Mental Health & Wellness Support in Schools: Administrators, Teachers, Students

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Teaching and Learning, School Policies and Procedures, Mental Health
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Educational Innovation

This week we focus on questions around student and faculty mental health. This resource reflects questions on school leaders’ mind as well as a list of suggestions and considerations based on what is working in schools across North America. We know this is an area that will need continued attention.

Please be in touch with Rachel Dratch or Amy Wasser  to suggest additional resources and pose new questions. This resource includes links and content for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal, medical, or other professional advice. 

A Helpful Frame from Rabbi Dr. David Fox, director of Chai Lifeline’s Crisis Intervention, Trauma and Bereavement Department, as a guest speaker for Prizmah’s Guidance Counselor Cohort.  

We are experiencing an amplified trauma: both confrontation with death and how our assumptive reality (the things we take for granted) has been invalidated. All of us must first be self-aware. This is more than self care, yoga, breathing and taking time for oneself (though that is essential as well.) After attending to our own needs, the first thing educational leaders need to do is be aware of each person experiencing these events, and then, to be careful not to assume an understanding of how anyone else feels or is experiencing this event.  Students, teachers and parents are handling this in different ways and many people have little privacy and opportunity to process either individually or with peers. 

The resources, tools and guidelines we share here are designed to (a) provide insight into what is working in some schools (b) provide insight into what teachers and students need right now (c) offer concrete tools and resources to navigate the current social/emotional and mental health needs of faculty and students 

How Administrators Can Support Teachers and Staff 

  • Provide teachers with guidance on how to meet the needs of learners in a remote environment. 
  • Create opportunities for teachers to connect with one another and with mental health professionals, behavioral therapists, guidance counselors and learning specialists to discuss strategies to support students struggling in a remote learning environment
  • Be clear about expectations for teachers working in a remote environment. 
  • Conduct personal outreach to teachers: One administrative team divided up the list of all school employees, from security guards to department heads, and made sure to make a personal phone call to each person.  It took time, but it also built community. And beyond that, it modeled for the teachers how to do that for their students.
  • Build faculty and staff's capacity to support students AND ensure teachers know where and how to seek support when they need it. (for example, can guidance counselors work more closely in partnership with staff)
  • Our words matter. Ensure faculty and staff use shared language that reflects a shared understanding. For example, emphasize the difference between PHYSICAL distancing and SOCIAL distancing.  We must enforce the physical one but not the social one. It is crucial to maintain connectedness. 
  • Check in to make sure teachers feel equipped to support students experiencing a range of emotions at this time.  Provide access to shared language to ensure teachers have the right language to respond to students and families struggling. For example, when encountering someone having a hard time, encourage teachers to try saying, “Your reactions are real” or “that is so difficult, you’re right.” This enables teachers to demonstrate authentic concern and help script healthy processing for students.
  • Beyond the teaching faculty, shared language is necessary for all staff who interact with anyone in the school, from the administrative assistants to the admissions directors. We know that some parents are in a fragile state and may be frightened as well, needing assurances and calm, even if the staff does not feel that way themselves at the time.
  • Reduce expectations for content to be covered between now and the end of the year and emphasize the teacher’s role in connecting with students. 
  • Help our teachers to understand what our students are experiencing and giving the teachers tools to create places for connection is essential.  We cannot assume that teachers know how to do this, especially not online, and modeling how to do this purposefully as administrators and guidance professionals is key.  
  • Support teachers in setting effective and clear boundaries around communication with students and parents.: Many teachers are meeting one-on-one with students and parents to provide additional support. Often, these sessions may extend beyond the hours of a school day.  Support teachers in setting boundaries around one-on-one meetings and in communicating clearly around expectations for student work and performance during this time. Ensuring the administration is aware of this stress can proactively and transparently address teachers’ fears.
  • Whatever we hope our teachers do for our students, we must model as administrators.  If we want them calling and checking in once a week, then we should call our teams as well.  Administrator “office hours” should be for faculty and staff to check in. For faculty finding personal time to connect can also take the form of open staff lounge time. Learning the skills you need and modeling this openness and curiosity for your staff is key to showing this is desirable and essential.  Sharing sound bites of insight with your staff each meeting will also help.  Make it safe to learn about mental health and apply what you’ve learned. 
  • Giving strong support when we cannot be in person is so hard. By modeling how to reach out, we attempt to make sure that individuals feel seen and hear

How Teachers Can Support Students 

  • Mental Health Red Flags

In addition to offering guidance for helping students and families during this time, beyond teaching curriculum, both administrators and teachers need to have a list of mental health red flags.  Teachers who are concerned should contact the school’s guidance counselor or the head of school, and follow the protocol your school has in place. 

