What would our society look like if the foundational purpose of school was to foster collective well-being?
In other words: imagine what might happen to the mental health and overall health in our communities if every school environment was built—structurally and systemically—to prioritize positive relationships, develop social-emotional learning skills, build a sense of belonging, and explicitly teach our students about mental health, stress responses, and resilience.
As the social and emotional learning lead for the Burlington School District, these are questions that I spend the majority of my time thinking about. And, earlier this year, we asked our students to do the same.
During a design challenge organized by the faculty of Burlington City and Lake Semester – an award-winning semester program for students at our high school that uses the city of Burlington, Vermont as a classroom – groups of four-to-five high schoolers worked together with community partners to co-create an ideal school focused on well-being and belonging.
At the end of this exercise, the overarching message was clear: we need to be far more innovative and expansive when it comes to supporting the needs of young people and adults.
I believe that what we learned from students during this experience speaks to a broader need to rethink our approach to well-being in our schools and make a shift toward community care.
Adopting a team approach to well-being.
“We want to be greeted every time you enter the school or walk into your classroom.” – 12th Grade Student, Burlington High School
At a time when so many of our students are in need of support, there seems to be increasing awareness that much of what we have been doing in schools to preserve (and improve) our collective well-being has not been working. We continue to seek solutions that can be implemented overnight versus seeking to understand and address the root causes.
As Alex Shevrin Venet (teacher, facilitator, and author of “Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education”) recently commented on Twitter: “What research on child trauma consistently shows [is that] what helps is for children to be in relationships with grounded, regulated, healthy, caring adults; to be embedded in a web of support. Which means that to address youth mental health, you also need to address adult mental health.”
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to the societal challenges—low wages, poor working conditions—that lead to a lack of support for the teachers and student support staff that are tasked with supporting our young people’s well-being.
Instead of searching for a quick fix or unfairly relying on educators to be resilient, schools can adopt a team approach to mental health and well-being. During the aforementioned design challenge, our high schoolers asked us why mental health practitioners are often the only individuals tasked with supporting student well-being. They pushed us to think about a system in which social-emotional learning expertise is distributed across the school and connects students – and their families – with resources from the community.
“The first two months of school should be spent entirely on building relationships with our peers, our teachers, and all the other adults that work in schools.” – 10th Grade Student, Burlington High School
Our nation was starting to feel the effects of a severe shortage of mental health clinicians even before the pandemic. Now, finding a mental health provider is arguably more difficult than ever. In the past, school districts have relied heavily on referrals to clinicians when it came to supporting the whole child. But with a shortage of therapists across the country, there’s a significant limit to the effectiveness of this model—not to mention the issues of access based on stigma and a distrust of the mental health system.
We can no longer solely lean on expert help for the support that our young people so intensely need right now. We need to acknowledge that all adults in the school community have a role to play.
The good news is that there are already efforts underway to initiate this paradigm shift. In Illinois, for example, 52 schools are participating in a program (Resilience Education to Advance Community Healing, or REACH) that assists them in implementing trauma-responsive policies and practices. The program – formed through a partnership between the Center for Childhood Resilience and the Illinois State Board of Education – includes such supports as:
- Offering professional learning opportunities to all educators that focus on the impact of trauma on children and adolescents, crisis response strategies, and instructional practices that build resiliency among students;
- Creating regional social-emotional learning “hubs” that bring together leaders from local districts to provide resources and supports to area schools, and;
- Establishing a community partnerships grant fund to expand collaborations between school districts and community organizations to increase (and align) the services students receive inside and outside of school.
Other districts in Vermont (and nationally) have invested in training or hiring for the role of Social-Emotional Learning Coach, individuals who work across buildings to support teachers and support staff in building their capacity to lead, teach, and model SEL skills. These employees often play an instrumental role in both responding to in-the-moment student (and adult) needs as well as proactively cultivating the safe, inclusive, and supportive learning environments in which learners thrive.
