Student mental health: A dialogue among educators, the administration, state assemblyman

In this virtual roundtable, participants — including acting education commissioner — go beyond buzzwords to assess how to best reach students now and post-pandemic

NJ Spotlight News on Monday hosted a virtual roundtable about student mental health and the services that New Jersey’s schools can offer now and through the end of the pandemic and beyond.

New Jersey’s acting commissioner of education Angelica Allen-McMillan opened the 75-minute discussion and said the issue is a priority for Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration, which has allocated new grants for districts to provide additional counseling and other services.

Panel participants

  • New Jersey Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), sponsor of a bill package aimed at student mental health;
  • Adrienne Hill, principal, Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School of the Arts, Trenton;
  • Shan Byrd, inclusion teacher and “restorative justice” coordinator, New Brunswick;
  • Lee McDonald, Director of Counseling, Health and Wellness, West Windsor-Plainsboro Schools.

The following are excerpts from the conversation:

Angelica Allen-McMillan: When I say that investing in our school community’s mental health is one of the central education priorities of this administration, COVID-19 has only shone a more glaring spotlight on the need for these kinds of supports. According to one recent survey conducted by New Jersey School Boards Association, nearly half of the 264 administrators and board members surveyed reported that their students have generally been more anxious and depressed. Twelve percent reported that they have seen increasing evidence of serious crises, such as self-harm, threats of self-harm or hospitalizations. These data are alarming and require a significant investment in school districts’ mental health infrastructure.

As I hope is clear, the New Jersey Department of Education and our colleagues across state government are committed to working with school districts and leaders to ensure students receive all the supports they need to ensure their mental and physical well-being now and in a post-pandemic education setting.

The struggle on ground

Shan Byrd: One such student spent most of the time under the covers. In class, he did turn on his camera, but for the most part, he was under the covers. I managed to coax him out of bed from under the covers and to make his way to a window. And he explained to me that he had been in that room for about two weeks. He was depressed. There were family members that had passed away from COVID, and he really didn’t have the coping mechanisms for his family, didn’t have the resources at the time to get him the mental health that he needed.

Adrienne Hill: On a normal day, if we were live, you would be able to read your students behavior, their faces, their changes. It’s difficult from home. Some students don’t want to put on their cameras because they’re not confident in their home environment or other people and distractions in the background. There’s a lot of fear of the unknown.

Lee McDonald: You have everything from a crisis situation that requires immediate attention, immediate intervention, possible hospitalization, partial hospitalization on one end. On the other end, you might see the fear, anxiety that many students are experiencing right now. And a lot of that certainly is, in my opinion, around loss that could be loss of an experience that they’re not getting. That could be loss of socialization and loss of a parent’s job, a loved one. So there’s really a wide range in terms of what’s out there.

Louis Greenwald: Two incidents where we’ve seen young people commit suicide who otherwise appeared perfectly healthy from all outward appearances, successful at every level, handsome young kid, a very good student athlete. Signals were missed and a young man and a bright light took his own life because he felt disconnected. And a lot of this through social media. And I think one of the hidden things of this pandemic is for many young people, an escape of all of these devices was the six, seven hours that they spent in school. And not only have they lost that, but we have now heightened the attention through this screen that we’re on right now to connect to others.

Comprehensive approach from classroom to counseling

Lee McDonald: It’s having a plan in place around social-emotional learning that encompasses a lot of different things. You start with the classroom, the learning component, and think about making sure that your classrooms are welcoming spaces, that there are strategies that your teachers have to increase socialization, whether that’s through hybrid learning, in-person learning, wellness, or think about school culture and climate teams. Those are required by the state, aka anti-bullying school-safety team. So leveraging that work and making sure that you’re in touch with the cultural climate in your school, making sure the students understand what wellness means, creating a culture of care, self-care. And then the last piece would really be those social and emotional supports. And that to me starts with a comprehensive school counseling program aligned to standards that are delivered, that have proactive programming not just with students, but with parents as well in building that partnership.

Shan Byrd: I really focus on developing relationships with my students, and that really is the basis of restorative-justice practices, developing relationships within the student community, and that would incorporate social and emotional learning, different strategies that are used or simply how are you doing daily, spending time and actively listening to each other. Also setting up space where students feel safe, they feel that they’re not being judged, they feel as if they have an active listener, they have a true advocate in you as a teacher.

With my students, I call it like a two-dimensional space that we’re in and we try to expand it, playing games, you know, taking time. I actually created a virtual playground, a space where students could just come and it’s not academically based. Have fun, talk to their friends, find just different creative ways of opening up this virtual space and allowing students to socialize safely.

Adrienne Hill: We are a school of the arts, and one of the main things that we’ve done is put a focus on arts integration that was pre-pandemic. But now even more so because we’re in a pandemic. We know we have the academic requirements that we’re expected to meet, but everything doesn’t have to feel academic all the time, and especially right now.

Arts are integrated into the lesson. So it could be a lesson about the history of the school. But instead of learning it in a traditional, historic way, you learn it through creating a video. Maybe you’re reenacting the famous case that made our school excited, Brown vs. Board of Education. So maybe you’re not just looking at a textbook or you’re not just looking at a computer screen. You’re using your creative juices to teach the content.

