2 actions school leaders can take to impact student wellbeing

The evidence is omnipresent and overwhelming that children are not well.

Consider the results of a recent survey by The School Superintendents Association (AASA), which found that the two most important issues are student mental health and student apathy. In addition, a recent New York Times article stated. “Most American teenagers—across demographic groups—see depression and anxiety as major problems among their peers,” based on a new survey by the Pew Research Center. The survey found that 70 percent of teenagers saw mental health as a big issue.

Clearly, we can agree that there are wellbeing problems for our children and that we are all struggling with how to impact them. Further, education leaders—including superintendents, principals, and curriculum leaders—are required to demonstrate their ability to implement the National Policy Board for Education Administration professional standards.

Related: 3 no-cost ways to support mental health in schools

So why are school leaders not taking bold action to impact the dire wellbeing statistics, even when required by their own professional standards? Perhaps it is not about understanding “how” to impact, but rather it is more a matter of leadership courage. We challenge school leaders to take two actions to address student wellbeing today!

Action Number 1 – Assess the wellbeing of all children

Education leaders need a clear picture of the social-emotional wellbeing of the children in their care. What should educators look for to determine their students’ wellbeing?

Emotionally and psychologically healthy children possess the following qualities or attributes, which can be measured by the Ryff Psychological Wellbeing Scale:

  • Autonomy – self-determining and independent, able to resist social pressures to think and act in certain ways, regulates behavior from within, and evaluates one’s self by personal standards
  • Environmental mastery – a sense of mastery and competence in managing the environment, controls a complex array of external activities, makes effective use of surrounding opportunities, and is able to choose or create contexts suitable to personal needs and values
  • Personal growth – a feeling of continued development, sees the self as growing and expanding, is open to new experiences, has a sense of realizing his or her potential, sees improvement in self and behavior over time, and is changing in ways that reflect more self-knowledge and effectiveness
  • Positive relations with others – is able to have warm, satisfying, trusting relationships with others; is concerned about the welfare of others; is capable of strong empathy, affection, and intimacy; and understands the give and take of human relationships
  • Purpose in life – has goals and dreams in life and a sense of directedness, feels there is meaning to present and past life experiences, holds beliefs that give life purpose, and has aims and objectives for living
  • Self-acceptance – possesses a positive attitude toward the self, acknowledges and accepts multiple aspects of self, including good and bad qualities, and feels positive about previous life experiences

Got humor? It might be the key to STEM engagement

Real-world relevance and a little dash of humor are two ingredients that might increase STEM engagement and make learning fun for high school students, according to a new survey.

The Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) surveyed 1,100 high school students from across the U.S. on how to increase student interest, understanding, and performance in math and STEM subjects. The study shows that almost 60 percent of responding students want teachers to be more creative in the classroom.

Related: How to get students interested in STEM

Those students say out-of-the-box teaching methods and fun science projects and competitions are two ways to increase STEM engagement and interest. Forty-nine percent of students say STEM learning should be more relevant to real life, and 35 percent think more technology in the classroom would help STEM seem more exciting.

About 32 percent say adding humor to STEM courses–through channels such as videos and projects–will do the trick.

The students queried for the survey are participants in this year’s MathWorks Math Modeling (M3) Challenge, a national internet-based contest organized by SIAM. Now in its 14th year, the competition involves thousands of high school juniors and seniors committing 14 consecutive hours on a designated weekend in March to come up with a solution to a real-world problem using mathematical modeling.

“If we consider standard tests as a benchmark, and national ACT math scores hitting a 20-year low in 2018, these findings provide useful insight about delivering STEM-related information to a generation of tech and social media-savvy students in a way that may not only increase their interest, but their skills and perseverance as well,” says Michelle Montgomery, M3 Challenge project director at SIAM.

Boosting STEM engagement in classrooms

The challenge isn’t unique to high school students. Nationwide, getting kids interested in STEM–and helping them retain that interest as they get older and as STEM subjects become more challenging or are deemed “uncool” by peers–is a struggle.

Searching for STEM grants is one way to find additional funding and resources to bring real-world relevance into the STEM classroom. These grants often involve competitions and projects that engage students and get them excited about STEM concepts.

Related: 10 major insights on teaching, learning, and STEM

Another way to inject relevance into STEM topics? Show students how vast STEM career possibilities actually are, and let them meet or video conference with STEM professionals in some of those exciting roles. This is especially important for girls and underrepresented groups, whose STEM engagement often wanes as they progress through school. If students don’t see themselves represented in STEM careers, they won’t pursue the academic paths leading to those careers.

