- Investing in mental health training, resources, and digital tools supports students’ immediate needs and creates a foundation for the long term
- By leaning into the power of human connection and leveraging digital health tools, schools can proactively enhance student well-being
- See related article: Using tech to combat trauma
Schools play a vital role in nurturing the well-being of their students. And, as the primary setting where children spend a significant portion of their time, schools are well-positioned to be an additional touchpoint in the mental healthcare continuum. This additional touchpoint is particularly critical amid mental healthcare provider shortages, enduring access challenges, and the stigma associated with these illnesses.
As a result, schools can help bridge the gap to treatment through a trauma-responsive environment, which has shown to improve student well-being, reduce chronic absenteeism, and raise student engagement. But in my experience, it will take a multipronged approach that centers relationship building, integrates digital tools, and invests in the long-term to make a difference for a school community.
Addressing student mental health starts with harnessing the power of human connection
For many children who have experienced trauma, they need to build healthy, trusting relationships with adults in order to start the process of healing. It takes meeting students where they are and being attuned to each individual’s lived experience. There’s no substitute for meaningful, consistent human connection.
Ultimately, students want to know that the people at school care about them. Compassion and empathy are vital fibers of social connection and belongingness just as much as having a genuine interest in students’ interests. When a teacher is invested in their students’ social, emotional, and academic development, it results in reciprocity, meaning children who feel supported by others will then become more invested in themselves. Also, when an educator understands the way trauma affects children, the more they will be able to help them cope.
Furthermore, teachers, instructional aides, and other support staff in schools should come from a wide variety of identities. Diverse representation helps engender trust with students of all backgrounds.
Additionally, school staff should work with mental health professionals to learn the ways depression, anxiety, trauma, and mental illness can manifest. Training should also provide best practices on the kinds of support a child may need and guidance on how to approach conversations with parents—always with an eye toward destigmatizing mental health. Lastly, training sessions should be tailored based on the needs of the school community.
Leveraging digital tools as an aid, not a replacement
The adoption of technology over the past few years has soared. But please don’t misinterpret these tools as substitutes for human connection. For example, the rollout of advanced safety features for cars has not replaced drivers–rather, they’ve augmented the driver’s experience and have improved safety. The same can be said for digital tools for mental health.
Digital tools–such as those that make practicing self-regulation skills engaging or calming and meditation apps–will be most effective when a caring adult is guiding students through the process and use of these tools. Educators should recognize the value they possess in helping children recover from traumatic events while integrating digital tools with intention. The ultimate goal is empowering children and teens to become more curious about themselves and learn about their brains and emotions.
Investing in the long term requires constant evolution
Investing in the well-being and mental health of students and staff cannot be “set it and forget it.” It requires constant monitoring and adjustments to ensure offerings hit the mark for a school community.
It’s important to identify key indicators, such as improved attendance or academic achievement, or higher engagement in extracurriculars, and track these measures over time. Additionally, surveying students and staff to create data-driven insights may be helpful to track progress. It might feel like trial and error at times, but it’s important to land on the right fit for an individual school community rather than a cookie-cutter approach.
Investing in mental health training, resources, and digital tools not only supports students’ immediate needs but also creates a foundation for the long term. By leaning into the power of human connection and leveraging digital health tools, schools can proactively enhance student well-being, fostering an environment that promotes healthy emotional development and academic success. When children feel empowered and can reach their fullest potential, society will be in a much better place for generations to come.
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