Most every K–12 teacher or administrator can anecdotally describe the mental health and wellness challenges their students now face. Statistically, it’s overwhelming—more than one-third (37 percent) of high school students report that they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and 44 percent of them reported they felt persistently sad or hopeless during the past year.
The degree and types of trauma students now face can be measured as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that demand deliberate and focused school-based supports that can mitigate the ACE’s impact on a student. We have talked for years about the challenges students face, but it is now time to actualize support systems that not only re-engage, but keep students engaged in their learning.
ACEs are traumatic experiences that occur in childhood, such as experiencing violence, abuse, neglect, and even economic and health disruptions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 61 percent of adults surveyed across 25 different states reported experiencing at least one type of ACE before age 18, and 1 in 6 adults reported experiencing 4 or more types of ACEs. While ACEs don’t have a single cause, they do have lasting, negative effects on health, well-being, education and even job potential. Toxic stress from ACEs affects a child’s brain development, immune systems, and stress-response, leading to a decrease in a child’s attention, decision-making abilities, and learning. Yet, students often lack access to proper support.
This lack of support may be as simple as proper record keeping or as complex as systemic inequities leading to inconsistent supports. According to a February 2019 report from ASCA, students of color and students from low-income families are often shortchanged, receiving unequal access to school counselors or attending a school with too few school counselors. The pandemic upended education and the support systems schools and districts had in place for students. In addition, the CDC warns of an accelerating mental health crisis among adolescents. Just in March, the CDC shared new data on students’ well-being, illuminating the mental health threats students face.
Every day a student suffers unsupported, they become less likely to stay engaged in their learning. School leaders must recognize the trauma students have undergone, as well as the concerns around students’ mental health and well-being. It’s also important to understand that even as educators, we can’t just jump in and fix things as ACEs consist of multiple complex factors.
Regardless, educators can immediately implement three key actions that support students with trauma-informed mindfulness:
1. Monitor student behaviors
The pandemic had an enormous effect on students nationwide. While educators did a tremendous job ensuring learning continued, students (as well as adults) went through months of social isolation, anxiousness, and difficulties. Students stressed about their parents losing their jobs, the health of their friends and families, and even lost loved ones to COVID-19. The trauma that stems from the pandemic and those life-changing events isn’t disappearing now that students are back in classrooms.
The first important step educators can take to mitigate student trauma is to monitor how students are doing and keep records on changes or unusual behaviors. While writing notes and discussing mental health needs in team meetings are a step in the right direction, software can make it simple for staff to securely record and manage non-academic concerns, such as bullying, harassment, mental health, self-harm, hardship or neglect. Whereas handwritten notes, emails and conversations can get lost in the daily shuffle, a digital program keeps notes organized and reminders actionable and visible to support staff.
Supporting students is a team effort. Proper record keeping makes speaking and meeting with colleagues and others more productive when determining if interventions are needed. A robust collection of student non-academic data makes it possible to accurately determine how each student’s academic performance is affected by ACE-type non-academic challenges and other needs. By keeping detailed records of students’ behaviors and documenting conversations with colleagues, we can get ahead of the curve and not just identify non-academic issues, but address student challenges with impactful solutions.
2. Case manage students’ needs
Students come from a multitude of different backgrounds and experiences. The pandemic affected each student differently, and unfortunately, some students experienced significant trauma, social isolation, economic hardship and even ACEs. As a result, there’s been an increase in violence, trauma, and misbehavior that added to an already stressful school year as educators work to close pandemic-related learning gaps across the curriculum.
As we monitor students’ behaviors and recognize trends, it’s important to equitably case manage our responses to each student’s needs. Rather than asking, “What’s wrong with this student?” ask, “What’s happened to this student?” and “What do we need to do to support them?” This is the basis of good case management—deliberately tracking and monitoring all steps of the student support process to assure that the support has the impact intended.
While we won’t always know, a trauma-informed approach creates a safe environment full of support and understanding. Analyzing an array of student data points gathered across the academic and extra-curricular school experience can better illustrate the root causes of student behavior and give clues as to the most effective supports. When working directly with students and parents facing traumatic situations, they can often have difficulty controlling their emotions or describing precisely what’s wrong. Remaining calm, trusting the data, and offering reassurance is the most productive approach to developing supports that can positively impact students.
Supporting student needs can range from referring them to social or therapeutic services, building a collaborative team focused on the student or simply providing a quick snack in the morning when the student arrives. It’s important to keep in mind that most days, what students need are awareness, compassion and a caring adult who can create the right mindset to learn—it’s the deliberate small day-to-day supports that often matter most, and that’s okay.
3. Analyze the Student Support Data
You shouldn’t expect to be perfect at understanding what students are going through or intuitively figuring out how to best provide support. The pandemic affected everyone differently and it’s near-impossible to understand what others have gone through in such a short time period. What’s important is that we recognize students’ challenges and provide support. Every need documented, support rendered, and impact measured is a data point that matters. When non-academic student support data is collected school or district-wide, it becomes an invaluable databank that can show what intervention has the most impact, and what resources are needed to assure every student can stay engaged in their learning.
Just as we will use academic data to address unfinished learning in reading, math and other core subjects, we can use the data about non-academic needs to guide our work in supporting students. Fear, shame, and guilt are often the common reactions to trauma. Taking time to understand students and what they’re going through—no matter the situation—ensures students receive the support they need.
We’re in this together. By monitoring students’ behaviors, responding to students’ needs and analyzing the student support data, we can provide students with what they need to succeed—now and in the future.
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