Back to School

Five Things Schools Can Do Now to Support Students As They Return to School

Many students, parents, and school staff are eagerly looking forward to the 2021-2022 school year and a return to school routines. Supporting and promoting mental health is important to overall student health, but also to academics. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures may have impacts on mental health and academic outcomes in the near and long-term.

Children and adolescents with mental health challenges do not do as well academically as students without those challenges. These conditions may have increased during the pandemic.

Challenges students may be facing include:

  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Attention-related issues
Students with masks

There are steps that schools and school districts can take now to promote student and staff mental health and well-being for the entire year. While these steps are important in every school year, they are particularly important now, when so many may be experiencing mental health challenges. These steps are not a change in CDC school guidelines, simply recommendations for schools and school districts to consider implementing as they are able to help all students and school staff transition back to school.

1. Make a plan.

Planning is critical to ensuring that your school can meet the social-emotional and academic needs of your students and staff. You may already have a school or district plan that can be modified, or you may decide to create a new plan if time and resources allow. Whether you make a new plan or use an existing one, the plan should address both the immediate and longer-term needs of students and staff and should be based on the best available data and evidence. The plan should be:

Developed by a multi-disciplinary group or team

The plan is more likely to be adopted and successful if it is developed with key stakeholders such as parents, school staff, students, and community partners.

Data-driven

The plan should be based on recent data to help identify what has worked well in the past, what the most pressing mental health needs are, and how stakeholders would like the school to help meet these needs.

Inclusive of school-wide and individual strategies

Many adolescents were experiencing sadness, hopelessness, and increases in suicidal thoughts prior to the pandemic. This, combined with the challenges from the pandemic, mean that all students may benefit from extra mental health supports.

Reflective of available resources

Assess what supports are needed and what financial and personnel resources are available to meet these needs. If there is gap between needs and resources, are there existing partnerships with local community mental health centers or universities that could provide mental health support? What new partnerships, with local businesses, government organizations, and community-based or non-profit organizations, can you establish to meet the needs of your school community?

Strategies for Inclusion:
  • School-wide strategies may include incorporating more physical activity or mindfulness breaks throughout the day, social-emotional learning, or an examination of discipline strategies to ensure equity.
  • Individual strategies may include increased staffing or altering referral processes and partnerships to provide accessible, affordable, and culturally and developmentally appropriate, mental health services and supports to those who need them.

2. Create a school environment that is welcoming for all students and staff and fosters feelings of connectedness or belonging.

School connectedness is an important tool in the educator toolbox because of its potential to reach many students, to foster positive student mental health, and reduce the impact of traumatic experiences. Connectedness not only helps youth do better in schools but provides long-term positive effects into a student’s adulthood. This does not have to be resource intensive, there are steps that can be taken to foster connectedness at all levels of resource availability as schools see fit.

Schools can foster school connectedness by:

  • Focusing on how to keep students engaged academically, ensuring that school staff practices and school policies foster a sense of belonging and fairness, creating a variety of opportunities for students of all backgrounds and with differing interests to engage in school and after-school activities
  • Fostering positive peer relationships through whole school climate initiatives such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)external icon.
  • Encouraging school staff to identify opportunities to connect individually with students.

Schools should also consider how these approaches may need to be adapted to impact students at increased risk, such as students with disabilities, sexual minority students, and students of color.

3. Support equity.

Discrimination has been associated with a number of mental health effects in adolescents including:

  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem/self-worth
  • Anxiety

Schools are not exempt from biased policies and practices.

Black and multiracial Black students are much more likely to receive a suspension, detention, or office disciplinary referrals than white students who commit the same violations. Black students with the same test scores as white students are also less likely to be recommended for gifted-education programs.

As with fostering connectedness, this does not have to be resource intensive. There are steps that can be taken to bolster equity at all levels of resource availability as schools are able.

Schools can take steps to ensure more equity in school environments by:

  • Analyzing disciplinary data to understand patterns of both staff making referrals and students who are referred, then addressing any disparities through professional development.
  • Working to better align the race/ethnicity of school staff to characteristics of the student population.
  • Reviewing all instructional materials and curricula to ensure use of language, graphics, and examples that reflect a variation in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability status.
  • Screening all students for participation in gifted programs instead of relying upon teacher or staff referrals.
4. Promote mental health for school staff.

The mental health impact of the pandemic was not just experienced by students. Many school staff felt stress or anxiety as they had to develop and implement virtual lessons. A web survey of K-12 teachers reported during the pandemic:

  • 27% feeling depressed
  • 37% feeling anxious
  • 19% starting or increasing use of alcohol
  • Over 50% thinking of leaving the profession more now than they were before the pandemic

Schools can proactively share information about employee assistance program services, expand these services, and integrate self-care strategies into the school day and into professional development sessions.

The American School Counselor Association suggests that, as they are able, schools integrate strategies to promote staff mental health such as:

  • Tap in, tap out, that enables teachers to call on a colleague to cover their class if they need to take a break for a minute or two
  • Have buddy classrooms that permit teachers to co-teach or a buddy system for mentoring
  • Boundary setting, such as additional time to plan and time and space to relax, into the school culture rather than placing the burden on each staff member to ask for these supports.

5. Manage expectations of parents, students, and staff through clear communication.

Students, staff, parents, and administrators all have differing opinions about what school should look like in any given year, but especially during the 2021-2022 school year.

It is important to share consistent messages to all of these groups in multiple languages and through a variety of channels:

  • In person and virtual meetings
  • Emails
  • Texts
  • School handbooks
  • Social media
  • Other written materials

Any of these may need to be updated throughout the school year. When this happens, information should be provided about what information will be used to determine if changes occur and how and when all stakeholders would be notified. Types of information in these communications may include:

COVID-19 mitigation strategies

COVID procedures that will be required and/or encouraged, among which age groups, and in which settings (classrooms, hallways, cafeteria). If additional information may result in changes to these procedures, note this and explain the data and/or guidance you will consult, and how stakeholders will be notified of changes.

Addressing equity in school

Any new and modified student disciplinary policies to better reflect equity and/or an understanding that youth who experience trauma and stress are more likely to have difficulty paying attention, staying on task, and following school rules. To address the impact of trauma, schools can consider inserting additional physical activity breaks or mediation breaks or other strategies to help cope with increased amount of time in structured environment.

Addressing learning loss

How you plan to balance making up for lost instructional time with mental health. While many are understandably concerned about learning loss and are trying to recoup these losses, consider how to balance these learning gaps while balancing the stress of returning to in-person school settings and additional responsibilities that may occur if the school day or year is extended or additional tutoring is required.