Government Recommendations Say Mental Health Should Be Prioritized in Schools

A classroom of students watches the teacher present.

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Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Department of Education released a resource for schools outlining seven challenges and recommendations for mental health education, in light of the pandemic's impact on children's mental health.
  • The document focused on disparities in education for minorities and those living in poverty, gaps in funding and education on mental health topics, and professional development for teachers.
  • Mental health professionals around the country are hoping this is the beginning of actionable steps towards an improved system serving students.

When the pandemic hit, New York City first grade teacher Stephanie Lupoli learned the power of mindfulness in her classroom. As the students whiplashed from in-person to virtual learning over and over again, she honed in on training she’d learned years ago, starting exercises with her students to help them center and regulate despite the chaos around them. 

“We spent time focusing on listening to sounds around us that we never pay attention to," she says. "We worked on [awknowledging] our thoughts and our emotions, and noticed when our minds are wandering so that we can bring them back to focus again. We also worked on gratitude, generosity, and sending kindness into the world.”

At the height of the pandemic, her students were doing a longer mindfulness lesson once every two weeks, and periodically taking a minute to pause, breathe, close their eyes, and notice their breath. Her classroom is one of many where mental health is of the utmost importance.

The New Mental Health Guidelines

Lupoli's approach is one that focuses on social-emotional learning (SEL). It's one that aligns with a resource the Biden administration released in October 2021 detailing the necessity of SEL in schools. Called “Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs,” it gives a cohesive overview of seven key challenges and seven corresponding recommendations for the U.S. education system. Mainly, it is aimed at how to endure and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The introduction further defines each of these key areas: “social (how we relate to others), emotional (how we feel), and behavioral (how we act),” explaining each has an impact on student well-being. 

The guide is one of the most specific resources recently released in the pandemic and includes tangible and useful corresponding examples for each of the recommendations. It gives schools a clear and full understanding of how to implement them. In addition, the appendix provides a list of federal resource centers, teacher assistance resource lists, and guidance on existing programs. 

The Challenges and Recommendations

The seven challenges and corresponding recommendations detail clear problems and solutions with the current situation involving mental health education at school. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted children's’ mental health and these recommendations seek to bring relief. The challenges and recommendations the administration flagged are:

  • Prioritizing wellness in light of rising mental health needs and disparities among children and student groups.  
  • Enhancing mental health literacy and reducing stigma and other barriers to access.
  • Implementing a continuum of evidence-based prevention practices to replace ineffective ones.
  • Establishing an integrated framework of educational, social, emotional, and behavioral health support for all to combat fragmented delivery systems.
  • Leveraging policy and funding to close gaps.
  • Enhancing workforce capacity to close gaps in professional development and support.  
  • Using data for decision-making to promote equitable implementation and outcomes, decreasing the lack of access to data.

Here is a closer look at some of the recommendations.

Rising mental health needs and disparities among children and student groups

The resource acknowledges that between half and two-thirds of children in the U.S. have experienced trauma (also called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE's)), defined as “an emotional response to a terrible event.” ACE's have predicted increased poor mental health outcomes throughout the child’s life. Disparities start young, the document explains, with 13% of children in poverty receiving in-person preschool education during the pandemic, starkly contrasted with 38% of those above the poverty line. 

Dinisha Mingo, MS

When it comes to our BIPOC communities, in order to truly make advances, a system-wide lens has to be taken and resolved as it relates to systemic oppression in our country.

— Dinisha Mingo, MS

“When it comes to our BIPOC communities, in order to truly make advances, a system-wide lens has to be taken and resolved as it relates to systemic oppression in our country," says Dinisha Mingo, MS, a PhD student in Clinical Psychology and CEO of Mingo Health Solutions. "This plan addresses food insecurity and neglected basic needs, and how to meet them. But it’s still treating the system and not the cause." Mingo explains how these steps are necessary, yet don't go far enough. In order to move forward towards a healthier family system and community, the systemic barriers in place have to be appropriately addressed and removed. "The country must be willing and ready to honestly address these," she says.

