Advocating for Community Wellness: Empowering Student, Family, and Educator Voice

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

Who knows better what a school community needs to thrive than the students, families, and educators who serve them? Often, policies, procedures, and important decisions are crafted by administrators at the district, state, and federal level, without any input from students, families, teachers, mental health professionals, or community members who are directly affected. Schools can take steps to create more opportunities to listen to students and families. And, everyone in the school community can take steps to advocate for their opinions to be included in the decision-making process.

Where Family and Student Voice Can Impact Community Wellness

This is a critical time for our country, and indeed, our world. Teachers are overwhelmed by the day-to-day work of education, while time and resources continue to shrink. Many educators figure they’ll leave activism to elected leaders while they focus on schools and classrooms. However, perhaps now more than ever, educators need to band together with students, families, and distinct coalitions of like-minded organizations to ensure they have broad support from community partners to address the issues facing our students.

This work “can be divisive, especially in light of conflicting ideas about equality, fairness and the allocation of limited resources. Advances in equality often disrupt the status quo, which can be a threat to those people or groups who are in power. As a result, public administrators often have to balance the need for social change with the realities of political and economic structures, and then work within the system to improve it” (Rios, 2018).

Where Educator Voice Can Impact Community Wellness

Teachers are best positioned to understand how students’ mental health challenges and trauma history affect classroom behavior and learning, and what interventions and environmental adaptations can support individual and collective well-being. 

When leaders and policymakers hear feedback from teachers, mental health professionals, and other educators working directly with students in the classroom and school building, they have examples of real-world problems and potential solutions. When educators combine their voices through teachers unions, professional organizations, and letter writing or phone banking campaigns, leaders understand that educators have common difficulties and agree on ways to overcome the negative effects of trauma—and that they need funding, increased staff, and policy changes to realize the interventions that have been proven to work.

How to Make Your Voice Heard

Working together with others who have the same passion for cultivating heart centered communities in schools to address trauma can amplify your voice. We’ve been encouraging these collaborations in the Healthcare workers and Educators Addressing and Reducing Trauma (HEART) Collective. We have developed some tips for advocating for school mental health services after several meetings about what schools and healthcare centers need for effective school mental health collaboration.

Best Practices for Advocacy

  • Make a List and Check it Twice: Compile a list of policymakers, policy drivers, and/or influencers you’d like to contact. Focus on the contacts who represent your community and state, and see if you can determine their stance on issues relevant to you. Find their contact information and make a list of representatives to communicate with.
  • Present Facts and Stories: Data from research studies and surveys help tell the story of what large groups of people need, want, and benefit from. Personal stories, from members of your group—especially students, parents, and teachers—help people in power see how an issue is directly impacting someone and how their support can directly help. Your daily experiences can lend authenticity and authority to your positions.
  • Make Your Ask Clear
    • State your goal.
    • Tell your audience what they can do to help you achieve your goal. 
    • Set a timeline, including follow-up, and explain why your issue is urgent. 
  • Know Who You Are Speaking With, including their viewpoints, voting record, and ability to affect change.
  • Follow Up with a “thank you” and a request to meet again.

Where to Advocate

  • School Staff and Administrators, through one-on-one or group meetings
  • Local School Boards and District Administration, at school board meetings
  • Local Community, through newspaper and local broadcast stories
  • State, Regional, and Federal Legislators and Administrators, through hearings and meetings
  • The World at Large, through social media, public service announcements, and other public awareness campaigns

Advocating for Increased Mental Health Services in Schools

Stay tuned for our school mental health advocacy tip sheet on the New England MHTTC’s product and resource catalog, which will have more ideas for how students, families, and educators can specifically advocate for needed mental health services for their school or district. Using data and research to present the problem, potential solutions, and success stories can be powerful. Demonstrating how other local, national, and international organizations and experts support your ideas can also be persuasive. For example, this article from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation showcases five experts’ reflections on the implications of COVID-19 on health equity, including mental health (Ahmad, 2020). For more tips on advocating for school mental health services, see the National Association of School Psychologist’s (2021) Ready to Learn, Empowered to Teach

The voices of students, families, and educators add a valuable perspective to decision-making around educational policy and procedure. We have given you some tips and tools that we hope will make it easier for you to share your ideas with leaders, whatever your role in the school community. And, keep in mind, you can find ways to engage in small acts of advocacy. Effective acts of advocacy don’t necessarily have to equate to speaking out in public forums or tackling issues on a statewide or national level. If you don’t feel comfortable in a public arena, subtle acts of advocacy in your classroom or school can have a big impact, too. Communicating frequently with students and parents, practicing active listening, modeling strengths-based language, and sharing evidence-based practices are all powerful ways to advocate on a smaller scale every day.

References

Ahmad, N. (2020, December 1). Five experts reflect on the health equity implications of the pandemic. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Rios, R. (2018, August 13). Meditation isn’t just about self-help. Here’s what educators need to know. EdWeek.

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