  • Counseling

Be clear on what resources are available to you to support students struggling right now. 

Look out for ‘red flags’ you learn about from parents or you witness in live zoom classes. These red flags include but are not limited to:

  • Increased worry, anxiety and fear
  • Irritability
  • Acting out
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Eating and sleeping changes
  • Seeming lethargic, unable to engage
  • Ensure you are clear who to contact if you have concerns about a child’s mental health in class and that they have access to resources to support the child. 
  • Ensure you can identify your own ‘red flags’ and seek support, as needed. Consider resources available to you through your school, synagogue or community for consultations on mental health and social/emotional well being. 
  • Consider offering “office hours” or daily check ins, so students can check in when needed. Cute ideas include games such as  self care bingo,  and events that create a sense of normalcy such as daily announcements, tefilah, morning meetings  and Kabbalat Shabbat.  
  • Part of the “zoom fatigue” or “new” disengagement that we are experiencing, the distractibility, anxiety, lack of engagement and more, is part of how our students are reacting to this trauma.  It is a normal reaction. There are many suggestions out there for teachers, from games and social online time to fun check ins. Make sure activities in classes are relevant and connected. 
  • Experts are saying “Maslow before Bloom” - meaning our focus must be on safety and connection, before higher order thinking and curriculum. We are being advised to focus on a whole child approach, and making sure the adult team is in touch and supporting one another, as well as making sure no child falls through the cracks.
  • Prioritize personal connections.  One-on-one connections create bonds and help connect students to their learning. It is important for all of us to maintain a routine, with a schedule and consistency as much as possible. 

From ASCD:Six Ways to Reach Your Students 

1. Identify what need is being expressed by a behavior. 

2. See the worth in each student and build from his or her strengths.

3. Remember, children  can't learn if they don't feel safe. 

4. Work from a team perspective. 

5. Consider whether a basic need isn't being met. 

6. Give students grace.

Looking to the Future:

Looking ahead, making sure your faculty and staff know you are thinking about these issues and are making plans to put supports in place. Assure them you will be open with your communication and ask for their feedback and suggestions.   These decisions will include:

  • Knowing as much as you can about how each child/family experienced this time while respecting the need for privacy. The goal is to be able to support the child as best as possible.
  • Understanding your staffing needs and adding additional support as needed.
  • Understanding any schedule changes that may be needed to meet the whole-child needs of students.
  • Planning summer professional development for your faculty and staff that addresses social and emotional training.

Professionals in the field offer the following insights for us to remind ourselves and our students:

  • Gratitude can rewire brain after trauma
  • HOPE is essential, but honesty must come with it
  • Small group discussions and open conversations without judgement are important opportunities for students, teachers and parents
  • Remind them that the brain will handle stress differently over time and the stress will take different forms as it gets less intense
  • “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal” Victor Frankel

Prizmah’s Curated Resource page on mental health support

NAIS, ASCD and other organizations have complied resources to help schools support their staff members, students, and families who are experiencing loss and grief during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.These resources includes links and content for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal, medical, or other professional advice. 

ASCD Resources

What we are not talking about enough 
Schools provide more than an education; 

School Connectedness
Young people who feel connected to their school community engage in healthier behaviors

Social Emotional Climate 
School helps young people hone social skills

Trauma Informed Priorities for Remote Learning
Five priorities for remote learning

NAIS Resources

Coping with Grief and Loss Key Questions
Updated weekly: what questions should I be asking now?

Supporting the Whole Child
Academics are key, but here are some ideas for other ways to reach students


Other Resources

Responding with care to students facing trauma
How can we maintain a thriving learning environment and respond to students who are experiencing ongoing trauma or short-term distress in ways that recognize their emotional needs? 

Zoom fatigue: effects of zoom fatigue 
Why video chats are wearing  us out from experts at Psychology Today

Why Some Kids Are Happier Now
How being at home has allowed some children to flourish: a CNN report

Distance School Counselling
Guidelines from School or preparing for distance support

Jewish mindfulness in teachers 
Supporting Teacher needs from the Center for Jewish Spirituality