Teachers Say Improving Students’ Mental Well-Being Begins at Home

Education leaders and policymakers have been trying a smorgasbord of approaches to address students’ deteriorating mental health.

School districts have hired new mental health support staff and invested heavily in social-emotional learning with federal COVID-relief aid. Some school districts have gone so far as to sue social media companies to make them pay for the increasing amount of mental health services they are providing to students. And some states and districts have created mental health days, which allow students to take an excused absence to miss school.

But what about parents? How do they factor into this equation? Should schools be doing more to help parents support their kids’ mental health needs?

A resounding yes, according to teachers. The number one step teachers think their school or district should take to help improve students’ mental well-being is to help parents support their kids at home, finds a survey of teachers by the EdWeek Research Center.

Fifty-seven percent of teachers said that this is an additional step they believe their schools could take to help support students’ mental well-being.

That was followed by 50 percent who said their school should hire more counselors, psychologists, and social workers, and the 49 percent who said schools could eliminate or reduce students’ access to social media during the school day.

The nationally representative poll of nearly 1,200 teachers was conducted in April and commissioned by the Winston School of Education and Social Policy at Merrimack College. The second annual Merrimack College Teacher Survey replaces the MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, which ran for more than 25 years before ending in 2012.

So, what can schools do to better support parents? Ashley Wright, a school counselor in Conroe, Texas, and a former teacher, has some ideas for school and district leaders.

1. Schools need to provide an easily accessible hub for all the resources they offer students and families.

In Wright’s school, that’s done through monthly newsletters sent to parents. Every newsletter includes information about the mental health support services the school offers and how to get access them. The newsletters also include information on what social-emotional skills students are working on, so parents can reinforce them at home. It’s typical for schools to offer mental health resources to students, said Wright, but that doesn’t mean that parents know about those resources or who to reach out to when they need them.

2. Continuous communication is key.

That is where those newsletters come in again, said Wright. They serve as a reminder to parents that these resources are available to them to help their children. Too often, this information is part of a deluge dumped on parents once at the beginning of the school year, said Wright, and parents don’t remember what’s available to them and their children when they need help.

3. Schools need to educate parents on the different roles of various school personnel and how they work together.

That knowledge will help families know who they need to reach out to if they have questions about how to support their children’s mental well-being. Wright said that parents are often confused about her role and think that she is more of a guidance counselor than a school counselor. “I have heard a lot of parents say, ‘I didn’t know that you teach lessons regarding organizational skills, or ethical skills, or academic motivation—practicing appropriate work behaviors and things of that nature,’” she said. “It’s important for parents to know that we’re doing that as school counselors and that our teachers are reinforcing it—and then they can reinforce that at home as well.”

4. Parents may need help meeting their kids’ physical needs.

In order to help meet their mental health needs, students’ physical needs need to be met first. So, this is another area where schools can help provide parents with support, and it has a strong connection to mental health. In every newsletter that Wright’s school sends to parents, there is a link to a Google form that parents can fill out to request help getting anything (food, clothes, etc.) they are struggling to provide for their children.

5. Coordinating with parents is crucial.

That means bringing all the necessary people into a room together to discuss the concerns about a child’s mental health or well-being raised by the school or the parent and coming up with actionable steps. Wright says she always asks parents: What is the one thing we need to focus on?

“You can’t give parents 20 things that their kid is doing wrong,” she said. She likes to home in on one, simple, targeted behavioral goal that parents can help work on at home beyond whatever additional interventions, like therapy, a student might need.

“Maybe it’s keeping hands to self,” she said. “We can create a plan right there—anything to motivate him or her to change their behavior.”

And then, Wright makes sure that the parent has a copy of the plan so they can refer to it as they work with their child at home.

Then, Wright insists that the student joins the meeting.

“One of my most favorite parts is to bring the student in at the end of the conference so they can see that everyone is on their team, and they are going to see that all the adults are championing them,” she said. “I have found that throughout my 15 years in education, this is the most powerful piece.”

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