Mental Health Matters: Why Schools Can’t Afford to Ignore Staff and Student Needs

With education reform being the buzz term of the decade, there has been lots of talk about how we can make schools better. New instructional methods, increasing technology, longer days, more differentiation. All great ideas, of course, but none take into account the enormous pink elephant in the room.

You can’t teach kids that you can’t reach, and children who come into the classroom with mental health needs require different tools in which teachers are not routinely being equipped with.  This is creating school buildings where the teachers and students end the day feeling like refugees, having engaged in a war none of them is equipped to win.

The NPR calls it the silent epidemic, referring to the 20% of students who come into the classroom each day with a diagnosable mental illness. With the large numbers of students I’ve personally seen diagnosed with ADHD or even PTSD, I tend to consider that stat a little on the conservative side, but even as it stands if one in five children in a classroom of 30 have needs that go untreated, how much learning can really occur?

Beyond the needs that walk into the classroom, there are the needs that develop in the classroom.  Staff and students who are impacted by witnessing or experiencing the outward expressions of the internal turmoil caused by the child with ADHD who “picks” fights to stimulate his brain or the student with ODD who makes the class late to lunch every day by disrupting the walk through the halls. Or what about that teacher whose anxiety over test scores and job performance has begun to creep into every area of her life? Are the kids who are being taught by the shell of her best self which walks in the door actually going to be getting all the instruction they need?

Mental health care in this country has never been what the experts would want to see.  Working from the deficit model that says you should be experiencing a problem before you seek support and even then you’ve got exactly 10 sessions to fix it leaves much to be desired. But in schools, it’s much worse.  The one or two professional counselors, social workers or psychologists that work in the school typically cover all 800-2000 students by themselves, which means only the highest needs get addressed. This is leaving staff and students vulnerable and schools must stop ignoring the need.

Here’s what we must begin:

School-wide mental wellness.

Why do teachers have sick days and not well days? When I train educators on working with students who are at-risk of academic failure, I encourage them to take a mental health day periodically in order to stay fresh and avoid burnout.  Many respond by saying they are penalized on their annual reviews for using these days.  Huh? How can having a teacher who doesn’t want to be in the classroom benefit anyone? Schools should encourage self-care and stress management, including planned time off.  Recent research has also shown that schools who include mindfulness practices also see great benefits such a decrease in staff stress levels and discipline referrals.

Proactive and Responsive Mental Wellness Supports.

When it comes to staff mental health, most employers rely on employee assistance programs.  The services historically include a few mental health sessions with a licensed professional and are seen as the primary source of defense for staff who are facing a crisis.  But with as little as 5% of staff actually using the services, the full benefits of this resource has yet to be seen.

Some research has concluded anything from lack of awareness to the negative stigma of mental illness contributes to low usage rates, so what if employers encouraged or even required at least one visit per year? That way, needs are identified sooner and the stigma is reduced. I’ve worked in schools that rewarded me for taking a physical exam or even paid a bonus for lowering my blood pressure or cholesterol, could the same be done with mental wellness? Of course, it could.  Staff who are more mentally well can have no adverse effects on student outcomes and it’s worth exploring how it can be used to improve them.

Reading, Writing and Mental Wellness for all.

For students, many schools have begun contracting with outside mental health offices to provide school-based services.  While these relationships do benefit some students, the vast majority of kids are remaining overlooked. One of the best solutions is decreasing the student to counselor/social worker ratio. While national organizations continue to encourage rates close to 250 to 1, most schools still come in much closer to 400+ students for each professional trained in mental health needs.  The best solution, however, is making sure that all staff are clearly trained to understand, recognize and respond to mental health needs that present themselves in the classroom.

There’s no magic bullet for eliminating mental health needs, but with the right tools and consistent effort, all staff and students will get the support they need.

Helping Out: What Social Workers Do

By: Tricia Hussung

Becoming a social worker is an ideal career path for those seeking to help others and make a positive impact in their communities. In general, social workers “help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They work closely with individuals and communities to assess needs and provide both resources and support.

