Kids have a lot on their minds as they walk through our hallways. I don’t fit in. I can’t keep up with my classes. My friend is cutting. Is my school safe? For disadvantaged students, problems may extend to basic life needs, leading kids to questions such as if the family can pay the rent or buy enough groceries.
When questions like these go unanswered, risky behaviors such as substance abuse or violence against their peers are more likely to occur. Too often, problems involving physical or mental health, emotional stress, behavioral problems, or academics are left unresolved or worsen because students and families aren’t comfortable expressing their feelings and concerns.
Schools are on the Front Lines in the Youth Mental Health Crisis
As educators, we see the rise in student mental health, socio-emotional, and behavioral concerns firsthand. The numbers back up our observations. The most drastic statistic is that suicide has become the second leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14 and the third most common cause of death among 15 and 24-year-olds. While the factors are complex, the CDC reports that in 2021, more than four in ten students felt persistently sad or hopeless, and nearly one-third (29%) experienced poor mental health.
As we face this dire situation, schools play a critical role in the solution, providing mental health support for 70% of children who seek help. However, many students with mental or emotional health issues remain undiagnosed or don’t receive the help they need. While about one in seven children have at least one treatable mental health disorder, over one-half of children in the US are not receiving the services critical to their mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
With so much distress, why don’t more students talk to the adults in their school to express concerns and ask for help?
Understanding the Problems Behind Sharing Concerns
Schools are doing their best to combat these figures, but it’s not always easy, with the fallout from COVID-19, limited school budgets, and personnel shortages. Finding solutions is even more challenging because students are often afraid to talk about their feelings or problems for fears such as being made fun of, being labeled a “snitch,” or thinking adults won’t take them seriously. Parents have similar issues with feeling embarrassed or having the school think they are incompetent.
How can we solve the problems in our K-12 schools when we have limited resources and often don’t know when children are in distress? As educators, we hope students and caregivers can come to us when they need help. However, trust and communication between children, parents, and the school are often in short supply.
Three Pathways to Encourage Opening Up to Schools
Three pathways to success are to create a caring community, strengthen connectedness, and leverage technology-driven solutions. Here are how these three elements work together.
1. Create a caring community:Students do better when they believe that peers, teachers, and other adults care about them. A fully integrated, school-wide program would include a specialized curriculum, in-class discussion, real-time interventions, and home-based activities that promote expressing themselves and respecting others’ perceptions. These strategies help all children gain life skills such as developing positive relationships, cooperating, and managing emotions—all of which support positive academic, social, and life outcomes.
Creating a caring, safe community aligns with Tier 1 of the MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Support), a framework that helps allocate support resources to students based on data-driven assessments. Tier 1, primary intervention, supports all students by setting up classroom-wide systems for all students, staff, and settings. When schools identify a child at risk, the student receives specialized attention as part of Tier 2 or Tier 3 prevention levels. Providing a caring school setting may reduce the need for higher-level services.
2. Strengthen Connectedness: As defined by the CDC, “School connectedness reflects student belief that peers and adults in the school support, value, and care about their individual well-being as well as their academic progress.” Schools should expand their connection to parents, being transparent about all aspects of their child’s education, creating pathways to increase two-way dialog, promoting involvement, and enabling them to talk to the school about their concerns.
Among the many possible ways to build a culture of connection, the CDC recommends activities in these areas to support connectedness:
Physical Activities: In addition to health benefits, physical activities provide opportunities for students to practice “caring” skills, such as respectfully resolving conflicts, cooperating, and helping others.
Group Connection: Creating opportunities for student interaction, such as teacher- or student-led hobby clubs or classroom team-building games, helps improve social skills and build positive relationships.
Physical Well-Being: Helping students manage chronic conditions such as asthma and allergies creates positive interactions and connections between the school and students. Classroom curricula can also include strategies for health topics such as nutrition, exercise, and other self-care.
Each of these connection-building activities helps build two-way communication between students and teachers and between peers, breaking down barriers to expressing concerns and feelings.
3. Leverage Technology-Driven Solutions:Building community, connection, and trust doesn’t happen overnight. Each district and school must decide how to approach these areas as part of a larger safety and wellness program. Many schools are pursuing innovative technology solutions that empower students to ask for help and access local resources.
One example is HELPme from STOPit Solutions, a highly flexible mobile app directly connecting users with school and community resources. The solution also provides a neuro-resilience curriculum, e-therapy with a licensed therapist, and a 24/7/365 crisis text hotline. Regardless of their level of trust, HELPme empowers students and parents to easily express their concerns and access helping resources privately and anonymously.
Look at Technology to Help Your School Normalize Asking for Help
Building trust and connection between schools, parents, and students is a process. Technology can support your mental health and wellness program, providing resources that make it easy to get help, whether going directly to the school, using self-help resources, or talking to trained volunteers when a crisis hits.