mental health services in emails and newsletters. Specifically, counselors can share a list of who to contact for various needs and concerns.
Throughout the school year, counselors can work with other support staff in a building to organize information for students and families about available resources and how to access them. This regular communication helps families to have what they need when they need it and normalizes the utilization of mental health supports.
Build a Culture that Prioritizes Wellbeing.
Student emotional wellbeing sets the foundation for all growth and development. Counselors can model simple, proactive approaches to wellbeing for students and educators. This might include beginning staff trainings, parent meetings, or class periods with breathing or movement activities or quick check-ins about how individuals are feeling. This conveys to students, families, and staff that they are cared for, that mental health is important, and that emotional wellbeing is worthy of time and attention. Doing this on a regular basis builds healthy habits across a school community and works to nurture student growth, development, relationships, and overall success.