Despite returning to a semblance of normalcy, research shows that a vast number of students still find themselves in the midst of a mental health crisis. It comes as no surprise to educators and parents alike, as the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on relationships and social support – key components to our children's well-being.
Per a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, students who felt close to persons at school, compared to students who did not feel close to persons at school had a significantly lower prevalence of poor mental health during the pandemic (28.4% versus 45.2%). Schools are uniquely positioned to develop strategies to help foster connectedness within school communities for improved mental health among youth.
As we delve deeper into the mental health crisis, it is important to identify accessible data and determine how it can be integrated to bring about positive change. How can the education system effectively measure new data points around students’ social, emotional and academic needs to promote holistic development and create an optimal learning environment? Data has already been used to measure the academic impacts of learning loss and the success of programs for learning recovery.
In this context, it is worth considering what data points are relevant. At a recent BARR Center conference, a topic of discussion was using a strengths-based approach to meeting all students’ academic, social and emotional needs through the power of data and relationships. The conference emphasized the importance of using both qualitative and quantitative student data to inform decision making and support student well-being.
We share perspectives from two experts in their respective fields of education and whole person care. Melody Schopp, PhD, Senior Manager for Education Industry Consulting at SAS, was Secretary of Education for South Dakota and has 24 years of classroom experience. Josh Morgan, PsyD, National Director of Behavioral Health and Whole Person Care at SAS has worked with adolescent self-injury, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs; psychiatric inpatient units; and university counseling centers. In the following interview, they share thoughts on how meeting the needs of every student requires a holistic approach to education that extends well beyond academics.
Why should we create an education system that supports holistic student development?
Josh Morgan: Education, like many systems serving people, has often been siloed from other parts of the human person. Notably, as education is sometimes argued in terms of careers and salaries, the focus can be only on knowledge and specific skills. However, the core principles of universal K-12 education and the foundation of higher education are to develop us holistically into better world citizens.
Further, as students spend a lot of time in physical or virtual classrooms that intend to transform their lives, we must remember other aspects of learners. We all bring our relationships, backgrounds, job stresses, physical and mental health challenges, and other experiences into the classroom, whether we’re aware of them or not. Add on top of those the various crises on education campuses. We can’t ignore all the other parts of life that make up the whole student.
Melody Schopp: Yes, we need to think about the whole student. Learning does not take place in an academic vacuum. Learning is social, emotional and academic. Positive relationships with friends, including trust in the teacher, and positive emotions, such as curiosity and enthusiasm, open the mind to learning. And on the flip side, negative emotions can inhibit the ability of the brain to learn. There is also the physical side to learning that requires a healthy body and a full stomach when considering a student’s ability to think clearly and focus on the task at hand. But unfortunately, in education we tend to focus on academics without taking time to understand the root cause of what may prevent a child from thriving.
I knew that from teaching for 24 years. Great teaching begins with understanding each student as a learner and person. However, as classroom teachers, we are not trained professionals in dealing with some of the students’ emotional and social challenges. This demands an education system that recognizes how social, emotional and academic skills and competencies are complementary and addresses each of them with equal fervor.
How can educational institutions address students’ mental health needs effectively while promoting mental wellness and creating a supportive learning environment?
Morgan: From a direct mental illness perspective, most mental illnesses begin in adolescence up through the early 20s – when people are in middle school, high school and higher education. As there is greater awareness of mental illness and supports for these needs, more students with these challenges remain in school. This is a wonderful testament to expanding education access, but traditional modes of serving students without mental illness will not necessarily result in student retention.
Further, increasing research recognizes the centrality of interpersonal skills, emotional regulation, communication approaches and coping strategies to learn knowledge and apply principles. While 50% of people will have a diagnosable mental illness at some point in their lives, it’s safe to say all of us will have sub-diagnostic challenges based on phases of life. These can negatively impact learning, jobs and relationships. Or they can be seen as navigable parts of life that can make us stronger -- as long as we have the right awareness, support and skills to handle them.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that foundational to education is not just getting people to survive but to thrive in this world. Therefore, we don’t want to just focus on mitigating and preventing mental illness but also promoting and supporting mental wellness. Resilience and the ability to recognize and appropriately deal with a full spectrum of mental health needs are universal and will make educational thriving even more powerful.
How can educational institutions use data to understand and support students’ holistic mental health needs to promote their overall well-being and success?
Morgan: The key to understanding and supporting whole student education is data. This is the foundation for understanding where there are needs, the nature of the needs and what supports are most efficacious. The educational system is uniquely positioned to provide a more strengths-based perspective on mental health than the mental health system.
Health care traditionally focuses on the negative outcomes of illness, diagnosis and pathology. While education tracks some negative outcomes, the core goals are all about success. Imagine the societal impact of telling stories with data about students who don’t just minimally pass but thrive in schools of all levels while addressing mental health needs.
Additionally, being creative with data to tell these stories and even proactively identify needs can lead educational systems and their health and human services partners to provide upstream support to students, their families and loved ones. Rather than waiting for poor grades, behavior problems or other educational red flags, how different would things be if we could find opportunities for support as early as possible and personalize that support? Early identification and intervention of mental illness, especially at first presentation, is one of the biggest beneficial impacts on long-term mental health outcomes. However, personalized support for all needs can again move us closer to the whole student thriving.
Schopp: Josh, I couldn’t agree more. If educational communities can embrace new approaches to looking at data in different ways beyond the traditional measures and silos this can help lead to happy, mentally, and physically healthy, safe, engaged and challenged students, ensuring they are empowered to chase and achieve their goals.
Looking forward to another year of school
As we think about the school year, the thoughts and insights from Morgan and Schopp should empower us to think about the outcomes that effectively demonstrate the impact of education. To achieve this, we must evaluate our data plans and identify any missing components hindering our understanding. Consider integrating new data to enhance our insights further. By following Morgan and Schopp’s examples, we can bridge gaps and better understand student needs to proactively address their nonacademic and mental health requirements. Ultimately, this approach will help us to identify the necessary resources for all students to thrive.