Lightspeed Systems® convened together a panel of edtech experts to discuss pressing issues and trends on the horizon for K-12 schools and what they can do to prepare. Chief among them: mental health for students, teachers, and staff.
While mental health has been a growing concern for K-12 schools for years, the pandemic brought a lot of issues to light and its effects continue to linger even though most schools returned to “normal,” and in-person resumed for many in the 2021-2022 school year.
Habits that formed during the 24/7 teaching and learning schedule of the pandemic may not have completely gone away. Students, teachers, and administrators may still find themselves without the sort of work-life boundaries that are necessary for good mental health.
Below, learn how districts are addressing the crisis in student mental health, steps your district can take to prioritize mental health, and how every member of district leadership can play a role in supporting students who may not have been identified as at-risk.
What mental health challenges are K-12 students, teachers, and staff facing?
“Mental health has been declining for over a decade for our students,” said Amy Grosso, the Director of Behavioral Health Services for Round Rock ISD and the Board Chair for Central Texas American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). “I think if we could say one good thing that happened from the pandemic is we, the adults, finally woke up and realized, yes, there is a mental health crisis,” said Grosso.
But helping students is impossible without also making sure that their teachers have the mental health support and resources that they need, too. Teachers have felt the impact of long periods of disrupted learning and remote classrooms. They’re also working in a broader social environment in which educators are often scapegoated as the cause of myriad issues—or asked to be their solution.
Parents are also a critical part of a K-12 school’s mental health strategy. During the pandemic, many parents found themselves present for every part of their child’s school day. That level of involvement and awareness is hard to maintain now that schools are back in-person, especially for teachers who may be expected to provide constant communication about a student’s progress. Some parents may try to dictate what or how their students learn, and Grosso noted it’s important to reinforce to families that their students are in the hands of trained, highly capable, educators.
Too much interference from parents—even well-intentioned interference—can also negatively affect students themselves. Kids need the space to make their own choices and mistakes as they explore their autonomy and continue to grow as individuals, and administrators can help by creating healthy boundaries.
How your K-12 school can make mental health a priority
Empathetic, proactive communication with students, parents, and staff should be the foundation of any mental health plan for your school.
For teachers, that support can come in the form of hiring a dedicated staff social worker—in addition to the social workers tasked with helping students—and can be an effective way to help the teachers who are struggling or experiencing burnout.
Proactive communication about how students are doing is a great way to involve parents. But it’s important to set clear expectations with parents when they can expect that communication. This will reinforce boundaries and create clear communication channels with parents. Many schools may have put such systems in place during the pandemic, and their continued use can help put parents at ease while easing the burden on teachers. Most importantly, make sure to let both parents and teachers know at the beginning of the school when and how to communicate with each other.
Proactive communication is even more critical when it comes to issues of drug use and suicide. It’s important to dispel myths, give parents clear talking points, and make information about prevention and warning signs easy for parents to both access and understand. One way to do this is to provide online videos, short webinars, and Facebook Live events. So families can watch the videos at their convenience, and it can help get this information out to those who feel uncomfortable attending in-person events on suicide and mental health.
Above all, treat parents and students with empathy about these highly sensitive topics. A lot of adults weren’t raised having open and honest conversations about suicide or mental health in general. But, Grosso noted, today many children and teens believe in openly addressing these topics and doing so can help save lives. So let parents know it’s okay to talk about it with their child.
Conversations about mental health and awareness of the challenges students are facing should start early, ideally, well in advance of overt warning signs. “One of the biggest things I always ask parents is, do you ask about feelings and emotions as much as you ask about grades?” Grosso said.
How online monitoring can help support students’ mental health
It can be difficult for students to ask for help when they really need it, which is another reason why it’s so important to have the right tools to initiate those conversations.
Online monitoring like the software provided by Lightspeed Alert™ can help districts support their students’ mental health by monitoring students’ online life and picking up on the warning signs of bullying, abuse, or depression. Through their online activity or writing, students may exhibit signs of a mental health crisis that otherwise might fly under the radar.
Monitoring internet activity can also aid in early intervention: When students know they’re being monitored, online activity can be a way to ask for help without having to step into a counselor’s office.
If Lightspeed Alert picks up on a potentially dangerous act or notes something troubling, they immediately escalate to the district level. Then, counselors and student services professionals can step in to help and have conversations with both the student and their family.