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To Boost Student Mental Health, Support Teachers (Opinion)

Professional development since 2020 has featured some version of this check-in.

While we chuckled in person or virtually shared into a Zoom chat, we were met with shallow acknowledgement of stressors and then back to work we went. Education has had key shifts, and 2020 was different from those previous shifts. Between school shutdowns, an unprecedented mistrust of community toward educators, and political divide in society, it is no wonder sessions opened with tiptoeing around the needs of educators. These challenges have persisted while changing the landscape of our schools.

A more accurate check-in might look like this:

When considering these squares from real voices, it may be hard to identify with one. We must brace ourselves for deeper challenges, including a looming fiscal cliff. As budgets tighten, critical resources dwindle. Support that offset behavior and mental health are among the first to go. Our teachers, academic counselors, and administrators will be left with the task of serving as ill-prepared and ill-equipped behavioral interventionist, mental health professional, and social-skills instructor. That goes in tandem with expectations of taking students with learning gaps to higher academic levels.

While well-meaning districts and leaders have facilitated after-school yoga sessions, like many other ideas, it falls short. A group of teachers, paraprofessionals, and principals from Southern California have provided insight into actionable steps to go beyond check-ins to address the impact that a post-pandemic world has had.

Align the Currently Existing MTSS System

Schools have some version of a multitiered system of support (MTSS). Implementation falls short from three factors: 1) lack of common language and common understanding of the components of and alignment to MTSS; 2) ineffective communication across all levels of the school system; and 3) identified Tier 1 strategies need not be implemented universally.

Strengthen Classroom-Level Processes

Teachers have observed high levels of aggression, anxiety, developmental delays, relationship problems, and trauma among students. As teachers better identify challenges, they have found the most effective tool in addressing and reducing the symptoms of behaviors was consistent and clear classroom structures and routines. Schools that had strong schoolwide Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS) systems realized more success through implementation across the school.

Implement Tiered Levels of Support

It seems the understanding of tiered levels of support is limited to identifying that there are up to four tiers of support. There is a need to establish a common language and a common understanding. Students cannot access services that adults cannot speak to clearly. Teams should look at already existing proven frameworks such as PBIS, trauma-informed practices, Zones of Regulation, and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to align tiers of intervention to their MTSS framework.

Empower Teacher Assessment to Connect to Services

An ineffective process is the student study team. Teachers identify academic, behavioral, mental, or social challenges. They then follow steps outlined that, at a minimum, can take up to 12 weeks from referral, identification and implementation of interventions, and meeting to discuss outcomes. Many times a full year was wasted because teachers could have been provided the tools to act immediately. The elephant in the room: Teachers expressed signaled mistrust in their ability to serve a student just in time. Schools need to overhaul their student study-team system to allow teachers to have immediate access to implement interventions. One suggestion is to follow the Everyone Graduates Center ABC Model developed in partnership with John Hopkins University.

Utilize the Multidisciplinary Team

While tools and agency should be given to execute support, teachers cannot work in isolation. After establishing common language and common understanding around the various strategies, tiers of interventions, and support available, schools should utilize a framework for communication and ongoing access to resources. The Everyone Graduated Center ABC Model offers guidelines for creating cohorts, forming effective teams, and scheduling meetings in a proactive rather than reactive manner.

Identify and Address Barriers to Implementation

Building and district leaders must address eight different barriers:

This is the starting point for immediate action. Building and site leaders must establish common language and common understanding around frameworks and practices that need to be implemented or better aligned. We must also care for our staff’s mental health differently. This begins with ensuring that our teachers’ professional development needs, as well as this alignment, is done during the workday. While it is great to provide teachers with additional pay after school, when teachers express burnout and compassion fatigue, putting in hours after a long workday does not cut it. We show we are serious about supporting our teachers by incorporating this into the professional workday and fully equipping and training our teams.

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