Educators are becoming increasingly aware of the impacts of the global pandemic on their students’ mental health and well-being. We’ve known for a while now the negative impacts that social isolation can have on child development. Prior to the pandemic, research showed that isolation and loneliness were often associated with psychological symptoms across childhood and adolescence. Recently, researchers have started to report findings on the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and youth. These research studies show that the social distancing and stay-at-home measures implemented at the beginning of the pandemic resulted in increased reports of depression and anxiety among students. Studies have also shown that these negative impacts are more likely to be amplified for students who were already disadvantaged and marginalized prior to the pandemic (i.e., students of color and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds).
Interestingly, students who felt connected to others throughout the pandemic were less likely to report internalizing symptoms (e.g., depression, anxiety, and stress). In addition to fostering positive connections and relationships, there are several ways that teachers and school staff can offset these negative outcomes. Below we provide four tips for how educators can support their students’ mental health and social-emotional well-being in order to address some of these potential negative impacts of the pandemic.
Focus on Relationship Building and SEL in Tier 1
When discussing mental health, educators often focus on those students requiring more intensive interventions and support. However, it is important to support students’ mental health and well-being at all levels within an MTSS model. This includes actively implementing strategies and practices that promote student well-being within the core classroom content. Most strategies and practices at the tier 1 level involve preventing behavioral and emotional problems by promoting positive relationships and teaching social-emotional skills. Positive social relationships with school staff and peers can be a critical protective factor for child and adolescent mental health. Specifically, positive relationships with school staff and teachers can be a protective factor for adolescents with less family support. Finding SEL programs and practices that are focused on relationship building can be a great place to start at the Tier 1 level of support. Harmony SEL and Random Acts of Kindness are examples of free and evidence-based preventative programs that can be implemented at the Tier 1 level that focus on building positive relationships.
These promotive and preventive practices should also be integrated into academic lessons and instruction. For example, using small group discussions and peer groups for problem-solving and collaboration can help engage students and build positive social skills (to learn more about this approach check out this great blog post). Talking about the perspectives, emotions, and feelings of characters within stories and drawing connections between literature and social studies content and students’ own experiences can be another great way to integrate SEL into academic content. When engaging in these discussions, teachers shouldn’t be afraid to talk about emotions and feelings in an open and supportive way. Some educators may avoid these kinds of topics because they are unsure how to respond to emotional reactions of their students, or they have difficulty expressing and addressing their own emotions. Support and professional development might be required for some educators to help them feel comfortable addressing these types of issues in their classroom. For more information and strategies on how to talk about emotions in the classroom, check out this interview with an SEL expert on the topic.
Use Validated Criteria and Assessments to Identify Students
Using valid and reliable assessments is always important in any MTSS practice; however, it is especially important when evaluating students’ mental health and well-being. Sometimes educators perceive social-emotional and behavioral assessments as clinical assessments that can be used to identify internalizing or externalizing disorders. There is an important distinction between assessments that ask about students’ behaviors such as social skills, self-regulation, cooperation, and problem-solving, and their psychological symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, and physical aggression. Behavioral and SEL universal screeners can be used by teachers and students to identify who may be at an increased risk for mental health problems, however, they do not mean the student has psychological symptoms or a mental health condition. This means the results from SEL or behavioral assessments can be used to identify students needing additional SEL or behavioral support or understand school- and grade-level patterns and trends, but they should not be used to label or diagnose students. Often, specialists, such as psychologists, social workers, and counselors should be the ones administering any kind of mental health or psychological assessment. This is usually done once the student has taken an initial screener and additional insight and observations have been provided by the classroom teacher, caregivers, and other adults that work with the student.
Have Trained Staff Members Implement Tier 2 and 3 Interventions
Students at an increased risk for mental health problems who are showing early signs or symptoms of mental health disorders should be receiving evidence-based programming or interventions. These are typically not the type of interventions that can be implemented by simply reading and following instructions in a manual or on a website. They also are not activities students can complete independently; guidance from trained professionals on the techniques or methods being used within the program and intervention is often required. Sometimes teachers can be trained on how to implement components of the program alongside a specialist with additional training and expertise. In other words, the classroom teacher is involved in the implementation but it is still overseen by a trained professional. When working with at-risk students or students identified as having a psychological disorder, schools should avoid homegrown programs and interventions and instead opt for ones that have been developed by trained professionals, such as psychologists and psychiatrists. The following websites are great resources for findings evidence-based mental health programs that can be implemented in school contexts by trained professionals:
Make Sure There is Consistency and Communication Across Levels of Support
Promotive and preventive practices being done at the Tier 1 level are also essential for those students who are receiving Tier 2 or Tier 3 levels of support as well as additional mental health services. There needs to be consistency across these contexts and areas of support in order for these programs to be successful. For example, if students are being taught by a coach or specialist certain techniques and strategies for regulating and expressing their emotions, classroom teachers should be made aware of these strategies and promote their use in the classroom as well. The classroom environment needs to also be supportive and inclusive in order for the skills being taught in smaller groups or one-on-one to transfer and stick.
The coordination and consistency across levels of support often requires ongoing communication between mental health support providers and classroom teachers. It is also important for specialists to have access to other related data on the student and vice versa. For example, specialists might need to review any reported behavior incidents and referrals by classroom teachers to know what kinds of impacts the intervention is having on the student’s behavior. Teachers should also be able to see how the implementation of a program or intervention is going and any progress the student is making as a result. Sometimes confidential information is shared during these targeted interventions, so some information needs to be kept private; nevertheless, it is important for classroom teachers to be aware of basic information related to implementation. In any effective MTSS framework, meetings are key. When working with students receiving mental health support, you would want to hold meetings where both specialists working with the student and the classroom teacher are present in order to review their data and see if the work being done in small groups or one-on-one is carrying over to student’s behavior and/or affect in the classroom.
Interested in Learning How to Support the Whole Child with Branching Minds?
Branching Minds makes MTSS easy, efficient, and effective by bringing together all of the components of MTSS so teachers can collaboratively problem-solve and support all students’ holistic needs. Our system-level solution helps schools improve students’ outcomes across academics, behavior, and SEL equitably.
Our platform supports teachers with Behavior and SEL in the following ways:
✅ Assessing SEL Needs with the DESSA ✅ Understand Students Perception of their Own SEL Competence with the SECA ✅ Leveraging SEL Screeners for Tiering ✅ More effective problem-solving ✅ Finding the Right Evidence-based Interventions & Accommodations for Each Learner ✅ Creating Intervention Plans and Monitoring Daily & Weekly Progress in Behavior/SEL ✅ Logging & Monitoring Behavior Incidents ✅ Pattern Matching Behavior Incidents Across Groups
Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.