January 12, 2022
New Resource Helps Districts Assess and Support Student Wellbeing Amid Covid-19

After leading experts recently declared a national emergency in children’s mental health and the U.S. surgeon general issued a “rare public advisory” on protecting youth mental health, Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs, today released a comprehensive resource that school districts can use to assess and better support students’ wellbeing.

Produced in partnership with distinguished professionals in psychology, public health, and education—and drawing on published research—the District Student Wellbeing Services Reflection Tool provides a series of exercises that leaders can complete to determine whether and how their district is:

  • equipping school staff with the tools to identify and address students’ needs;
  • conducting effective student wellness and academic development programming;
  • creating a healthy school climate;
  • fostering supportive friendships and peer networks;
  • connecting students with needed professional mental health services;
  • partnering with community based wellness organizations and social services agencies;
  • promoting safe, supportive digital environments;
  • and collaborating with families to support related efforts at home.

The exercises allow districts to see the areas in which their system is performing well and where there are opportunities for improvement. Exercises are designed to show whether student wellness programs and services are widespread or are only available in select schools. The resource also guides leaders in studying their processes for tracking how initiatives work and if they are achieving the intended goals. With research-backed sample best practices in key areas, along with examples of how students might access supports, the resource helps a district find and address potential obstacles so students can get the help they need.

“Tragically, we have had 24 students take their own lives since the start of the pandemic,” said Jesús Jara, a member of Chiefs for Change and superintendent of the nation’s fifth-largest school system, Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada. “That pain is unspeakable. I will carry it with me for the rest of my life, and I know the same is certainly true for the families and everyone in our community who cared about these kids. My team is doing everything we can think of to find and reach children who are struggling and get them the help they need. We are using a sophisticated mental health screener and are visiting students at home. We have also assembled teams at every campus that are focused on supporting our kids who are hurting. Clark County is not alone. Students all across the country are dealing with loss, loneliness, depression, and stress. Districts have a variety of challenges and need customized plans for supporting kids’ physical and mental health. The resource that Chiefs for Change created is the kind of tool that leaders need now to help tailor their response and provide critical supports.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency room visits for mental health reasons increased among children between April and October 2020—by 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11, and 31 percent for children ages 12 to 17—as compared to the same period in the previous year. The National Institutes of Health, meanwhile, report that more than 1.5 million children lost a primary or secondary caregiver because of the pandemic. Students’ wellbeing was a concern even before Covid-19. Pre-pandemic data show that a majority of U.S. school-aged children who experienced a major depressive episode did not receive treatment. Major depression is marked by significant and pervasive feelings of sadness that are associated with suicidal thoughts and impair a young person’s ability to concentrate or engage in normal activities.

“As districts across the country invest time and resources in pandemic recovery efforts, supports for students’ wellbeing are just as critical—and in many cases, are a precursor to—initiatives that accelerate learning and promote strong academic outcomes,” said Mark Weber, who reviewed the Chiefs for Change resource and previously served as director of the Office of Communications at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and as deputy assistant secretary for public affairs and human services for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “What’s so unique about this tool is that it meets district leaders and their teams where they are and offers a roadmap for understanding students’ experiences and identifying sound ways to support them.”

Chiefs for Change members have said that students’ wellbeing is a top priority. Work from across the membership helped to inform the development of the new resource. The San Antonio Independent School District, for example, piloted a number of the exercises during Pedro Martinez’s tenure as superintendent. Martinez, who now serves as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, is chair of the Chiefs for Change Board of Directors. Meanwhile, the state department of education in Ohio, under the leadership of former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria, a member of Chiefs for Change, used aspects of the tool to better understand research in this area and establish the grounding framework for system-wide policies. Chiefs for Change also collaborated with experts to review more than 300 rubrics and tools related to student wellbeing and to ensure the resource is useful and faithfully reflects best practices in the field.

“Our school district is not alone in the challenges we face in a Covid world,” said Christine Fowler-Mack, superintendent of Akron Public Schools in Ohio and a member of Chiefs for Change. “The fears, isolation, and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic are evident in the growing mental health issues the surgeon general has acknowledged and are real and pervasive among our youth. Akron and other districts in Ohio have seen increases in behavioral issues, gang activity, and children expressing fears for their safety on the way to and from school. It is clear the pandemic is not a short-term crisis. Educators are worried about our kids and each other. That’s why we are engaging families, community organizations, and city resources to ensure people get help. The Chiefs for Change tool is one that all of us can use in our efforts to meet the individual needs of our students and create positive school cultures that will help our communities heal and become more resilient for the future.”

As an example of one of the exercises in the Chiefs for Change resource, leaders are asked to describe how they identify students who may be at risk: For instance, does the district use a universal screening tool or review data related to discipline referrals, school attendance, grade point average, or visits to a school nurse? Relatedly, do teachers know how to recognize and respond to warning signs? Does the district have clear instructions for how teachers can do this and for where to go if a student needs extra support? After answering these questions, K-12 leaders are asked to think about how to potentially expand efforts both with existing funding and their current workforce, as well as with additional funding and personnel.

The District Student Wellbeing Services Reflection Tool is grounded in the 10-point framework developed by The Coalition to Advance Future Student Success, a group of 12 leading education organizations committed to working together to reopen, recover, and rebuild schools.

About Chiefs for Change

Chiefs for Change is a nonprofit, bipartisan network of diverse state and district education chiefs dedicated to preparing all students for today’s world and tomorrow’s through deeply committed leadership. Chiefs for Change advocates for policies and practices that are making a difference today for students, and builds a pipeline of talented, diverse Future Chiefs ready to lead major school systems.