Exposing students to STEM in early grades can help them retain their interest in and love of learning these topics. More than half of today’s adult workers (62 percent) say they were never exposed to STEM-related studies and career possibilities in elementary school, despite research indicating that early exposure to STEM courses helps students stick with these studies even as the material becomes more challenging in high school and college.


3 no-cost ways to support mental health in schools

Mental illness is on the rise in schools. As mental-health advocates fight to remove the stigma associated with mental illness, more clinical diagnoses are made. Twenty-five years ago, anxiety and depression were two illnesses barely discussed and rarely diagnosed. Now, they are flooding public school classrooms.

A survey conducted in February by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of teenagers identified mental health as a major issue among their peers—a number higher than bullying, drug addiction, or gangs. So with numbers that high, it should be assumed that public school funding would be prioritizing student mental health, but that’s not the case. In fact, too often, it’s our support staff who bears the weight of the financial crises facing public education.

I’ve spent 16 years as a teacher and educational leader. In that time, I’ve seen teaching go from a profession tasked with guiding children and young adults through academic curriculum to one of social and emotional teaching and learning. Twenty years ago, students were concerned with time management and quadratic equations; today they are overwhelmed by social media and stories of school violence.

Last month, the ALCU published an article called “Why School Psychologists Are Worried About the Mental Health of America’s Students.” In it, Angela Mann talks about school psychologists’ exhaustion and burnout due to high caseloads and understaffed schools. Data analysis from the U.S. Department of Education found a majority of public schools to be understaffed and unable to address the mental-health issues of its students.

The underfunding of mental health in schools

The underfunding of mental health in public schools is of concern. According to Mann, on average, school psychologists across the country have caseloads over 1,500 students on average; nearly half of schools report not even employing a school psychologist. Sadly too, Mann continues, the documented benefits of having mental-health personnel on staff is indisputable. School climate improves, discipline rates decrease, attendance increases, and graduation rates get much better too.

Unfortunately, the funding crisis shows no sign of letting up. In an August 2018 neaToday article, the authors identify funding as the first of 10 challenges faced by public education. In the decade since the Great Recession, many states are providing less funding to public education than they did before the crash. Schools are losing staff in droves. Districts, on average, spend approximately $11,000 per student every year, with the most economically disadvantaged school districts spending $1,200 less than that and districts with the highest number of students of color spending $2,000 less.

Related: How can educators support the parents of students with anxiety?

If public education cannot rely on the fiscal backing of state or federal government to prioritize student social and emotional learning, what are school districts expected to do?

3 cost-free ways districts can support mental health

1. Allow private counselors to meet with students during the school day.

When funding decreases, districts often cut support staff to meet the newly established budgetary constraints. Such cuts lead to the untenable caseloads of school psychologists described above. For many students, academic success will continue to be unattainable as long as their mental health is neglected.

Private counselors could be an easy solution to this problem if school districts would be willing to acknowledge the numerous benefits of making use of their services. Many private therapists cannot fill their schedules during the day. Clients with full-time jobs cannot meet during work hours and parents of student patients are unwilling to pull students from school.


3 things I learned by accident at CoSN 2019

A few themes stood out at CoSN 2019–artificial intelligence, coding, and preparing students for 2030 are three that immediately come to mind. But as I attended more sessions, smaller–yet equally cool–bits of information jumped out at me.

I love attending conference sessions because I get to listen to educators and edtech leaders talk about what’s most important when it comes to helping students succeed and feel proud of their accomplishments.

Here are just a few of the new things I learned, or things that aren’t often talked about, at CoSN 2019:

1. Equity doesn’t only apply to disparities in income. Socioeconomic status and income levels seem to be the most references aspects of equity, but during the conference I realized equity is a much bigger umbrella, and its other aspects aren’t always discussed as widely as income disparities. Special education students and English language learners are often left on the other side of equity gaps.

Read more: 10 conversations about digital equity

In Vancouver (WA) Public Schools (VPS), administrators and tech leaders are focusing on equity across the board. For instance, when students in special education classes are issued iPads, putting those iPads in different cases signifies that those students are somehow “different,” so the district hands out iPads in the same cases whenever possible.  


Empower students to be future ready with these top 5 tools

Educators are constantly looking for resources and tools to get students engaged and excited about the content they are teaching. Take it a step further by empowering your students with designing and creating, and that engagement will automatically happen.

Empowerment means you are providing your students with the future-ready skills and experiences they can take with them into the future. They can take what they have learned and apply it to other experiences such as their own passions, interests, and share them with an authentic audience. Empowered students can change the world!

Related: 10 things teachers can do today to prepare students for the future

Here are five tools that you can use tomorrow that will not only empower your students, but will also spark their curiosity and interests to be future ready.

