Supporting Student Social-Emotional Learning and Mental and Behavioral Health Post COVID-19

Supporting Student Social-Emotional Learning and Mental and Behavioral Health Post COVID-19

By: Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach

This past year has been nothing but unexpected. As the country grappled with an unprecedented pandemic, schools, students, and families faced significant disruptions. There was no one size fits all approach to dealing with COVID-19 in schools. However, many students lost instructional time, access to social-emotional and mental health supports, and the sense of connection and community fostered in the school environment. As the nation shifts its focus to supporting a return to in-person instruction and addressing the needs of students, it is imperative that student social-emotional learning and mental and behavioral health be at the forefront of planning for the upcoming school year. Education leaders are in a unique position to help ensure school communities have the resources and systemic infrastructure to support the social-emotional and mental health needs of students.

Addressing the academic skills gap is certainly important. However, students will not be ready to engage in formal learning until they feel physically and psychologically safe. The time to accomplish this will vary depending on the evolving context in individual communities and a range of unique factors. Even within a school community, individual students and staff may be continuing to experience different stressors affecting their sense of safety long after a return to in-person instruction.

District-level leadership is imperative to support a multitiered system of supports that encompasses academic and mental and behavioral health supports. To facilitate the delivery of these services, the National Association of School Psychologists and the American School Counselor Association developed guidance for these conversations at the local level. Although this document was written in the context of COVID-19, the key principles apply to any effort to support student social-emotional learning. This guidance contains best practice recommendations on the following topics:

  • Multidisciplinary decision-making. School district and building leaders should collaborate with school employed mental health professionals, teachers, and other specialized instructional support personnel when determining appropriate methods for supporting student social-emotional learning and mental health in each community.
  • Addressing social-emotional learning, and mental health needs. Schools and districts must have a continuum of services, and an effective system for identifying students in need is available within all schools.
  • Relationships and transitions. Although every student will be different, it is important to help foster positive relationships between students and staff and teach and reteach behavioral expectations, especially after extended absence from the school environment (e.g. summer break).
  • Potential for trauma. Schools must work toward implementing trauma-informed practices to address the myriad of challenges and life experiences that could result in learning or behavioral difficulties in children.
  • Addressing physical and psychological safety. Schools must balance physical and psychological safety, especially as we emerge from a pandemic in which many schools were closed due to safety concerns. Reestablishing a sense of security and trust among district leaders, school staff, and families is paramount.
  • District and school building leaders should routinely examine their discipline policies and remedy any inequities that exist. Best practices dictate the use of positive discipline strategies coupled with a multitiered system of behavioral supports over the use of harmful exclusionary discipline strategies (e.g., suspension and expulsion).
  • Addressing staff needs. Much attention has been paid to meeting the comprehensive needs of students, but it is equally important that districts adopt policies that support the well-being of staff. This is especially crucial for areas that experienced significant COVID-19-related disruptions.
  • Family engagement. Family engagement is critical with any school-based initiative. When it comes to supporting students’ social-emotional learning and mental and behavioral health, schools should view families as partners in supporting students at home and in the classroom.

Successful service delivery is predicated on the availability of school employed mental health professionals (school psychologists, school counselors, and school social workers). These professionals can support the work of teachers in the classroom and provide services to individuals or groups of students as needed. To be sure, teachers play a critical role in infusing social-emotional learning competencies into the classroom. However it is inappropriate to expect them to bear the entire burden of this responsibility. NASP recommends a ratio of 1 school psychologist for every 500 students. The recommended ratios of school counselors and school social workers is 1:250. Unfortunately, very few districts meet these recommended ratios. It is imperative that school districts consider strategies to recruit and retain school employed mental health professionals and work toward the long-term goal of meeting these staffing ratios. Having a full complement of school employed mental health professionals ensures that every student and every family has access to the supports they need to be successful.


Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, Ph.D, NCSP, is Director of Policy and Advocacy for the National Association of School Psychologists.

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