The overall aim of social workers is to improve quality of life for their clients by providing access to resources and services that meet their specific needs. They may work with children, adults, people with disabilities, or older populations. Specific job responsibilities vary depending on client type, but all social workers are responsible for maintaining a caseload and keeping detailed records concerning each of their clients.

One of the most important elements to a social worker’s career is advocacy. They can help raise awareness about key issues on the local, state, or even national level, serving as a voice for their clients. As part of this work, they may work closely with community leaders and organizations to develop new resources or improve existing initiatives.

Social work is not a one-size-fits-all job. There are a variety of different types of social workers, each with their own clients and specific responsibilities, from treating drug addiction to locating qualified foster families. The following are some social work specialization options.

Child and Family Social Workers

This type of social worker serves families who need help. This includes protecting children in vulnerable situations and helping parents access resources such as housing, healthcare, or nutrition benefits. Another important responsibility for child and family social workers is arranging adoptions or placing children in foster care. Employment of child and family social workers is expected to grow 6 percent through 2024.

School Social Workers

As the name suggests, school social workers usually work within school systems. They work closely with students, parents, and administrators to “improve students’ academic performance and social development,” according to the BLS. They might address issues such as bullying, truancy, or misbehavior. In many cases, struggling students are referred to school social workers by their teachers. The BLS reports that demand for school social workers is the same (6 percent) as for child and family social workers through 2024.

Clinical Social Workers

Also known as licensed clinical social workers, these social workers are responsible for diagnosing and treating clients with mental health or substance abuse issues. Through individual or group therapy, clinical social workers help individuals create strategies to cope with existing issues and change their behavior.

Clinical social workers may refer clients to other healthcare resources such as psychiatrists or support groups. They usually work in private practice. The BLS reports that employment of mental health and substance abuse social workers is projected to grow 19 percent through 2024; that rate is much faster than the national average for all occupations.

Healthcare Social Workers

This type of social worker is responsible for helping patients “understand their diagnosis and make the necessary adjustments to their lifestyle, housing, or healthcare,” according to the BLS. This might include conducting support groups and providing information on patient resources like home care. Like clinical social work, the healthcare social work specialization is experiencing rapid growth. The BLS reports a 19 percent increase in employment through 2024.

Social Worker Education Requirements

For entry-level social work roles, a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW) is required. BSW programs prepare students for social work roles that involve working directly with clients. They “teach students about diverse populations, human behavior, social welfare policy, and ethics in social work,” the BLS says. Students must complete internships or supervised fieldwork as part of their education, as accredited BSW programs require a minimum of 400 hours of supervised field experience.

Clinical social workers must have a master’s degree in social work (MSW) along with two years of work experience in a supervised clinical setting, the BLS notes. Licensure is also needed, and specific licensure and certification requirements vary by state. The median annual salary for social workers is $45,900.

No Child Left Behind and the Role of School Social Work

It’s no secret a high-quality public education can develop a knowledge base and nurture skill sets within children further maximizing their potential while stabilizing communities and strengthening economies. On January 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) was signed in to law by President George W. Bush in an effort to reform public school education.

Although NCLB acknowledges and seeks to close the achievement gap, it unfortunately does not address the systemic barriers that children often face when they live in poverty or oppression. From a social work perspective, high student expectations are essential for academic success, but failure to account for segregation and structural inequalities sets up already disadvantaged schools to fail. Moreover, NCLB does not take community differences or issues of multiculturalism and diversity into account. Even though the research literature available in education has long identified personal and family characteristics as risk factors regarding academic achievement, NCLB does not adequately take these factors into account.

ssw2015School social workers are often assigned to work with students in the at-risk subgroups defined by NCLB, and research demonstrates that by alleviating the social and emotional barriers at-risk students face, it increases their likelihood of being successful in school. NCLB does not mandate interventions to address the many additional barriers to learning that students in at-risk subgroups are likely to face and that contribute to the educational achievement gap.

