Supporting mental health and cultivating strong relationships are essential for healthy schools

October 23, 2018

A new report from Child Trends finds that educators, students, and state-level policymakers across the United States view supporting mental health and cultivating interpersonal relationships as critical but overlooked elements necessary to building healthy schools. The study makes a strong case for investments in mental health and relationship-building initiatives as part of state and local efforts to improve school climate.

“We heard over and over from stakeholders that a positive school climate is the backbone of a healthy school,” said Bonnie Solomon, lead author of the study and a Child Trends expert on social-emotional development. “In fact, educators reported that improving student mental health and creating a stronger sense of community within schools would make it easier to address other aspects of student health, such as nutrition and physical education.”

Child Trends conducted focus groups and interviews with state policymakers, educators, and students from 27 states to understand each group’s vision of a healthy school. All groups agreed on the need for a greater focus on mental health and school climate to build healthy schools. The groups also agreed that schools often struggle to fully address students’ emotional and mental health needs.

However, the groups diverged when discussing the sources of stress and trauma students face. Educators and policymakers were more likely than students to focus on out-of-school stressors such as parents’ health, while students emphasized school-based sources of stress and anxiety, including demanding academic environments. Additionally, many educators and policymakers emphasized that students across socioeconomic levels may experience trauma and highlighted the traumatic impacts on youth of poverty, fear of deportation, and community violence. Students, meanwhile, referenced traumatic events such as school shootings and student suicides.

“This report shows how current policies and initiatives meant to improve student health and safety are too fragmented to address the complex challenges kids face,” said Deborah Temkin, director of education research at Child Trends. “Our findings illustrate that a healthy school, where students feel safe and supported, requires addressing and integrating multiple dimensions of student health. Siloed efforts that narrowly focus on individual issues such as obesity or violence prevention do not and cannot address the needs of the whole child.”

This report was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and is the first of three related publications from Child Trends, produced as part of the RWJF’s Together for Healthy and Successful Schools Initiative (THSS). Forthcoming publications will review existing state and district policies relevant to school health and provide policy recommendations to promote school health. THSS consists of Child Trends, America’s Promise Alliance, and Healthy Equity Works at Washington University in St. Louis, and aims to build and disseminate a comprehensive picture of what it means to create and support healthy schools.