Throughout 2020 and 2021, mental health became a much-needed conversation topic throughout America and the world. This crisis did not just affect adults. It also affected students in the classroom. During this time, up to 31% of all emergency room visits for children were related to mental health (Leeb et al., 2020). A total of 25% of parents noted a decrease in the mental health of their children and a 14% increase in behavioral problems (Patrick et al., 2020). Due to Executive Order 14000 and guidance from the Department of Education, mental health has become a necessary component of the school system. The Department is now encouraging school districts to use American Rescue Plan funds to bolster the mental health program within schools throughout the United States by providing school-based mental health education and expanding the number of school counselors and psychologists.
What is mental health?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices." In essence, mental health can affect everything we do. In schools, it involves social, behavioral, and emotional components. When a person, including a child, is experiencing a decline in their mental health, it is debilitating. They can't think about anything except for how they feel inside. The effects on a student with poor mental health are often exhibited by low grades, bad behavior, isolation, depression, or risk-taking. Teachers and administrators are noticing these effects across the nation.
How can SEL improve mental health?
There is hope. Studies show that the mental health of students can be improved with Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) embedded into their curriculum. In fact, in a meta-analytical review of 75 other published studies on SEL, it was determined that SEL is beneficial not only for social skills, positive self-image, and academic achievement but also for encouraging positive mental health within the school system (Sklad et al., 2012). In addition, a paper published by the University of British Columbia noted that SEL plays a part in the advancement of positive mental health in students. For the last ten years, the Mental Health Commission in Canada has encouraged SEL in Canadian schools to promote positive mental health to provide students with ways to achieve both in the classroom academically and in life (Hymel et al., 2018).
Social and Emotional Learning can equip students with the skills to control their emotions and behavior. It can also help students build positive relationships with others. These relationships amongst students and their classmates and with teachers directly relate to a student's mental well-being. Students should be taught self-regulation skills and interaction techniques because these are skills that a student needs to succeed (Korinek, 2021). This research indicates that when students are taught SEL in the classroom, anxiety, impulsive behavior, and depression decreases while test scores, empathy, and attendance increases. Stark et al. (2021) suggested that students feel supported when the school system fosters SEL in the classroom, which was influential to a student's psychosocial well-being.
When students are taught SEL in the classroom, anxiety, impulsive behavior, and depression decreases while test scores, empathy, and attendance increases.
What SEL practices should be included in mental health programs?
The Department of Education (2021) listed several recommendations in their document in response to Executive Order 14000. Methods in those recommendations consisted of assessing the well-being of students through surveys and incorporating a mental wellness program for children into the classroom. Encouraging moments for students and staff to connect and implementing a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) to meet each child's social, emotional, and behavioral accommodations. The Department determined embedding these SEL practices into the school system would address the mental health needs of all students.
Surveys are helpful in knowing how students feel about themselves, but they also are beneficial to see how teachers assess the students' well-being. Surveys will help determine the best methods to improve overall school culture and flagging students who may need extra support. The assessments assist in whole group and individualized instruction.
It is essential to create moments of connection in school for various reasons. These moments can be as simple as a check-in or as elaborate as a classroom time set aside only to build each other up. One reason that moments of connection are important is that students feel safer when they know that someone cares. In a safe environment, students are more likely to share information about stressors both at school and home. Feeling connected also improves attendance and even grades. Students who know they have friends and teachers that only want to help them succeed will be more likely to ask for help (Stark et al., 2021).
Contrary to popular belief, students do not acquire social and emotional skills only through osmosis. Often these skills are not modeled at home and students do not know what is socially or behaviorally acceptable. It is necessary for these SEL strategies to be taught in a school program. Teachers and staff can start by modeling these behaviors themselves. Schools can also incorporate an SEL curriculum that will teach students these social and emotional skills, allow them time to practice what was learned, discuss the strategies, and provide feedback.
Finally, schools must implement an MTSS to ensure that each child receives the correct level of support. According to the Department of Education, Tier 1 support would include classroom practices like stress reduction, routines, and social skills. Students who need Tier 2 support should be provided with opportunities to check in with the teacher, perhaps in a small group time. These at-risk students can be provided with extra lessons and practice in whichever skills they lack. Lastly, Tier 3 support is prioritized for high-needs students. These students need individualized support and should spend time with a counselor, behavior specialist, or psychologist. These levels of support can be determined by student and staff surveys and assessments as well as behavior records.
Mental health has been a need for many years. The United States government and Department of Education agree, and funding is now available to assist schools with addressing that need. It is important to capitalize on the research and available resources to reverse the trend of mental health decline in our students. Their future depends on it.
Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (2021). Supporting Child and Student, Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs. https://www2.ed.gov/documents/students/supporting-child-student-social-emotional-behavioral-mental-health.pdf
Hymel, S., Low, A., Starosta, L., Gill, R., & Schonert-Reichl, K. (2018). Promoting mental well-being through social-emotional learning in schools: Examples from British Columbia. Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health, 97–107. https://doi.org/10.7870/cjcmh-2017-029
Korinek, L. (2021). Supporting students with mental health challenges in the classroom. Preventing School Failure, 65(2), 97–107. https://seu.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1285619&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Leeb, R. T., Bitsko, R. H., Radhakrishnan, L., Martinez, P., Njai, R., & Holland, K. M. (2020). Mental health–related emergency department visits among children aged <18 years during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 69(45), 1675–1680. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6945a3.htm
Sklad, M., Diekstra, R., De Ritter, M., Ben, J., & Gravesteijn, C. (2012). Effectiveness of school-based universal social, emotional, and behavioral programs: Do they enhance students’ development in the area of skill, behavior, and adjustment? Psychology in the Schools, 49(9), 892–909. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21641
Patrick, S. W., Henkhaus, L. E., Zickafoose, J. S., Lovell, K., Halvorson, A., Loch, S., Letterie, M., & Davis, M. M. (2020). Well-being of parents and children during the COVID19 pandemic: A national survey. Pediatrics, 146(4), 1–8. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/146/4/e2020016824
Stark, L., Robinson, M. V., Gillespie, A., Aldrich, J., Hassan, W., Wessells, M., Allaf, C., & Bennouna, C. (2021). Supporting mental health and psychosocial wellbeing through social and emotional learning: A participatory study of conflict-affected youth resettled to the U.S. BMC Public Health, 21(1), 1620. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-11674-z