At the Burlington School District, federal pandemic relief funding has accelerated our work to build universal systems that can better understand and support well-being for everyone. During the 2021-22 school year, we worked with community partners (such as Project Hoeppner, a Vermont-based nonprofit that partners with schools to fund the use of proactive mental health supports) to implement an online mindfulness-based SEL program called Inner Explorer. This tool has allowed us to focus on classroom wellness as part of embedded SEL practices and reinforce the mind-body connection with students. In addition to using this program with students in our classrooms, every staff member and family member throughout the district has access to Inner Explorer’s library of audio-guided mindfulness practices.
Another theme that students repeatedly voiced during our design challenge was a desire to get to know their teachers at a deeper level. We know from decades of research that strong teacher-student relationships are associated with improvements across a number of important outcomes—from academic engagement to attendance to dropout rates (Quin, 2016). These effects are strong even after controlling for differences in student demographic factors. Connections between students and caring adults help create a feeling of safety in which learners are comfortable enough to take risks, explore, and tackle new content (Craig, 2017).
To help systematically ensure that every student in our school buildings has a strong, positive connection to at least one teacher or staff member, our district’s Office of Equity collaborated with school support teams to create a menu of resources for implementing the Making Caring Common Project’s Relationship Mapping activity in ways that fit the needs of their respective community members. Recognizing that adults working in schools are struggling under the weight of over two years of fear and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, many of our schools have opted to adapt this strategy for use with staff members as well as students, asking educators to identify their own support systems and initiating meaningful conversations around mentorship and adult well-being.
In addition, we are currently piloting several well-being measurement tools that serve to concurrently normalize the act of labeling emotions and advocating for one’s basic needs while providing students with platforms to elevate and amplify their voices. With Rhithm, students check-in on a weekly (if not daily) basis to share how they are feeling physically, emotionally, and socially. With Panorama’s Social-Emotional Learning Survey, students reflect on their own social-emotional competencies (across self-management, social awareness, self-awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making) and can share feedback directly with their teachers and school leaders.
As we continue to work with our teachers, our students and their families, and our community partners to co-create the student-centered environments that ensure every student is challenged, empowered, and engaged in their learning, it is clear that a holistic, whole-child approach to learning and development—one that is centered around the fact that social-emotional learning and academic development are inextricably linked —is absolutely essential.
Advancing a new model for collective well-being through policy.
“It feels like so many decisions get made about ‘what students need’ without input from the students. There are lots of assumptions about what will help students be well. But we want to be at the table when those decisions get made.” – 12th Grade Student, Burlington High School
Along with promoting a new approach to well-being in schools, we can broaden the aperture to consider structural shifts in the form of legislature.
A recent report from the Hopeful Futures Campaign (titled: America’s School Mental Health Report Card) highlights a set of states who stand out as “policy pacesetters” when it comes to enhancing school mental health legislation. Examples include:
- Idaho, Delaware, and the District of Columbia’s work to set strong standards for the ratio of school mental health professionals to students;
- Minnesota’s school-linked behavioral health grants that promote partnerships between schools and community mental health providers to provide wraparound services for students and their families;
- Iowa and North Dakota’s efforts to require evidence-based training focused on youth behavioral health and trauma-informed practices;
- New Jersey’s $1 million mental health screening in schools grant program, and;
- The adoption of life skills competencies for K-12 in Illinois, Washington, Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and West Virginia.
Moreover, groups across the country – including the Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for the United States (SEL4US), a coalition of state-based advocacy groups working to sustain the use of high-quality SEL – have already been in this arena for years, advocating for legislature that supports student and adult well-being through professional learning, continuous improvement, funding, and programming.
Finally, policymakers, advocacy groups, district administrators, and school leaders must endeavor to involve young people in the decision-making process as co-creators. It is not enough to just ask for their input or rely on survey results. Students must know that their voices are changing mindsets and shifting practices—especially when it comes to policy choices that impact their well-being.
Students and educators have undoubtedly lost a great deal over the past two years. But we shouldn’t let loss prevent us from seeing what’s left; from rethinking what we are doing, particularly when it comes to how we’re treating and taking care of young people and adults in our schools.