Schools Are 100K Counselors Short. Here’s a New Approach to Student Mental Health

Wasser Gish: Integrated support uses existing staff to coordinate responses to students' needs, focuses on every kid and crunches data to find trends.

This is a photo of a stressed student at his desk.

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As the new school year gets under way, teachers, students and the data on student well-being are all sounding an alarm: many children are struggling, and their mental health is suffering. 

Help, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, should come from schools, because while their primary role is academic, schools, “ play a critical role in shaping mental, physical, and social growth.”

The challenge is how.

Educators are warning about chronic absenteeism and behavioral concerns, and are clear that addressing student wellness is a necessary companion to academic learning. Schools have added school counselors and mental health staff, brought in partners and programs to provide students with services, secured food and clothing, and provide supportive peer and adult relationships. 

But as federal stimulus funds recede, schools are cutting back on recovery programs and are reportedly 100,000 mental health counselors short of the need. 

There is no realistic way for schools to hire or spend their way out of this crisis if they keep doing more of the same.  It’s time to look for new ways to address students’ mental health and well-being.

One approach that is working well is known as integrated student support — organized efforts to understand and meet students’ strengths and needs. When implemented well, they ensure that students are better off socially, emotionally and academically. Research shows that their teachers, schools and communities benefit too.

What are these schools doing differently? How are they heeding the alarms and using integrated student support to drive positive outcomes? Last year, a working group of researchers and practitioners set out to provide initial answers. 

Convened by the Boston College Center for Thriving Children, where I work, this group drew on their combined expertise, sought outside perspectives and listened to how some of the nation’s leading programs operate in schools. These four models are the Building Assets Reducing Risks (BARR) Center, City Connects (which is incubated at Boston College), Communities in Schools and the New York City Community Schools. 

This work led to the creation of the first National Guidelines for Integrated Student Support, a roadmap for any school looking to create a more powerful system of support and opportunity for all students. 

The guidelines explain that the most effective approaches have common features.

First, they build on the operational infrastructure — including counselors, programs and services — that schools already have in their buildings and surrounding communities. Strong models use these existing resources as the foundation for creating better organized, more systematic ways of getting the right support to the right student at the right time.

In City Connects elementary schools, for example, a school social worker or counselor serves as a coordinator who meets each fall with every teacher for about an hour and half. These conversations discuss each child’s strengths and needs in four domains: academics, social-emotional-behavioral development, physical health and well-being, and family. The coordinator develops an individualized plan for providing each student with specific services — like access to food, literacy support or dental care — and opportunities like sports, arts and mentorship. Once the coordinator gets feedback from families and staff, the plan is finalized and the coordinator ensures the delivery of the school- and community-based resources outlined in each plan.

A second feature of effective approaches is that they support every student, not just those who are visible because they act out or are experiencing a crisis. Rather, effective models make support universal by recognizing that every student has strengths and needs and can benefit from tailored opportunities and resources. This proactive strategy strengthens relationships among students, families and schools, helps stop problems from becoming crises and makes investing in student resiliency a daily practice. 

For example, in BARR high schools, teacher teams discuss the strengths and needs of every student. Educators build strong individual relationships with all students, getting to know them as learners and as people. When students need additional academic support, social services or enriching opportunities, teachers implement in-school interventions and coordinate with support staff to address out-of-school needs and interests. 

A third feature is that effective approaches use data to align individual plans with school- and community-level decision making. Understanding each student can provide broad insights that allow educators to spot trends and gaps in a class or a school as a whole. They can see and address problems such as bullying in a particular grade, or decide whether they should develop a theater program, build students’ social-emotional skills or create a newcomers’ group. Schools can also seek data-driven partnerships with community members like a local movie theater for students who want to learn about film, an afterschool program provider or grief counselors for students who have recently lost a caregiver.

The benefit of these comprehensive approaches is that they go beyond random, patchwork attempts at support to see all students, pay attention to all their needs, build on strengths, respond to interests, promote positive peer relationships, engage families and connect to community resources. 

These systems organize and amplify the academic and student support schools already provide, extend it and make it more powerful, creating more enriching and responsive environments where children grow and learn. Students who receive quality integrated student support during elementary school demonstrate better grades and attendance. As they go on to middle and high school, they narrow academic gaps, closing up to two-thirds of the gap in math and about half the gap in English as compared to peers who never received quality integrated support. During middle and high school, they are also less likely to be chronically absent or drop out; and they are more likely to enroll in and complete postsecondary programs.

By taking a new approach — building systems of integrated support — schools can be empowered to meet students’ needs and cultivate their interests so that well-being and learning flourish in the new year.

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