My favorite 5 tools to develop future-ready skills

1. Merge VR

Merge takes augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to the next level by providing students exploration experiences as well as the ability to create AR and VR with the CoSpaces add-on. By integrating Merge apps that use the Cube and/or VR goggles, students can learn about the solar system, anatomy, cells, museum artifacts, and so much more! Get ready! Merge will soon be releasing the Merge EDU Platform which will include content-specific modules. Check out some already-created EDU Resources to get started today.

a student using a Merge cube to view AR images


How this district is preparing students for 2030–and beyond

Whether we like it or not, the fourth industrial revolution is fundamentally changing the way the world works–and educators have to rise to the task of preparing students for 2030 and beyond.

“We don’t have as much time as I thought we did to redesign education and prepare our students for the future,” said Dr. David Gundlach, the deputy superintendent of Wisconsin’s Oshkosh Area School District (OASD), during CoSN 2019. “It’s very common for districts to create based on their past instead of students’ future.”

While many people believe the world still in the third industrial revolution, which consisted of digital evolutions and modernizations,  the fourth industrial revolution has already started: robotization, nanotech, and artificial intelligence (AI), Gundlach said.

Read more: How to prepare students for the unknowable

And when it comes to preparing students for 2030, AI and its quickly-evolving state should be topmost in educators’ minds.

“The interesting thing about this is that the speed of these breakthroughs has no historical precedent. This is going to disrupt all sectors at one time at an increasingly rapid pace. AI is everywhere. China is redesigning its entire education system, aiming kids toward careers in AI,” Gundlach said.

By 2020, the top 10 skills needed for academic and professional success will have changed, with complex problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity taking top spots. And a new skill will appear on must-have lists, as predicted by the World Economic Forum’s Future Jobs Report: cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility will require people to forget the old way of doing things and learn new–and evolving–approaches.

“We need students and adults who can learn, unlearn, and relearn at an increasing pace. That cognitive flexibility has been taken out of curriculum, and we’re trying to put it back in,” Gundlach said. “Are we preparing our students for a career that will exist in 2030, or not?”


How we turned around our data culture and student learning


Fairfield County Schools is a small, rural, high-poverty school district in South Carolina. The district is composed of five elementary schools and four secondary schools, serving more than 2,600 students.

Biggest challenge:

We wanted to refine our data culture and dig deeper into our data to determine external factors that could be impacting student achievement and growth. In order to do so, we had to find ways to help school leaders understand their students’ progress and needs more holistically.


In 2017, we adopted Schoolzilla’s Mosaic District Progress Monitoring platform to enable principals to easily examine their school’s trends, with a focus on analyzing equity across different populations, such as gender, grade level, and race/ethnicity. After principals became familiar with the data tracked and analyzed in Mosaic, each principal developed two SMART goals and used the new tool to measure their progress against those goals over the course of the school year.

Related: 6 steps for using data to improve instruction

Having this kind of data at our fingertips prompted school leaders to wonder what they could do to respond thoughtfully to the data, versus just reach. Principals quickly noted trends, then used the data to develop interventions for students that could improve things like attendance, reduce suspensions and other disciplinary challenges, and ultimately improve learning and achievement.

For example, Geiger Elementary principal Myra Bramlett learned from their state ELA data that their scores were slipping a little and her kids were struggling with citing evidence and with answering higher-level questions that show they truly understand the text. To address these challenges, Bramlett provided ongoing support and professional development focused on English language arts. She also focused on increasing the school’s attendance rate to ensure that all students are receiving maximum instructional time. Strategies included schoolwide outreach such as resources and tips on maximizing attendance, a “tardy table” out front that encouraged parents to arrive on time, and targeted outreach to families of students who were identified in Mosaic as chronically late or absent.

Related: Data-informed instruction can affect every lesson; here’s how

The data in Mosaic also allowed principals to see how other schools were doing compared to them—not just on test scores but on metrics like attendance and discipline for key subgroups. As Bramlett says, “The ability to see other schools’ scores also serves as a motivation and encouragement to my teachers, showing them higher scores are possible.”

Lessons learned:

  • To better meet the needs of the schools changing student population, we had to create a strong data culture in which we study the data behind student scores and grades. We looked at the whole child, not just at their academic results, and questioned the “why” behind their results to figure out where factors such as attendance or behavior might be influencing their outcomes.
  • We knew that our solutions couldn’t come from the top down; we would have to engage principals and teachers in getting to know their students’ needs better, and carefully tracking their progress in addressing those needs.
  • Having the right data at their fingertips empowered school leaders to thoughtfully respond to the data rather than react to it.

Next steps:

We plan to have teachers start using the Mosaic platform this year. In the meantime, principals have been reviewing last year’s test scores and progress against their SMART goals and establishing new ones for the current school year as they keep pushing toward increased equity among student groups and improved learning for all Fairfield County students.

