Back to School After COVID-19 Part I: Supporting Student & Staff Mental Health

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support and Ingrid Padgett, CEI Director of Communications & Development

This is the first part of the special series Back to School After COVID-19. View Part II here.

School districts are making decisions right now about how and when to “open up” for the next academic year. Teachers, students, and families are concerned about safety, learning, and so many of the multitudes of details that must be addressed, whether instruction is in physical or virtual classrooms. We all know that when we return, no one and nothing will be the same.

In addition to the public health crisis and lockdown, COVID-19 has brought a looming public mental health crisis on its heels. Susan Borja, a lead traumatic stress researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) cautions that the U.S. mental health care system is not equipped to handle the nation’s needs, which means schools may be a first line of defense for America’s children, and their families, as well as the staff who serve them (Wan, 2020).

Creating Positive Mental Health & Well-being this Fall

As we look forward to the future of schools, leaders in education are visioning for how they can find hope and positive change within the disruptions we’ve all experienced. School administrators, at the district and school levels, are meeting with various stakeholders to develop plans that ensure a better educational world for staff, students, and families.

We have seven suggestions for schools to consider as they plan for a return to school this fall, which we explore in our toolkit, Back to School After COVID-19: Supporting Student & Staff Mental Health.

  1. Create a sense of safety.
  2. Build community.
  3. Work with community partners to support student and staff mental health.
  4. Address grief.
  5. Re-establish routine and connection.
  6. Use mindfulness to teach self-regulation at home and at school.
  7. Vision for a better future together, with a healthy dose of reality.

Compassionate Schools Support their School Communities
As we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, even as the path forward is unsure or may seem dangerous, educators are engaged in significant planning for the fall and beyond. We cannot overstate the stress, grief, loneliness, trauma, and fear that most people have experienced during these months, nor can we say enough about the disproportionate burden that some segments of our society bear throughout this crisis and beyond. It will take years, thoughtfulness, investigation, and radical honesty to unpack what we have experienced and put it in context for our children and students. Schools will need to address grief, re-establish routines and connection, and implement practices, like mindfulness, that make room for the healing and growth that schools can help facilitate to move us forward into a brighter future.

The C-TLC’s Compassionate School Mental Health Model relies on the research-based learnings about the neurobiology of trauma and the physiology of the heart and its importance in decision making, as well as the power of focusing on five key elements: consciousness (mindful awareness), compassion, confidence, courage, and community. We know that what most children—and adults—need to alleviate the pain associated with trauma and toxic stress is connection and communication. By building relationships that allow students to effectively communicate their needs, teaching all students self-regulation and social emotional learning skills, and creating a culture of positivity and courage, schools can reduce the causes of mental illness while helping students develop protective factors and build resiliency.

Creating Safety and Supporting Mental Health

In times of crisis, some youth and educators need specific supports for positive mental health. One thing schools can do to offer that support to all students is to create a sense of safety. A compassionate community reassures students that they have caring adults who are working to keep them safe and that there are things they can do to keep themselves and the rest of the community safe, too.

Because uncertainty has been one of the biggest culprits of people’s anxiety during COVID-19, sharing information can alleviate fear. With COVID-19, the facts seem to change from day-to-day, so stick to guidelines released by trusted sources like the CDC or the World Health Organization. We can also learn from other countries who have successfully controlled the virus and how they approach the reopening of schools—while keeping in mind that this will vary across cultures and according to local circumstances.

How Schools Can Reassure Students:

  • Build relationships with students.
  • Create a culture of joy.
  • Give youth factual, developmentally appropriate information when questioned.
  • Empower students to take care of themselves and others.

To be most effective, school staff may need to gain some new skills. Certainly, skills related to technology use and online learning are critical. However, teachers who have an expanded toolkit for connecting with students, demonstrating empathetic support, and designing learning activities to strengthen student and family resiliency will be positioned to provide valuable guidance to students and families. When you leverage the resources that already exist in your community, you may be able to engage more successfully in some or all of the suggestions for supporting student and staff mental health in our toolkit.

Vision for a Better Future Together, with a Healthy Dose of Reality

As leaders in education, we must, as we are often called to do on behalf of the students we serve, create space to address the realities of the profound traumas we have experienced (or are experiencing) even as we proceed forward implementing curriculum and instruction under less than ideal circumstances. Our desire and expectation for creativity, generativity, and hope can be a stimulus for our students to heal emotionally as they advance academically. This can be a time for community building and equity and learning, bolstered by effective leadership, trauma-skilled staff, and collective vision of a brighter future.

Read more about evidence-based grief counseling strategies in Part II of this series and learn about how The Life is Good Playmakers are promoting opening up with optimism as a tool to foster positive relationships between children who have experienced trauma and caring adults through scheduled play sessions in Part III of this series.

References

Wan, W. (2020, May 4). The coronavirus pandemic is pushing America into a mental health crisis. The Washington Post.

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