To make lasting change, she would like to see greater engagement with the whole family unit, and more focus on educators’ wellness in general. She says this may prove difficult as parents in minority communities themselves deal with their own struggles from being overworked to dealing with the impact of poverty and crime, among other things. 

Prioritizing wellness for all

The resource isn’t just for students—it also examines how teachers should be a focus. They recommend conducting educator well-being assessments, using staff attendance rate and climate surveys, and promoting access to existing assistance programs.

Lupoli says that her own drive towards mindfulness motivated her to bring it to the classroom. It illustrates the effect of positive mental health practices for teachers and their potential effect on students. “I started mindfulness myself in my own personal practice and I knew it was something to do with my class, but I wasn’t sure how,” she says. With a bit of research, she landed on trainings from Mindful Schools, which she implemented with her students to great success.

Closing gaps in professional development and support

Resources vary from district to district, and many schools have limited mental health knowledge, the document explains. Emily W. King, PhD, a licensed child psychologist in private practice in Raleigh, N.C. and former school psychologist in Houston, Texas, has witnessed these holes in the system herself.

Emily W. King, PhD

A child’s anxiety can manifest in many different ways and if you don’t know what to look for, you only see 'behavior' that gets disciplined

— Emily W. King, PhD

“There seems to be a gap in training among teachers and many have varied views on the importance of mental health simply based on their own life experience," she says. "For instance, a child’s anxiety can manifest in many different ways and if you don’t know what to look for, you only see 'behavior' that gets disciplined. In many circumstances, this further harms the student rather than help, which can lead the student to dislike school, lowering their motivation as well as academic achievement.” 

The solution in the document asks for schools to utilize all possible resources, including staff who already have training in this area, such as special education teachers and nurses, to educate others. In addition, they recommend ensuring visibility and access to school and community mental health resources and providing time for collaboration in small professional learning communities.  

“We have found that having mental health providers be an active part of the school community significantly increases the opportunities for students to access mental health services," says Sharon Hatrak, LPC, a school-based program clinical supervisor and mental health therapist at Lifestance Health in Oregon. “Our providers become familiar faces in the hallways, in classrooms, and in staff meetings." She is encouraged by the government's recognition of the challenges and hopes this paves the way for more funding towards impactful services.

The Impact of the Proposed Changes

Mental health professionals are wishing and willing these recommendations to take place in real and meaningful ways. Brittany Becker, LMHC & Director at The Dorm, a treatment community for young adults in NYC and D.C., says in her experience SEL skills-based learning in schools is directly connected to a variety of outcomes for young adults. “SEL skills-based learning and programs are associated with better attitudes about self, school, and others, decreased alcohol and drug use, violence, truancy, bullying, impulsivity and conduct problems, and heightened college retention, physical health, stress management, self-esteem, emotion regulation, decision making, and empathy," she says. She says schools are also the first line, often, in recognizing suicidality, substance abuse, and mental illness. In turn, they should be the front line of mental health prevention efforts.

“Making time for SEL and mental health development is as important as making time for academic growth and development, all in the effort of achieving the ultimate goal of a child growing into an independent and successful adult,” she says.

What This Means For You

The U.S. Department of Education is encouraging schools to have in increased focus on mental health education, including social, emotional, and behavioral aspects. This means that teachers, students, administrators, parents, and the community should try to rally together to surround vulnerable children, with increased mental health concerns due to the pandemic, in a variety of concrete ways, outlined in the resource.

1 Source
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  1. Ravens-Sieberer U, Kaman A, Erhart M, et al. Quality of life and mental health in children and adolescents during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic: results of a two-wave nationwide population-based study. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Published online October 12, 2021. doi:10.1007/s00787-021-01889-1

By Alexandra Frost
Alexandra Frost is a freelance journalist and content marketing writer with a decade of experience, and a passion for health and wellness topics. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Glamour, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, Business Insider, and more.