Even before the pandemic, a third of U.S. students struggled with anxiety, depression, trauma, or attention issues that made it difficult to focus, stay motivated, and learn. That number has grown exponentially during the pandemic and recovery: now half of students feel persistently sad or hopeless. This is an urgent need that schools can no longer ignore.
Why? Coping with mental health concerns negatively impacts young people’s ability to meet the many demands of school—from learning, to interacting with peers, to maintaining energy and stamina through the physical demands of the day. Early intervention is critical, or else these students can spiral quickly into avoidance and loss of motivation. This impacts grades, attendance, discipline, and referrals to special education.
Even pre-pandemic, 50 percent or fewer of children and adolescents with a mental health disorder had received services in the previous 12 months. That number is certainly higher today. And yet, many schools have struggled to implement anything beyond Tier 1 interventions, which are simply mental health-related activities designed to meet the needs of all students regardless of whether or not they are at risk for mental health problems.
And many of those Tier 1 interventions are put on the ever-growing list of initiatives that teachers need to implement, and at a time when they are already exhausted. There simply isn’t the time and personnel to do more.
This is not new. When I was a school counselor a decade ago, I had 400 students in my caseload, and probably 40 of them required one-on-one support to address their non-academic barriers to success (i.e. anxiety, ADHD, depression, lack of motivation, and trauma). But providing that group of 40 students with the support they needed would have literally taken all my time, which meant that there was no capacity to help support those Tier 1 initiatives or provide support for students in active crisis.
What is different about today is that the Tier 2 group of students—those who are struggling and need direct intervention to improve—has exploded well past the typical rate of 10-15 percent of the student body we had grown accustomed to in the past decade. Within our own data we have seen rates as high as 35 percent in the past year. And we cannot allow that to become the new normal. It is unsustainable from a resource perspective, and because the cost is too high for our students.
What Exactly Do Tier 2 Students Need?
Students who fall within the Tier 2 intervention group not only need the universal SEL instruction their peers receive, but also more explicit instruction, personalized coaching, and meaningful progress monitoring.
1. Daily Instruction: Every day that a student is struggling with mental health impacts their ability to fully engage in learning. And each day that feeling of “being behind” compounds. Thoughts of self-doubt and shame can creep in, and the student’s self-narrative could become, “I’m lazy, I’m dumb, I’m unmotivated,” leading them to spiral further away from a solution. Effective school-based SEL is delivered in bite-sized lessons that help students take small, achievable steps that will eventually add up to long-lasting impact.
Having those daily reminders models an approach that catalyzes movement by teaching them the critical skills they need to tackle big problems one step at a time. That momentum of movement is everything for a student who is struggling, and when they learn to take control of daily steps, they feel increased confidence, focus, and progress. This fuels their energy, and the negative spiral is reversed.
2. Personalized Coaching: SEL lessons are just one piece of the puzzle; helping students internalize their learning and apply concepts to their individual lives and goals is what really helps drive change.
Students who are struggling with mental health also need the support and guidance of a mental health coach. These coaches—which can either be trained staff within a school building or contracted through a service provider—act as the bridge between “knowing” and “doing.”
Their role is to work with students to identify and set goals across their personal, emotional, social, and academic domains; as students complete their SEL instruction, they have a dedicated and invested adult they can go to to feel seen, heard, valued, and respected. The coach models empathy and helps the student take what they learn in lessons and apply it to their goals and barriers, so the whole process fuels change. Having that dedicated adult is critical to the successful transition from intervention (Tier 2) back to universal instruction (Tier 1); without adequate personnel, schools are likely to see little reduction in the size of the need for intervention.
3. An Off-Ramp: By definition, an intervention is not a long-term solution. To address the increasing need for Tier 2 intervention, our primary goal must be to disrupt the underlying behaviors and challenges that are affecting the students’ ability to participate in the daily expectations of school and society, and then to discharge them from the intervention once they are capable of doing that. Ideally, schools would see just 5-10 percent of their students requiring secondary behavioral intervention. We shouldn’t approach this as a forever problem, or we risk making it into one; schools need to have an off-ramp that is accessible to students and families that clearly articulates the expectations and requirements for students to ultimately move back into universal SEL instruction.
This pandemic may have been once-in-a-lifetime, but if we don’t move quickly to address the mental health needs of students, the effects of the past two years will last a lifetime, and possibly generations.
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