How Supporting Student Well-being Drives Elementary Learning

As students struggle with the lingering effects of the pandemic, schools can accelerate engagement, motivation, and learning with evidence-based mental health support.

By Katie Dorn, MA, LSC, MFT

As students returned to classrooms this fall, teachers, counselors, and administrators quickly recognized the growing number of students who are overwhelmed, unmotivated, and struggling with their mental well-being. Researchers predict the pandemic will have long-lasting effects on mental health for students in every age group, and educators everywhere know that learning takes a back seat when students are unable to focus and engage.

However, an investment in a strong, evidence-based elementary social-emotional learning (SEL) program can help develop resilient and confident learners. And research shows that this investment delivers better student mental well-being along with better grades, fewer absences, and fewer disciplinary issues.

Elementary schools have an unprecedented opportunity right now to support student well-being and address student learning that may be lagging by focusing on the neuroscience of mental health and emotional well-being. Here’s how they can do it.

Understand the signs of a student who is struggling with mental health. The question I most often get from schools is how to detect when students are struggling with emotional and mental health obstacles. Normally we would focus on changes in attitudes, behavior, attendance, and grades—but the COVID effect is demanding a different approach. Every student is coping differently with the challenges of the past year-and-a-half, making a universal screener, such as FastBridge’s SAEBRS, the most reliable way to identify students who need support. Even without a universal screener, an MTSS system can be used to flag students with indicators of behavior or grade changes.  And as always, listen…listen…listen to students’ and parents’ concerns.

Make evidence-based SEL part of every student’s day. Every single student benefits from an outcome-driven Tier 1 SEL curriculum that’s implemented with fidelity. An elementary Tier 1 curriculum creates a common language and approach to teach and reinforce core SEL concepts in every grade and every classroom. Over decades, brain researchers have concluded that ideas are more likely to stick when learning is broken into small chunks that build upon each other through repetition, application, reflection, and connection to personal experience. Year by year, the use of a universal Tier 1 curriculum in an elementary school can equip students with advancing opportunities for skill-building, reflection, and learning connections, as well as deeper relationships with teachers and staff. 

Meet struggling students with personalized support. An evidence-based Tier 1 curriculum will help schools meet the SEL needs of most students. But some students will require more intensive support to overcome challenges and re-engage as healthy learners. Therefore, a targeted Tier 2 intervention for elementary students should include brief daily lessons, intentional prompts for reflection and feedback, and one-on-one highly-trained connection and support. It should also provide pre- and post-intervention data to monitor and measure student progress.

Prioritize early interventions. Whether addressing academics or behavior, early interventions are the key to preventing more costly and time-consuming support. System-wide professional learning and new curriculum adoption are too slow for a student body whose mental health needs are now at an all-time high. Instead, extend the reach of your existing counseling team using turnkey solutions based on the latest SEL research that connects students quickly to evidence-based interventions.

Offer services from licensed mental health professionals. Every school should take pride in its team of counselors, psychologists, and social workers and their value to student care. But the pandemic-driven child mental health crisis has grown too big for the traditional counseling support model. Student needs for mental health support have increased, and capacity must keep up. Partnering with an evidence-based, scalable SEL program allows a school to serve more students in need of one-on-one support at a fraction of the cost of an additional counselor. 

Use technology to bridge the capacity gap and reach struggling students quickly. While student needs exceed a realistic counseling team capacity, SEL programs can partner with school districts to scale quickly and deliver meaningful, lasting results. Technology solutions powered by relationships can help schools overcome the barriers that stand between struggling students and the support they need. Using technology for SEL also offers schools strategic benefits, including equitable support for all students and higher implementation fidelity.

Let teachers teach. Teachers are gifted champions of student growth, and there is a clear benefit to students when they have a trusted connection to at least one teacher at school. But teachers should not be responsible for delivering the intensive mental health and coping support that students need now. Instead, the work of providing support to students should rest on the shoulders of the school’s counseling and mental health team, along with a partner specializing in evidence-based strategies.

In the last several months, supporting students’ social-emotional and mental health needs has moved from “nice to have” to “must-have.” The good news is, schools don’t have to do it alone. Schools have the power to transform the success of students and schools when they partner with an online SEL learning platform that’s rooted in relationships and based in science. 

Katie Dorn, MA, LSC, MFT, is co-founder of EmpowerU and an experienced, licensed school counselor and therapist. Her passion for finding effective ways to help students and families with mental health obstacles has fueled her work for EmpowerU since 2015. She can be reached at [email protected].

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