How focusing on mental health can benefit student learning

As district leaders weigh the complex pathways to operating schools in 2020–21 — including distance learning, in-person and/or hybrid models — they need to consider the mental health needs of students and how they can be addressed to enable successful learning.

The past six months of rapid school closures in response to the dangers of COVID-19, parental layoffs or furloughs, sick family members and the racial reckoning the country is facing in the wake of George Floyd’s death have challenged everyone’s mental health. But the impact has been magnified for children, who may have lacked a safe place to process these events and how they impact their future.

California’s first surgeon general, pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, has pioneered work in explaining how childhood stress affects long-term health and well-being. In her book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, she writes, “Children are compelled to give meaning to what is happening to them. When there is no clear explanation, they make one up; the intersection of trauma and the developmentally appropriate egocentrism of childhood often leads a little kid to think, ‘I made it happen.’”

To ensure that children are ready to succeed in school, they must first be able to process and make sense of the changes in the world since school closures last spring. While teachers often are the frontline of support at school, they should not be the only resource available to support students’ mental health.

CSBA’s new sample Board Policy 5141.5 – Mental Health is a starting place for local educational agencies that want to go beyond the requirements of Education Code 215 — included in the mandatory BP/AR 5141.52 – Suicide Prevention — to address broader mental health issues facing all students. The policy recognizes that students’ emotional well-being and mental health contribute to their ability to perform to their full academic and personal potential. It suggests a universal screening protocol for identifying and assessing students who may be suffering so they can be provided interventions and counseling support.

“Trauma, whether it is race-based or centered on COVID-19 factors, must be addressed in K-12 schools now, if students are going to be able to thrive and learn,” said Loretta Whitson, executive director of the California Association of School Counselors. “More than ever, we need school board members to support staffing of essential school-based mental health service providers, including school counselors, psychologists and school social workers. Whether schools return to an in-person format or remain virtual, meeting students’ mental health needs is foremost.”

Districts and county offices of education do not have to do this alone. In addition to using their own funds for mental health programs or services, districts may apply for grant funds administered by the county mental health agency or other sources. The Mental Health Services Act, established by Proposition 63 in 2004, provides funding, personnel and other resources to support county mental health programs, including, but not limited to, prevention and early intervention programs. Welfare and Institutions Code 5886, as added by Senate Bill 75 (Ch. 51, Statutes of 2019), establishes the Mental Health Student Services Act, a competitive grant program that awards funds to county mental health or behavioral health departments to create mental health partnerships with school districts, charter schools and county offices of education. For an example of this type of partnership, see the summer 2020 issue of California Schools magazine, in which Kern County mental health partnerships are highlighted.

The coming school year will be challenging for parents, staff and children alike, and we must attend to the health and well-being of children, who are often the most vulnerable to the stress during these uncertain times. Ensuring that their mental health comes first and that LEAs have a plan in place to support the increased need will be paramount to any expectation of learning and success.