Next week:

See how a district created an immersive learning environment.


6 ways to support a digital transformation

Ensuring the success of any new edtech initiative has little to nothing to do with the technology itself, but instead is directly related to a focus on student learning and an effort to break down silos.

When districts keep student learning at the top of their list and focus on building successful relationships, a digital transformation is more of a reality and less of a dream, said Lenny Schad, chief information and innovation officer for LRP Media, during CoSN 2019 in Portland, OR. Schad sat down with Rob Abel, CEO of IMS Global Learning Consortium, for an informal discussion about CTOs, CIOs, and their roles in driving digital transformation.

Read more: Driving a successful digital transformation in urban districts

Here are some of the elements Schad said are key to understanding and executing to ensure a successful digital transformation:

Make the digital transformation about kids. “As CIOs, take a step back, think through your strategic planning, and really analyze if you have kids at the center of this conversation. If you watch kids and talk to them, they’ll open up your mind to what’s possible,” Schad said. “Then, you have to get the adult in you out of the way, because the adult in you will tell you it can’t be done. That’s when we become the enablers to the solution.”

Be willing to talk about tough topics. “We don’t have conversations about how it’s unrealistic to start transformational leadership initiatives if you won’t talk about governance, policy, and all the things that go along with it.”

Focus on systems, not silos. “The thing that strikes me is that we never make the linkage between how things need to fit together. Have a broad conversation about the things we need to link together, and as a system, are you ready to do this? If you’re not, what’s your call to action? What are you going to take back to your district?”


5 edtech accelerators that are changing K-12

Five powerful edtech accelerators are influencing the skills and needs of K-12 students and educators, according to a new CoSN report released during the advocacy group’s 2019 conference.

These edtech accelerators are major disruptive shifts in the status quo that redefine the future of education and accelerate the pace of technological change. They vary in speed, speed, the report notes, with some suddenly appearing and others gradually becoming more important over several years.

The five accelerators are: learners as creators; data-driven practices; personalization; design thinking; and building the capacity of human leaders.

Read more: 10 K12 education trends to look for this year

“Innovation is advancing quickly, and that means school technology leaders need to stay on top of the trends powering digital transformations,” says Keith Krueger, CoSN’s CEO. The report is intended to help educators start conversations about how to use these accelerators to influence learning.

Learners as creators: The idea that students don’t have to wait to graduate to change the world is motivating schools to embrace real-world learning experiences that promote student-generated ideas and solutions.

Data-driven practices: Schools are increasingly leveraging data about the student experience, measuring engagement and skills acquisition to inform decisions about curriculum, hiring, technology investments, and more.

Personalization: Just as the consumer sector has exploded with new ways to customize user experiences, products, and recommendations, schools are finding ways to provide individualized learning pathways and promote student voice, choice, and autonomy.


5 online discussion tools to fuel student engagement

Creating a classroom community where meaningful conversations can happen isn’t easy—it’s an ongoing process that takes time. But using online discussion tools can be one great way to help your students build these skills. Plus, the ability to engage in online discussions responsibly is a great 21st-century skill in and of itself.

Online discussions often lead to better in-class discussions afterward—you know, the kind where students raise their hands and speak out loud. With online discussions, students have a chance to engage with each other virtually, often having their thoughts and opinions validated. Afterward, they’re typically much more willing to share out loud in class and often share in thoughtful ways.

Related: 4 steps to making rigorous discussion a routine

Still not convinced? Here are a few more reasons to consider using online discussions:

  • Because comments are more permanent, students tend to think a bit more critically about what they say.
  • Especially for more introverted students, online discussions can be less intimidating than speaking in front of the class.
  • It’s easier for students to share dissenting opinions or “outside-the-box” ideas.
  • As students type responses, they often recognize and share more nuanced and compelling points and arguments.
  • Anonymous posting (though still teacher-moderated), a key feature with some discussion tools, can help erase the fear of public judgment or ridicule.
  • Everyone has ample opportunities to be heard and connect with other classmates, ensuring equity among all voices in your classroom.

If you’re looking for an online discussion tool, you’ve got a variety of options. Here are a few top picks and teacher favorites:

Backchannel Chat
Price: $15/year/class; $299/year/school
Platforms: Android, iOS, and web
Grades: 7-12

Backchannel Chat’s moderated online discussions are intended to engage students and encourage them to share. Think of it as a teacher-moderated, private version of Twitter, where students can discuss topics that might just transcend the virtual space. Setup is quick and easy: Teachers sign up, name their chat, and give students the URL. Students can join with only a name; no other personal information is required. Teachers can moderate discussions, remove messages, and “lock” the chat at any time.