A new study was published that found if we eliminate the achievement gap in the United States, we can grow our gross domestic product by 10 percent and raise the lifetime earnings of low-wage workers by 22 percent.This study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth outlines strategies that have worked in other countries to bar achievement gap.  NCLB affects every public school in the United States–with the unified goal of leveling the playing field for students who are disadvantaged including:

• Students in poverty
• Minorities
• Students with learning disabilities
• Students receiving other special education services
• Those who speak and understand limited or no English

NCLB is the latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) with efforts focused on providing equal educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. Therefore, even if a school as a whole seemed to be doing well, it wouldn’t be making enough progress to satisfy the state if a large enough group of minority, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged students missed their targets.

NCLB changed the relationship between the federal government, states, and K-12 schools. The ultimate goal was to make every student proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or disability. States did not reach this goal but Congress has yet to overhaul this law so it is still currently in effect. There’s much more to No Child Left Behind than testing but the testing and accountability provisions have always been the most controversial parts of the law.

There’s a debate centered around the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,a law signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his War on Poverty, at its root, was about leveling the playing field for kids. No Child Left Behind, which is the law’s most recent iteration in emphasizing testing, pulled us away from the focus on kids especially those who are poor–as are half of public school students in the United States.

I have found stories from teachers and administrators even more compelling as they reveal the inequities that continue to persist in America’s classrooms. A teacher from Florida wrote, “I work every day to support learning and high expectations for students who are hungry, are homeless, have experienced trauma, and struggle in many ways. … Please, authorize ESEA in a way that provides for the needs of all students, whether they live in an affluent neighborhood, or in my school’s neighborhood.”debate centered around the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,

While the current house bill would make some needed improvements to accountability, it would also lock in recession-driven cuts to education., allowing state and local governments to walk away from their responsibility to maintain funding from year to year. It would also divert money meant to go to urban public schools and give it to wealthier schools.

A recent report released from the White House found that this bill would cap “spending for the next six years at $800 million lower than it was in 2012.” This is happening at a time when child poverty rates are alarmingly high and when Title I — the biggest federal education program — has failed to see any increase since 2012. The report also found that high-poverty districts could lose $700 million, while more-affluent districts could gain $470 million.

The House bill would further harm our most disadvantaged youth. We need a law that gives kids the resources they need, including computers, lower class sizes, nurses, social workers, and counselors, even when their communities can’t afford them. If the American public define success as getting every child able to read and do math by the 2013-14 school year, No Child Left Behind has failed. By 2011, nearly half of all schools nationally weren’t making adequate progress toward proficiency.

Although the data produced in response to NCLB does show some state-by-state decreases in the achievement gap, national indicators reveal that poorer, urban schools and children in at-risk subgroups continue to under perform in comparison both with national averages and with their white and affluent counterparts. Additional studies have found that the new accountability demands imposed by NCLB may unintentionally be widening the achievement gap for at-risk students.

Accountability mechanisms based on test scores can have a disparate impact on schools with larger populations of minority and low-income students. Small schools and those with highly concentrated at-risk and homeless populations, such as schools in urban and rural areas, are also more likely to fail to meet the requirements. In addition, many schools do not start with a level playing field because of scarcity of resources, lack of qualified teachers, and lack of technical ability to fulfill accountability requirements urban schools and children in at-risk subgroups continue to under perform.

For instance, policy stipulations do not address the impact of nutrition, adequate housing, safe communities, or adequate health care on a child’s ability to attend and excel in school beyond implying that even students in difficult situations should be expected to perform academically. When families do not have access to such services and conditions, children are more likely to struggle academically. Personal and family problems such as abuse and a lack of parental supervision are also risk factors for underachievement. In addition, a lack of steady housing or employment is negatively correlated with school success.

