Editor’s note: This essay is an entry in Fordham’s 2021 Wonkathon, which asked contributors to address a fundamental and challenging question: “How can schools best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?” Click here to learn more.
The educators of PS340 in New York City are known for going above and beyond to support the mental, physical, and emotional well-being of students and families. Their website offers a long list of community-based resources. They prioritize home visits to build strong relationships with families. Even during a pandemic, they checked in with their students, told students how important their well-being was to them, and created personalized ways to help each student reconnect with their learning.
As we respond to the collective trauma of Covid-19, we should follow the lead of educators at PS340 by providing comprehensive, holistic, and multi-dimensional supports. Given limited time and external demands, teachers often focus on remediation for underperforming students. This approach risks missing the strengths that students bring into the classroom. All students have unique needs, interests, and assets to build upon, as well as areas of vulnerability to strengthen without stigma or shame. This means that opportunities for exploration, intervention, and growth must be rich and extensive to meet students where they are and help them discover their purpose and direction. By connecting with students in authentic ways, educators can create opportunities to simultaneously heal and grow.
We must stop assuming that addressing students’ mental health needs will be at the expense of academic instruction. Addressing student well-being is an investment in academic growth. But just adding more counselors or responding when obvious behaviors emerge is insufficient. Proactively creating conditions that promote students’ mental, physical, and emotional well-being is essential—and these conditions should be paired with integrated support systems that remove barriers to learning and development. We must integrate everyday practices that communicate to students that they are respected, valued, and loved with tiered support systems that buffer against the effects of excessive stress, especially coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Turnaround for Children’s Whole-Child Design Blueprint outlines five elements that are integral to creating settings that simultaneously ignite the developing brain, provide opportunities to build on students’ interests with challenge and support, and buffer students from stress:
- A shared purpose and commitment to holistic development and equitable outcomes that drives goals, priorities, and decision making.
- Co-creation of a supportive school and classroom environment that is physically, emotionally, and identity safe—creating a strong sense of community and belonging.
- Developmental relationships among teachers, students, leaders, and community as the foundation of learning.
- Integrated knowledge, skill, and mindset development that provides rich learning experiences for students.
- Collective commitment to engaging in transformational change through shared leadership and ownership.
There are many systems, structures, and practices that can support holistic learning and development. Many are already used in schools, including community meeting or the co-creation of norms, expectations, and routines. As we continue to adapt to changing external conditions created by Covid-19 and ongoing racial violence, a tiered support system is critical. Yet this system is often implemented inconsistently and without a holistic lens.
An effective tiered support system complements an intentionally created positive school environment by further personalizing experiences for students and addressing stress and trauma when it emerges. It helps create a coherent web of experiences that enable students’ academic success, healthy development, and well-being. It is a critical piece of a robust intervention and enrichment system that includes expanded learning, partnerships with mental health providers, and/or social service supports.
Tiered supports that are adaptive and responsive
Turnaround for Children has worked alongside educators to help them implement tiered supports that are adaptive, responsive, asset-based, and culturally affirming. We found that two of the most important first steps are naming the purpose for the system and outlining clear steps for providing student access to supports.
Systems do not fulfill their purpose when designed with the assumption that they are only for “some” students. All students have unique strengths and needs that must be addressed in personalized ways. Systems can also be flawed when one-off supports are merely selected from different interventions available at the school—for example, a specialized reading program, a truancy program, or access to the school counselor. A developmental approach instead focuses on empowering students on their individual paths and removing barriers to learning and development. When all staff are trained on clear steps to support this purpose, there is smoother collaboration among adults and supports are provided in integrated, holistic ways.
We recommend including the following phases of a tiered support system:
- Identification: Students, caregivers, or teachers see early indicators of concern.
- Referral: Teachers reflect on quantitative and qualitative data to determine the severity of the concern and make a referral to the Tier 2 or Tier 3 team based on the intensity of the need. It is important to remember that it is the supports that are tiered, not the students.
- Collaboration: Educators and other stakeholders share information about the student and their context to determine potential root causes of the concern, goals, and interventions, and how they will monitor progress. Often, school teams jump to interventions by selecting from available programs without first establishing the desired outcome. Once the team has clarity about the goals, holistic supports can be considered.
- Implementation: Staff members implement changes and document responses.
- Progress Monitoring: Staff revisit goals, assess quality of support provided, and evaluate how students are moving toward the goals outlined.
A well-designed system should provide supports within typical school environments, minimizing removal from classrooms or extracurricular activities. Often, supports will tailor the school environment or experiences to a student’s needs, such as changing the student’s schedule or providing physical space to allow more time to engage and connect with peers and staff. Supports are often enhanced when school and community resources are woven together.
This school year, another component of the system has emerged as essential: a Tiered Supports Crisis Team. Some students face urgent needs and may need immediate support to ensure their health and safety. Typically, a school psychologist or school leader will oversee and coordinate these efforts.
Coherent and integrated systems, structures, and practices
Instead of focusing on what kids learn and/or addressing mental health, what if we used the crisis of the last year to imagine something different? Schools are a lot like the human body; they are made up of different systems and structures that need to work in sync. But too often, they are siloed and focused on sustaining themselves rather than nurturing students’ learning and development. What if we embed a whole-child purpose in our current system and design toward holistic thriving for each and every student? What if we took the lead of the educators at PS340 and focused on student well-being—on the assets students have and how we can personalize their experiences according to these assets?
We don’t need to choose academics or mental health. We need to design for the way children learn and develop. We need to create the environments, experiences, and relationships that reveal the potential in all children. Investing time and resources in creating the right conditions will not shortchange academic instruction. It will ensure that students’ have the energy, support, and brainpower to engage more thoroughly in academic content and pursue their unique interests, passions, and goals.