Even before the pandemic, a third of U.S. students struggled with anxiety, depression, trauma, or attention issues that made it difficult to focus, stay motivated, and learn. That number has grown exponentially during the pandemic and recovery: now half of students feel persistently sad or hopeless. This is an urgent need that schools can no longer ignore.
Why? Coping with mental health concerns negatively impacts young people’s ability to meet the many demands of school—from learning, to interacting with peers, to maintaining energy and stamina through the physical demands of the day. Early intervention is critical, or else these students can spiral quickly into avoidance and loss of motivation. This impacts grades, attendance, discipline, and referrals to special education.
Even pre-pandemic, 50 percent or fewer of children and adolescents with a mental health disorder had received services in the previous 12 months. That number is certainly higher today. And yet, many schools have struggled to implement anything beyond Tier 1 interventions, which are simply mental health-related activities designed to meet the needs of all students regardless of whether or not they are at risk for mental health problems.
And many of those Tier 1 interventions are put on the ever-growing list of initiatives that teachers need to implement, and at a time when they are already exhausted. There simply isn’t the time and personnel to do more.
This is not new. When I was a school counselor a decade ago, I had 400 students in my caseload, and probably 40 of them required one-on-one support to address their non-academic barriers to success (i.e. anxiety, ADHD, depression, lack of motivation, and trauma). But providing that group of 40 students with the support they needed would have literally taken all my time, which meant that there was no capacity to help support those Tier 1 initiatives or provide support for students in active crisis.
What is different about today is that the Tier 2 group of students—those who are struggling and need direct intervention to improve—has exploded well past the typical rate of 10-15 percent of the student body we had grown accustomed to in the past decade. Within our own data we have seen rates as high as 35 percent in the past year. And we cannot allow that to become the new normal. It is unsustainable from a resource perspective, and because the cost is too high for our students.
What Exactly Do Tier 2 Students Need?
Students who fall within the Tier 2 intervention group not only need the universal SEL instruction their peers receive, but also more explicit instruction, personalized coaching, and meaningful progress monitoring.
1. Daily Instruction: Every day that a student is struggling with mental health impacts their ability to fully engage in learning. And each day that feeling of “being behind” compounds. Thoughts of self-doubt and shame can creep in, and the student’s self-narrative could become, “I’m lazy, I’m dumb, I’m unmotivated,” leading them to spiral further away from a solution. Effective school-based SEL is delivered in bite-sized lessons that help students take small, achievable steps that will eventually add up to long-lasting impact.