How We Can Support Students and School Communities Through Crisis
In communities across the country, students and the adults who teach, support, and care for them are struggling under the weight of more than two years of uncertainty, fear, and lack of safety from the COVID-19 pandemic. BIPOC families have disproportionately experienced some of the most disruptive impacts due to the pervasive context of systemic racism, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. The stress of the pandemic has been particularly hard on young people. The American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association have declared a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.
To support students and school communities through the current crisis, we should adopt an approach that is both responsive and proactive. How might we leverage our understanding of the roots of this crisis to point toward solutions—both at the level of our systems and in the context of our relationships to young people?
Turnaround for Children is highlighting four priorities from whole-child design, along with practical tools and resources for educators and school staff, to both address the current crisis and make a down payment on the long-term changes that are needed to address children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and academic needs, right now and in the future—so they can thrive.
4 Priorities from Whole-Child Design
- Take every opportunity to get to know students deeply
- Use tiered supports to respond urgently to each and every student’s social, emotional, and academic needs in an integrated way
- Embrace a team approach to mental health—all adults in the school community have a role to play
- Promote the well-being of the adults who care for young people
A whole-child approach to learning and development considers each young person’s social, emotional, academic, and cognitive development holistically. Today, It’s more important than ever to focus on the needs of the whole child: The science of learning and development demonstrates that all learning is integrated—no part of the brain develops in isolation. It would be a false choice to think we can focus on academic recovery without also addressing the critical social and emotional needs of children who have been living through the effects of the pandemic.
Take every opportunity to get to know students deeply
Relationships should be at the core of everything we do in schools, because strong relationships can reduce stress—for both children and adults, address trauma, and bolster young people’s belief in themselves and their futures.
Students need to believe that the adults at school care about them and are there for them. Getting to know students deeply helps adults in their lives to better understand and act responsively toward how students are feeling and functioning.
Attuned, responsive, positive developmental relationships—between and among teachers, students, school leaders, and other adults in the community—should become the foundation for all we do in schools.
“When we talk about relationships, we’re not just talking about being nice to a child, we’re talking about deep connections that are built through presence and through trust.”
—Pamela Cantor, M.D., Turnaround for Children Founder and Senior Science Advisor
No one has time to take on anything “extra” right now. The good news for educators is that the regular interactions they already have with their students offer myriad opportunities to build trust and develop positive relationships. Educators can use these moments to learn about the unique strengths and challenges of each student.
Use tiered supports to respond urgently to each and every student’s social, emotional, and academic needs in an integrated way
Schools with supports and protective factors intentionally woven into the fabric of the community can nurture well-being and enable resilience and academic recovery for all students, including youth who have faced or are facing serious adversity and trauma, from the pandemic or otherwise.
Now, more than ever before, schools are charged with understanding the impact of trauma and working collaboratively to address and meet the needs of students and staff. Schools need to be prepared to address a variety of individual needs and barriers urgently with supports that are holistic, personalized, and culturally affirming to meet students where they are.
Students are asking for it, and we have the tools to do it: we can create one unified student experience across social, emotional, and academic supports. Integrated supports should systematically assess students’ comprehensive needs and strengths and coordinate resources in a unified and collaborative way, through a tiered supports system. Such a system offers proactive universal supports (to everyone), supplemental supports (to some students), and intensive supports (to students with the highest need), including a crisis plan component that is responsive rather than just reactive, one that allows for students who are experiencing disruptions in their health, mood, behavior, and/or skill development to receive support immediately.
Embrace a team approach to mental health—all adults in the school community have a role to play
The mental health and emotional wellbeing of all children is a job not for the few. The collective trauma stemming from the pandemic and impacts of systemic racism will be felt by all staff, students, caregivers, and the community of a school and calls for a collective response.
Schools need a team approach to mental health, where expertise is distributed, as opposed to concentrated in one (often under-resourced) mental health professional; an approach that centers families and connects with resources from across a student’s community to build resilience.
A whole-child, integrated approach to addressing the emergency in children’s mental health that we are experiencing today, where what is emphasized is the fit between what a young person needs, and the nature of the intervention provided, will not just address immediate needs but help set the groundwork for an education system that is centered around wellbeing, healthy development, learning and thriving for the future.
Promote the well-being of the adults who care for young people
The collective and for many traumatic experience of COVID has an added dimension of challenge, in that it has deeply affected the lives of both students and those who support their development. The need has perhaps never been more apparent: our school communities must work together to value and support the mental and physical health of the adults who teach and care for students in order to develop healthy children.
The science of learning and development tells us that when students are stressed, it becomes more difficult for them to engage in learning. Likewise, when the adults who care for and teach students are faced with the extraordinary and often unyielding levels of stress that educators and staff have faced over the past two years in particular, while also managing student’s stress, it becomes more difficult for them to show up as their best selves. This can yield negative outcomes for both staff and students. What would it look like to support, respect and value the well-being of all school community members, including students, teachers, families, staff, and leaders?
“Advocating for young people inherently means advocating for the adults who care for them.”
—Renee Prince, LCSW, Turnaround for Children Mental Health Integration Director