As the principal of a demographically and socioeconomically diverse high school, I have seen firsthand the mental health crisis facing our schools as students transition back to in-person learning after two years of virtual schooling. Educators face a daunting challenge: to manage the effects of trauma and set expectations for behavior and learning while building back a sense of community and belonging.
During the pandemic, teachers faced their own unprecedented challenges, including disruption of their classes and routines, the rapid transitions from in-person to remote learning and back again, and uncertainty about personal safety and health. For parents and caregivers, distance learning meant added stressors, especially for those who lacked technology or juggled caregiving and employment responsibilities.
Normalcy has taken on a new definition; the pandemic has taught us that normal can mean many things to many different people. I have learned we can’t assume that just because we are back to a traditional in-school model we can overlook the impact the pandemic continues to have on our families, faculty, and leaders.
School leaders have been thrust into the perfect storm—a rare combination of social, emotional, and educational crises inclusive of unpredictable factors. These circumstances highlight the necessity for effective engagement practices. Returning to educational excellence may be a priority for school leadership, but we must first address the social and emotional needs of our learning communities. Students and parents need an adequate level of support and engagement to successfully navigate the tumultuous waters that this pandemic has brought our way.
Strategies for getting back to where we need to be include schoolwide layers of support and scaffolding at all levels:
The adage "it takes a village" could not be more relevant right now. Our children need the collective support and resources of our school and community to succeed. Our adolescents are dealing with a host of adversities related to their social and emotional well-being, including depression, anxiety, social pressures, societal influences, and substance dependency. Couple these difficulties with students attempting to reestablish their place among their peers, navigating the distractions and pressures of social media, and maintaining a renewed level of academic stamina, and it is clear that children are struggling and need our support.
A focus on SEL has a big role to play in supporting the success of our students. Tools like these from REL Mid-Atlantic and the Institute of Education Sciences help monitor students’ social-emotional assets and well-being. During the pandemic, students adapted to the level of flexibility afforded to them by virtual learning. To restore balance and help students adjust to a more structured setting, our staff placed an intentional focus on building community and a sense of belonging. It is all about engagement, positioning all members of the learning community to connect with our students. Layers of support are a crucial component of this charge; offering community resources in conjunction with school personnel has been highly effective. Partnering with a behavioral health provider, who is on-site to support students’ daily needs and offers evening sessions for families, has been highly effective. Our success as a school community has been recognized in the community, as these layers of support have addressed the constraints brought about by the pandemic. Moving the learning organization and school culture forward has required the support of everyone working together toward achieving our vision of student success.
Engaged versus involved. Family engagement has emerged as a key lever for addressing SEL challenges. Understanding the value of moving from involvement to engagement has been critical in developing our partnership with our community. Resources such as Hart’s Ladder of Participation and the Dual Capacity-Building Framework support school leaders in gaining perspective on best practices for effectively engaging with students, families, and caregivers. These tools stress responsiveness, respect, and good communication skills.
Working with a child-centered staff and central administration team who collectively share the same goals and vision of supporting our students has been key. This collaborative partnership is crucial in all stages of implementing the outlined layers of support. Although we have made considerable progress throughout the year, we still have work to do. School leaders and teachers are working diligently to show empathy, guide and shape behaviors, and remind students of expectations associated with learning behaviors and study habits that best support their individual progress, while focusing on academic rigor.
Funk, A., Van Borek, N., Taylor, D., Grewal, P., Tzemis, D., & Buxton, J. (2012). Climbing the "Ladder of Participation": Engaging experiential youth in a participatory research project. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 103(4), e288–e292. https://dx.doi.org/10.1007%2FBF03404237
Higgins, M. C. (2005). Career imprints: Creating leaders across an industry. Jossey-Bass. https://www.wiley.com/en-us/Career+Imprints%3A+Creating+Leaders+Across+An+Industry-p-9780787977511
Sapthiang, S., Van Gordon, W., & Shonin, E. (2019). Mindfulness in schools: A health promotion approach to improving adolescent mental health. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 17, 112–119. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-018-0001-y
U.S. Department of Education. (2012). The Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships. https://www2.ed.gov/documents/family-community/partnership-frameworks.pdf
Weiss, H. B., Lopez, M. E., Rosenberg, H. (2011). Beyond random acts: Family, school, and community engagement as an integral part of education reform. Harvard Family Research Project. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED517978
David Kasyan, Ed.D.