By Gustavo Loera, Technical Assistance Consultant, American Institutes for Research, and member of GRAD Partnership for Student Success
Public dialogue and debate about the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the social and emotional wellbeing of students is centered on one key question: Are schools equipped with adequate support systems to address the student mental health crisis? For schools, which are meant to be safe environments for students to feel a sense of connectedness and belonging, this question has academic and social implications.
For the many middle and high school students that I interviewed in the past two years, they reported grieving the loss of walking on school grounds for in-person classroom instruction, the loss of access to caring adults and peers, the loss of participating in school activities; grieving the important rites of passage (i.e., prom, graduation ceremonies, walking on a college/university campus) have been detrimental to their transition from middle school to high school, from high school to postsecondary, and into adult life. The pandemic’s negative impact will remain evident for the next 3 to 5 years, maybe even longer.
The social isolation from the pandemic increased students’ exposure to stressors, anxiety, depression, and traumas. All of which are associated with poor school and mental health outcomes. How and when we respond to students in crisis can make a difference. That is, to get the best results in keeping youths’ life trajectories healthy and thriving in school and community life, we need evidence-based systems that get to the root causes and intervene earlier—early detection and intervention.
How do we move from a crisis-driven system to student success systems?
The answer lies in implementing student success systems that use student-centered actionable data, build supportive relationships, and advance strength-based shared mindsets that build student agency. Student success systems use evidence-based practices designed to meet the students where they are and in a manner that builds on their strengths rather than deficits. When students are provided with safe and caring environments where they can develop meaningful relationships with adults and peers, it leads to discoveries of personal strengths, connectedness, and resilience in overcoming challenges.
As an educator, I believe in the notion that the social environment (i.e., schools and communities) play a major role in shaping people’s attitudes and behaviors. That is, when students believe that they are in a school environment where they feel cared for by adults and peers, and where they learn to care for others, they are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors and make good decisions. In California, Cal-HOSA recently became an intermediary partner of the GRAD Partnership for Student Success. Cal-HOSA is an affiliate of HOSA, an internationally recognized career and technical student organization with a focus on building a pipeline of future health professionals. HOSA has over 300,000 members in 49 U.S. states and 7 countries. In 2018 Cal-HOSA launched its mental health prevention and early intervention project for educators. Cal-HOSA serves as a protective factor for students looking to belong to a school community that is inclusive and accepting of diverse backgrounds. Consistent with student success systems, Cal-HOSA encourages students to make meaningful connections with caring adults and peers. Cal-HOSA supports shared student-centered mindsets by helping students discover a purpose, personal assets, and agency that help them build resilience and confidence in achieving their academic and career goals. Cal-HOSA’s data collection efforts are also consistently using quantitative and qualitative methods to capture holistic and actionable data on students’ experiences and their stories highlighting struggles and successes. It was anecdotal data from students describing Cal-HOSA as a preventative strategy that led to it becoming an avenue to focus on students’ mental wellbeing. The timing for Cal-HOSA as an intermediary partner to the GRAD Partnership could not have been better. Student success systems will help Cal-HOSA better coordinate its student support efforts, stay current and relevant in creating evidence-based strategies and solutions, and continue advocating for school-based approaches that promote early detection and intervention. To learn more about how student success systems can bolster your students’ wellbeing and learning, sign up for updates on tools and resources from the GRAD Partnership.