Editor’s note: This was the second-place submission, out of twenty-five, in Fordham’s 2021 Wonkathon, in which we asked participants to answer the question, “How can schools best address students’ mental-health needs coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic without shortchanging academic instruction?”
It is (hopefully) clear to all in education by now that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought on significant mental health challenges for our K–12 students. But it has long been understood by many in education that way before the novel coronavirus, the mental health of our students was being neglected on a pervasive scale. To no one’s surprise, these challenges were more widespread in traditionally underserved communities. That trend appears to be steady in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. The silver lining of the pandemic, perhaps, is that there is much more willingness and political capital to address students’ mental health needs as we slowly find ourselves on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are, however, several ways in which the education world can mess this up. For one, we cannot develop social and emotional learning supports that take away from academic instruction. In the education policy world, I have begun hearing more and more ideas to tackle mental health challenges of our students that knowingly and without hesitation take away from academic instruction. The gaps that exist in learning, particularly reading and math, have grown to a scale that borders on a crisis. Neglect for academic instruction will do us no good. Secondly, expectations must remain high. This goes for both academic expectations, as well as behavioral. And lastly, the student must be at the center of their own education. The last point is the most important and should be the foundation for how schools address the mental health needs of their students. Here’s how we can do that.
Schools need to develop in-class programming that is focused on teaching students the purpose of school and their education. In other words, help students understand the “bigger why.” Right now, we simply do not do that enough or in an effective way, and it results in students feeling alienated every day when they walk into the front door of the school. When I was a teacher in West Dallas, I experienced this with my students on a near daily basis. And I taught juniors; we need to have this type of programming at much, much younger ages. We don’t need to be the world’s most recognized youth psychologist to know that students lacking a clear purpose struggle with mental health challenges. We’ve known that for years when it comes to designing engaging curricula and developing new classroom management systems. When students understand why they are doing something, engagement spikes and discipline plummets. Our teaching practices should focus on and learn from the richness of skills, networks, abilities, and cultural knowledge that our students and families have that often go ignored and unutilized. This “richness” can be considered cultural capital, meaning there is significant value in the cultural experiences and knowledge that exist within students’ own lives. These types of capital can draw on the experience and knowledge of our students and allow for that capital to have a place in the classroom. After the alienation experienced during the last year, on top of how alienating school can be pre-pandemic, this approach could do wonders for re-building and co-creating senses of belonging across schools and communities. And incorporating more student experience and removal from the often-repressive nature of the learning process could have significant positive effects on student engagement, motivation, and the ability to manage behavior.
This practice could include a wraparound framework for communities and educators that includes ethnographic research of a student’s home, interviews with family and community members, development of an in-school or after-school program that incorporates out-of-school experiences, and then potentially a way of altering education and curriculum based on this research. This kind of practice would place a heavy emphasis on the personal narratives of students and their families, which will be more important after the past year than ever before. This could be very beneficial for utilization in the urban classroom specifically. Households can contain ample resources—both cultural and cognitive—that could have potential utility in the classroom.
Part of the problem is that too often when discussing our students’ futures, such as college and career readiness, academic factors or benchmarks are the sole focus. What is regularly ignored is the importance of mindset and self-efficacy on the path towards future success for our students. Time and again, research shows that in low-income and low-education households, positive social self-efficacy is linked directly to more positive beliefs about future education and career outlook. Our policies on teaching and learning should recognize this and solve for it: Students that feel that they understand the purpose of their education and connect with peers and adults in the building develop more intrinsic aspirations for college and career and are more likely to meet academic standards for admission into college.
This “re-thinking” of our cultural and instructional approach to teaching and learning can ensure that schools are in a position to best address students’ mental health needs coming out of the pandemic. The reality is that we need to admit that school can be alienating—to both students and families—and do whatever we can to fix that.