The presence of a mental health problem also makes students more likely to underachieve. It is estimated that 20 percent of children have mental health problems severe enough to impede their learning, but only one-fifth of these children receive the services that they need. NCLB does little to address student mental health and its influence on academic success, with the exception of stating that states can apply for federal funds to address student mental health concerns, which aren’t always acknowledged.

Consequently, some scholars have argued that NCLB overlooks the overall well-being of children in schools. Research has identified protective characteristics such as belief in self, determination, independence, and cultural appreciation all help students from disadvantaged settings to excel. However, when schools are focused solely on test scores and a narrow curriculum, it is difficult to utilize the creativity and effort needed to assist students in developing these traits.

As a result, students are not able to tap into resiliency-promoting traits that make them less likely to fall behind academically or to drop out of school. The quality of the school environment is recognized as a major contributor to student learning, yet it is not addressed in NCLB. Positive school environments are those in which students feel supported by adults, have positive peer networks, and feel secure. Conversely, a lack of positive peer networks is a major risk factor for academic underachievement.

When schools foster feelings of self-connectedness, students experience less emotional distress, exhibit fewer violent behaviors, are less likely to use alcohol and other substances, and be less sexually promiscuous. Feelings of alienation and disengagement in middle and high school students leave them at risk for increased truancy and dropout levels. The socio-emotional risk factors outlined in this article pose a large enough threat to student achievement that policies such as NCLB cannot be expected to succeed unless these conditions are adequately addressed. Focusing federal education policies on both academic interventions and those that address these risk factors could be a more effective means for bridging the achievement gap.

However, the good news is that school social workers can take a lead role in helping students to overcome these obstacles and in bringing these policy issues to the forefront. School social workers are in a unique position to intervene on behalf of students at risk and, thus, help ensure their academic success. School social workers are equipped with knowledge of the structural, social, and emotional barriers to learning, especially for vulnerable students.

They can help reduce the achievement gap by working within the current system of educational reform by educating school staff members about the impact of poverty and racism on students’ ability to perform in the classroom and helping school systems to become more culturally competent in their interactions with students by assisting them in broadening the range of multicultural education.

Examples of ways that these issues can be addressed directly in schools include holding regular in-service sessions for staff, establishing a committee to address the needs of students, making connections with community resources and agencies to help families in need of employment, health care, housing, clothing, and other basic needs.

Social workers can assess students for mental health problems, substance abuse problems, and problems in the home environment. They can also offer school-based interventions to begin to overcome these obstacles. For example, research has described successful school-based interventions such as Positive Behavior Support (PBS) and Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) that improve behavior and social functioning for at-risk students and facilitate meaningful mentoring relationships to increase attendance and classroom engagement.

The creation of school-based health and mental health centers can help students and their families receive comprehensive health care, individual or family counseling, and other vital services that may improve academic performance. More importantly, school social workers must monitor the impact of their services on academic achievement which will support how school social work services improve academic functioning and decrease the risk of dropout for at-risk students. It will also demonstrate to teachers, administrators, and policymakers how social and emotional problems contribute to the achievement gap and how social interventions can help to eliminate this problem.

The development and implementation of programs addressing bullying, peer mediation, teen pregnancy, substance abuse and other fundamental school issues are also relevant to promoting academic success. In addition, it is important for school social workers to understand the amount of stress that policies such as NCLB place on teachers. School social workers should offer support to teachers and help them to more successfully tackle their classroom concerns especially for at-risk students. Addressing barriers to learning enhances students’ ability to focus more on academics and positive interaction.

School Social Workers are best situated to advocate for education policy change that looks beyond test scores to the multidisciplinary best practices that help at-risk students succeed in school. Additionally, school social workers can address resource inequalities, school segregation, and the impact of NCLB at the macro and mezzo level.

Its current state, NCLB is not working. Social Workers must advocate for policy improvements by addressing the impact ethnicity, poverty, and inadequate school resources have on academic achievement. As members of a profession that focuses on social and emotional barriers to change, we have a unique perspective to lend to policymakers regarding both the strengths and the flaws of NCLB.

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