Student Mental Health is a Puzzle: Here’s How to Make the Pieces Fit Together
By Kevin Dorsey and Zach Vander Veen
Where does Social Emotional Learning (SEL) fit in?
Through the framework of SEL, students can develop skills in self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal relationships to better prepare themselves for school, work, and life success. SEL provides a foundation in areas ranging from impulse control and emotion management to problem-solving and self-discipline.
These types of key skills are critical for improving mental health and well-being. Given the mental health crisis now faced by communities across the country, schools are turning to SEL for a solution. In fact, at the national level, an overwhelming 83.8 percent of states have reported that SEL has increased in priority since the pandemic began.
An effective SEL program requires coordination between the entire learning community: students, educators, administrators, and families. Look for a tool that focuses on connection. Throughout your SEL program, you’ll need to integrate student information, academic curriculum, family information, educator development, and community partner program engagement. Select a platform that acts as a central hub to integrate all the different stakeholders and school apps that play a role in SEL skill development, so you can streamline the process and be able to pull actionable insights to make data-driven decisions to enhance your program.
What you’ll need
Ideally, you’ll want streamlined communication abilities between schools, families, and community partners, including integration of learning activities and assessments with student information. Having the ability to pull reports from which you can gain data-driven insights on the performance of your program Integration of educator development and training content is very helpful.
Just as you would with a standard academic curriculum, for an SEL program, you would create presentation material, assignments, and assessments focused on learning objectives that support SEL skills. This may look like a lesson on self-control, in which students watch a video on digital impulses and how social media pushes and pulls them in different directions (for example, Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma”). Students may then complete an assignment that asks them to journal their actions during the day. The goal of the lesson is for them to identify moments when their attention and actions are controlled by outside sources.
Integrating SEL objectives into current curriculum
SEL instruction doesn’t have to be a stand-alone activity. You can strengthen your SEL initiative by integrating it into ongoing curriculum and coursework. There are many ways to support your current coursework with SEL practices. For instance, CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) promotes three signature practices to support systemic SEL: welcoming/inclusion activities, engaging strategies, and optimistic closures.
In practice, this might look like using a group discussion format to encourage students to help each other understand the ideas and issues presented in a text. Or, presenting a “brain break” activity that focuses on doing something calming to promote focus and readiness to learn before diving into the material. These types of activities can be added to the platform you use to present instruction, just as you would any other lesson or activity. By weaving practices like this into “normal” curriculum, you can embed SEL into your students’ routine and further solidify their mastery of the skills.
Capturing youth voice and increasing student engagement
Self-awareness and self-management are core components of social-emotional learning. This means that in your SEL program, you’ll want to make sure you’re encouraging students to speak up about how they feel about the program and reflect on their experiences.
Not only does this promote additional building of SEL skills, but it also gives you key insight into whether or not your program is achieving the desired outcomes. In order to effectively use these insights to drive program decisions, it’s important to have a tool in place that can collect data from surveys and reflections in a way that makes it easy to analyze.
It’s also important to make sure these surveys or activities actually get completed by the recipients. By being strategic about where and when you disseminate surveys, you can increase your participation rate and ensure that you’re getting the data you need to have a positive impact on your program.
Practicing supportive discipline
A school’s discipline procedures can have an effect on student SEL skills as well. There’s a growing awareness that when traditional discipline measures like detention and suspension are used, issues like bullying, violence, and poor academic performance are only made worse.
Instead, more educators are turning to restorative practices to prevent these problems and create a healthier school community. These types of practices promote inclusiveness, relationship-building, and problem-solving, bringing together victims, offenders, and their supporters to address wrongdoing. Students are encouraged to reflect on their actions and devise plans to repair harm rather than simply endure punitive action. This type of shift involves the collaboration and action of many different school stakeholders. Staff will need to complete training that teaches them how to implement the new procedures. School administrators will need to develop a code of conduct and practices that are aligned with best practices for social and emotional health and share this information with students and families. Additionally, the school needs a streamlined way to track discipline incidents and analyze them along with other student factors to uncover any influencing factors and make effective decisions.
Family partnerships work
Family participation plays an important role in helping develop and support a child’s social and emotional health. For an effective SEL program, it’s important to provide families with resources and support to help them develop an awareness of SEL skills and the role they play in their children’s well-being.
This can be done through things like micro-courses, short videos, or connection to community programs that help families learn about aspects of mental health. In addition to educational resources, it’s also important to provide transparency into the full picture of how their child is doing. With a clearer idea of where their child might be struggling, families can provide the additional support and encouragement needed to improve kids’ health and overcome obstacles to student success.
With this in mind, you need to have a simple way to grant families access to the platform where you consolidate all of your student information and important communications. This way, families can easily find out the most critical information they need to know about their children’s performance and behavior, as well as reach the just-in-time support most relevant to their situation.
It takes a community
Instructors these days are being asked to take on several different roles, from teacher to counselor to social worker, and more. While teachers play a vital role in the development of children, we can’t place all these responsibilities on them. By establishing partnerships with organizations in the community, you can get your kids access to the mental health resources they need, while simultaneously lifting the burden off teachers and allowing them to focus on what they love most — teaching.
Community partners may include counselors or therapists, wellness groups, and other providers focused on supporting mental health. The first key to success in community partner programs is to get the programs in front of more students and families. Your students and families need a reliable way to find the right program for their needs and an easy way to sign up and contact the provider. Additionally, to truly see the impact of these partners on your students, staff, and families, their programs need to be integrated into the platform you’re using to manage your SEL program. You’ll want to be able to pull reports that show participation and engagement levels, see the distribution of program types to make sure they align with your goals, and be able to easily see the big picture of how the programs are making an impact on your students.
About the authors
As a former teacher, instructional technologist and director of technology, Kevin Dorsey has two decades of education technology experience. He is currently the Director of Business Development and EdTech Advisor at Abre.io. In that role, Kevin works with school districts across the country to increase the efficiency of their educational tech stacks, improving the user experience for all stakeholders. Kevin is also completing his dissertation, exploring the best educational technology practices discovered during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zach Vander Veen has worn many hats in education, including history teacher, technology coach, administrator, and director of technology. He loves learning, teaching, traveling and seeking adventures with his family. Currently, Zach is the co-founder and VP of Development and Customer Success at Abre.io, an education management platform.