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Blog Nov 24, 2021

Tiered Supports: How To Address Children’s Mental Health Right Now

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

By Renee Prince, LCSW, Director of Mental Health Integration

The dual pandemics of COVID-19 and ongoing, often violent, systemic racism compound the existing adversities already faced by students. Unfortunately, we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. At the same time, we continue to suffer the impacts of racism, particularly on people of color.

The nature of the two pandemics are examples of collective trauma, as these types of experiences are widespread and have both a psychological and physical impact on individuals, groups, and communities. The recent declaration of a national emergency in children’s mental health by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), and Children’s Hospital Association reflects an acknowledgement and understanding of this collective trauma and how it is affecting our children.

In the context of schools, collective trauma impacts all staff, students, caregivers, and the surrounding community. For children, this can be particularly distressing: They may have lost a loved one, have had significant changes to their routine—such as the inability to go to school and engage in other social activities—and have felt the impact of the stress of their caregivers or friends, particularly if they have had constant exposure to it in the media. A tiered system of supports is one of many structures within schools that can promote and support both the mental health of students as well as drive toward equitable outcomes. A tiered system of support can provide universal supports that benefit all students, along with targeted and or urgent supports that help students who need it the most. Student support professionals in school settings are primarily responsible for designing and implementing their systems of support and are therefore best positioned to integrate mental health supports in a way that meets the needs of students. With that said, teaching staff can support by creating equitable, supportive environments, while recognizing and ensuring students are connected to systems of support in a timely manner.

Keeping in mind the impact of historical and ongoing biased and racist perspectives reflected in the traditional design of and ongoing practices within school settings, we must think differently, and collectively, about how we support all students and each other.

How can we begin to dismantle and mitigate the effects of trauma and ongoing inequitable beliefs, policies, and practices?

The science of learning and development tells us that we can design settings that support and center the learner through equitable whole-child design. Understanding and leveraging context (outside and within the school setting) is how we begin to apply a holistic approach. This perspective requires us to dig deeper and think about all aspects impacting children before moving forward.

Our actions reflect our mindset and beliefs, and so do our systems and practices. How we think about, talk about, and respond to our students is crucial to their success as individuals.

A tiered system of support can be leveraged to promote equitable outcomes for students. A tiered system of support that is aligned to whole-child design is a framework for an adaptive, responsive, continuum of academic, social, emotional) supports for all students.

Systems of support are developed and implemented in service of equity and holistic outcomes, so that all students can thrive. Here are the guiding principles:

  • Recognize and support the needs of all children.
  • Provide supports in an integrated way.
  • Require strong collaboration among all adults in a student’s context.
  • Operate with an understanding of the impact of trauma and adversity on learning and development.

Typically, supports vary in level of intensity, from Tier 1 practices that benefit all students, to Tier 2 selective supports for students with additional needs, to Tier 3, targeted supports for students with more significant needs.

Application of this framework through the Tier 1 level of support is where we begin to proactively create environments that support the development of relationships, skills and mindsets, and rich instructional practices. It is also at this level where we might find that for some students — or in the case of the pandemic, for many students—the strategies are not sufficient, and more may need to be done. We have to upgrade how we go about creating a safe environment—not just for physical safety, but emotional safety as well. This approach should be considered prior to accessing other more targeted supports within the tiered system.

Turnaround for Children created a suite of tools and resources to assist educators in building their knowledge, shifting their mindset, designing their systems, and refining their practices.

I invite all educators to use our tools to assess and reflect on their systems of support; reflect on their mindsets, beliefs, and practices; reflect on the quality of collaboration among staff and engagement of families; and individually and collaboratively plan for improvements.

The mental health and emotional wellbeing of all children is a priority. We must recognize that this is not a job for the few, but a job for us all as a collective.