By Dr. Ann Hughes
The headlines are seemingly the same each day: student mental health is at a crisis point.
Equally alarming is that schools and educators feel woefully unprepared to meet, much less conquer, the challenges that students struggle with. Post-pandemic concerns, anxiety disorders, ADHD, and depression are just a sampling of the pressures students are facing. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 37 percent of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44 percent reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.
When it comes to providing mental health supports, like so many across the country, my district, Sanger Independent School District in Texas, struggled with limited personnel and funding. As a result, we’ve had to get creative to meet the needs of our students.
Here are my top three tips to cost-effectively bring social–emotional learning best practices into your classrooms.
1. Turn to Technology
We’ve had great success with paid programs such as Ripple Effects for Teens, which has units that address a wide range of issues including mental health, personal trauma, and academic challenges. It provides personalized guidance in more than 400 areas that affect student behavior, motivation, learning, and connectedness. It also protects students’ privacy every step of the way. Programs like Ripple Effects allow you to pay a one-time fee to access modules.
2. Use Your Space
Every campus has rooms/spaces that aren’t being utilized, so why not turn them into spaces dedicated to helping students with their mental health? We designed and equipped “I Gotta Move” and “Chill Zones.” This approach supports students in labeling their feelings during tough times and identifying activities that are helpful when they need to regroup—a skill that will help them throughout life. The “I Gotta Move” room allows students to work off excess energy and the “Chill Zone” is for those who need quiet and sensory supports when mad or sad. We also incorporate music, yoga, and dance via sing-alongs and dance parties to give students the opportunity to have a little fun and destress.
3. Reach Out to the Community
Among the most valuable assets any school has is community. Tapping into local resources brings welcome dividends for both your students and the community. Reach out to your area churches to see if they might be able to provide counseling support to students. This can help relieve the burden on your existing counseling staff or fill the gaps in existing services. In addition, identify and collaborate on community-based projects that students can become involved in to help them build vital life skills, such as community gardens or food pantries.
While it can feel overwhelming to try to meet the needs of students in crisis, incorporating even small changes can yield big wins for everyone.
Dr. Ann Hughes is the director of student intervention at Sanger Independent School District in Sanger, Texas. From 2002 to 2018, she served as principal of Linda Tutt High School and Challenge/Journey/Adaptive Behavior Programs. She holds a PhD in special education from the University of North Texas and a master’s in special education from Fordham University.