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.
Personalized learning means more than just academics: A trauma-informed approach for supporting students’ mental health. As an educator, I am so proud of the efforts of dedicated professionals as they have persevered to serve our children during these tumultuous times. Our nation’s children are impacted by a global pandemic, food insecurity, housing insecurity, drastic unemployment, and national uprisings championing social justice. I am encouraged that the convergence of these issues has shined a light on long-persisting inequities in our services. I am equally encouraged by the spirit of innovation and increased investment in education. However, it would be foolish to believe that we have rounded the corner. There is still much work to be done.
Nationally, state legislatures are responding with guidance and expectations for strategies to combat learning loss during the pandemic. While their focus on the academic needs of our children is admirable and necessary, I fear that approaching this national challenge utilizing tools that foster compliance is wrong-headed. Rather, our approach to support must be collaborative, sustainable, and commitment focused. Commitment over compliance must be the rule, if we are to build sustainable supports for children, families, and educators.
What does a commitment culture look like for us? At Lifelong Learning, where I’m Vice President for National Growth, our National Superintendent, Caprice Young, champions the student-centered philosophy which drives both the culture and the decision-making process for how the logistics of learning are structured. She shared, “One cannot simply shift to a flexible, one-on-one structure and call it a Learn4Life school. The entire ethos of the school must be grounded in respect for the lived experience of the student, the belief that all students have the right own their own education and to learn at high levels, and the commitment that we as educators have the responsibility to do what it takes to ensure our students’ success.”
Because of that commitment, our educational model is an explicitly student-centered design built on the philosophy that, especially for trauma-impacted students, the school must mold itself to the student, as opposed to requiring the student to conform to the structure of school. In the trauma-informed context, one cannot expect students, who due to loss of employment during the pandemic now need to work to feed their families, to choose sitting in a classroom for six hours every day over their family’s livelihood. Just as it is unreasonable to place students reading at the fifth-grade level in a classroom with thirty other students reading a social studies text written at the tenth-grade level without any targeted literacy support, neither should we return students to schools after a global pandemic without any plans for targeted mental health support.
So how do we balance mental health needs with academic instruction? That’s where personalized learning comes in. One tool for fostering a commitment-focused culture dedicated to ensuring that each child receives both the academic and mental health support that they need to be successful is the dedication to trauma-informed instructional leadership and compassion. Trauma-resiliency forms the framework for all our academic endeavors. We address educational challenges and encourage excellence through continuous use of data around student progress, while also fostering overall student wellness. Our personalized instructional strategies include whatever works: one-on-one, tutoring, small groups, independent study, online, projects, intervention, and experiential learning, among others. Students can begin throughout the calendar year and earn credits in real-time as they demonstrate proficiency in rigorous, standards aligned curricula. Our personalized mental health supports are driven by our TREC Framework, Trauma Resilient Education Communities, which includes:
- In-Person Training
- TREC Wellness Workbook
- TREC Certification for Educators
- TREC Ecosystem Membership
- TREC Accreditation
- TREC Resiliency Programs
How do we know that this combination of personalized academic supports and mental health supports works? For starters, we have more than 22,000 graduates, many of whom had previously dropped out of another school, who can attest to our model success. Not only that, but we hear from students every day about the importance of the personalized support and one-on-one attention they received. Here are a few quotes provided by students during a recent study utilizing empathy interviews:
With my emotional health, it has definitely gone up. I was at an all-time low in my life, and thanks to the teachers I’ve been feeling good about myself because they make me feel like I’m smart, and doing good, and so that does wonders on my mental health.
Well, one of my teachers is a psychologist on top of being an English teacher. When I need to vent about my day-to-day life, she’s completely there for me. She’s there on a professional level as well as an emotional level. It’s not like she’s doing it because she has to. She’s doing it because she wants to. That’s why I appreciate them.
We can talk about my counselor. We talk about how to take care of ourselves, being mindful about what you think and why you think. If you need emotional or academic, if you need any help, they will do their best and make a little group for people that have those needs and if they can’t, they maybe use resources outside the school, maybe partnerships with the school.
Recently, my graduating senior was invited to address a state board of education relating to the challenges she has experienced while continuing her learning during the pandemic. I observed with pride as my daughter shared, “Today, I want to speak to you about the parents and students who have experienced challenges with learning during Covid. There are many families (like my own) who express feeling helpless and have limited knowledge on how to support their children with the transition to distance learning.” She closed by advocating, “The mental health of students and staff is so important. Social-emotional learning sessions for students are so important to help us handle stress and solve life’s challenges. Teachers and administrators have helped, but we need more, since for some, trauma and stress doesn’t easily go away.”
While we clearly must focus in the coming year on the academic impacts of this pandemic, we cannot afford to underestimate the trauma that so many of our students have experienced. We cannot make this about either mental health or academic progress. Utilizing a personalized learning model that fully integrates a trauma-resilient approach into every aspect of the academic program ensures that we can successfully support students with both.