As many of us settle into the routines of the new school year, I’m reflecting on the intertwined roles that schools can play in supporting the well-being of students, families, and school staff and in reducing inequities that affect those who have experienced discrimination. I’m proud to lead the education work at Child Trends and I know that healthy schools—broadly, those that support the overall well-being of students—make a huge difference in the lives of students beyond their academic success.
We are all well-aware that far too many students are experiencing mental health challenges. Healthy schools can address students’ mental health challenges and support their mental wellness. They can reduce barriers to mental health services by connecting students to off-campus mental health providers and/or providing on-campus mental health services.
Students do best when their teachers and other school staff also experience well-being, so fostering safe and supportive environments also requires a focus on staff wellness. Staff wellness efforts should extend beyond classroom teachers and encompass more than physical and mental health; such efforts must also include attention to staff members’ relationships with peers, students, and families, as well as opportunities to engage in work that is meaningful and aligned with their training and interests. Staff wellness planning teams should reflect the diversity of school employees and include supports that are tailored for groups with the greatest need.
Black, Latino, and Indigenous students face challenges due to longstanding inequities that negatively affect their communities. Schools must acknowledge this differential impact and allocate resources accordingly to support students from these populations and mitigate systemic inequities. Healthy schools can reduce racial inequities in educational outcomes such as chronic absenteeism, exposure to school violence, and punitive disciplinary actions. Healthy schools can also mitigate racial disparities in health care access, juvenile system involvement, and food insecurity.
I’d like to close with a few words about refugee students. Public schools helped members of my family learn English and connected them with social services when they resettled in North Dakota 40 years ago as refugees from Vietnam. Refugee children and adolescents report high prevalence rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depressive disorder because of their exposure to stress and trauma before, during, and after migration. Although refugee students and families experience significant challenges, they are also resilient and have extraordinary social and cultural capital. When working with refugee families, schools need to recognize parents’ cultural and linguistic assets and support their ability to advocate on behalf of their children.
This fall, our team will provide professional development training to school staff in Pennsylvania on how to implement trauma-informed mental health services and culturally responsive family engagement practices with Afghan students and families. We are excited about the opportunity to work with refugee students and families and to deepen our engagement with educators and school staff to implement evidence-based practices.
Our team is steadfast in our commitment to using research-based evidence to dismantle inequities in education and to support the well-being of all students. We look forward to partnering with and learning from you.
Chan, W. (2023). Back-to-school reflections. Child Trends. https://doi.org/10.56417/5403j9673j
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