We have some tremendous artwork that’s been done by our students during the pandemic. And it really tells a lot about how they’re feeling.

What can the state do?

Louis Greenwald: The package of bills from an oversight perspective, really from a 30-thousand-foot view, is designed to do a couple of things. It’s designed to piggyback off of the great success that we’ve already had with teachers on the front lines. Teachers are our first eyes and ears. They are our first line of defense. And in many respects, they’re the ones who are going to identify something that’s out of the norm, something that raises a red flag for them. But they’re not behavioral health experts and they‘re not mental health experts, and we‘re not asking them to be. So what the package of bills is designed to do is to offer grants and incentives, build off of existing programs and build new ones and to really build off of that first touch and that first line of defense with our teachers on the ground to establish those programs, to help teachers identify signs and where and when to intervene.

It‘s also designed to bring health care professionals, mental health professionals, into the school. We are not looking to create mental health clinics. That is not the role of our school. But we are looking to bring supports in place where in a safe environment that the kids feel safe as we reopen the schools, that those mental health professionals will be able to be on site, create a public-private partnership and come to the table when teachers identify a problem to help intervene and offer that soft touch and that intervention to help kids get on the right path. And maybe to stop a catastrophe or a tragedy before it happens.

Lee McDonald: We have a partnership with Rutgers University Behavioral Health, so we‘re fortunate to have four mental health clinicians on site at each of our high schools and our middle schools. That said, that partnership is really about working in collaboration with our school counselors, our child-study team and community agencies, so we need all the help we can get. So I applaud the assemblyman for pushing this forward. I think it‘s much needed in every district across the state. So it is very doable. I think it has to be, obviously, you have to have a plan for integrating that within your specific needs of your school community.

Shan Byrd: Are we trained? No. One thing I would mention is training could definitely be an asset to us. I think that not just for how to deal with the students, but we also need to have space for teachers to heal. And I’ll go back to the restorative model, the restorative-justice model, it emphasizes community healing. So, yes, it is very important for our social workers and our psychologists to come in. But there is also the aspect of the community healing itself, self-healing communities.

Louis Greenwald: We want to make sure that the money that is going into these programs, the school funding, the pensions and the others are not a one-time event. And then we slip back. So as leadership from the Senate and the Assembly was on the call with the governor and the treasurer today, one of the things that all branches of government were in unison on is that this investment is made. We will be able to continue it without federal supports and the other supports that we’ve had to lean on to get through the last year.

What else do you need?

Adrienne Hill: All right, well, currently we have two school counselors and one which we share our three other middle schools, so you can imagine that’s not enough for 711 students. It would be very helpful to us to see an expansion of school-based youth services. And I had requested social workers in my budget for this past year, this current year. We talked about the expansion of school-based youth services. If that was a possibility, that would be tremendously helpful, because even though our school counselors are doing the best they can, there are only two for all the amount of emotional challenges and social challenges that the students are coming in with.

It would also be helpful to have a resource manual of all the programs available right now. I know years ago we had one, but a resource manual right now would be crucial because we and the programs are working in silos. But there are all of these programs out there that may be able to help to address specific needs. So if we could have aligned services for certain needs and maybe categorized, so if you have a student with suicide ideation, you would look to these by county or other online resources or people that would be impactful.

Lee McDonald: I think having a good handle on what students and certainly families are saying is going to be really critical. And that’s just engaging the stakeholders. And whether that’s a survey, that’s a focus group, whether that’s your regular programming that happens, I think all of those pieces will help drive some of your programming and proactive programming in the future. So really critical, I think, to have those conversations right now.

Adrienne Hill: We are predominantly a Latino school and a lot of our students came to this country during the pandemic and, unfortunately, we’ve been remote since last March. So now you’ve got a compounded situation because they’re suffering loss of their comfort in their country. Now they’re in a situation where they don’t understand the language and now they have to be on a computer, not even being able to connect with us and get the full experience of what it’s like to be in this country or to be in our school or to be a part of our family.

So, again, we have a whole team of people. We make lots of calls. Our teachers are amazing because they’ve really been trying. We have very few Spanish-speaking staff members. But if you go into the classroom, you’re going to Google classroom. You hear them making all kinds of efforts and using transcription and translators.

Lee McDonald: I do think that there are some amazing resources that districts can leverage right now that don’t cost a whole lot. So I’m hoping that the message received is, hey, we don’t have to wait till tomorrow. We don’t have to wait till next year’s budget. We can proactively put some measures in place. We may not have the staff that we feel like we need. We may not have necessarily all the funding that we need, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start to have these conversations and involving all the multiple stakeholders that need to be involved, as we discussed.

For example, start by looking at the CASEL collaborative for social-emotional learning. There’s some amazing free resources right there. And how do you create a plan? They’ve got links to all sorts of free resources. Get on social media, get on Twitter. You don’t have to look far for research-based programs for what colleagues are doing in other districts. You can spend a brief amount of time online looking around and then have conversations with your team to put together a plan.

Adrienne Hill: It doesn’t cost any money to care about people. And sometimes I think we forget that just a phone call, a letter, an email, a text, the chat app. You have so many ways that you can reach out to people and just say, “Hey, you know, I was thinking about you today and your family and I wanted to know if everything was OK.”



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