Catching Kids Before the Waterfall: The Case for More Proactive SEL

As many of you know, the American Academy of Pediatrics has declared a mental health emergency for children. And as heartbreaking as this is, between the societal challenges and mental health issues already present in our prior “normal” conditions, as well as everything the pandemic has exacerbated, it’s hard to say that it’s surprising. Increasingly, educators and school leaders are asking: What changes can we make to better support students’ mental health? The national conversation in schools is highly focused on this question and unprecedented funding is available to help schools address these issues. As a former teacher, social and emotional learning (SEL) author and national professional development leader, I know the powerful role educators and school systems can play in supporting students’ social, emotional and mental well-being needs. My big focus right now as an SEL leader is how we can take proactive approaches to student well-being and build systems of support for overall student mental health. The crisis is now and the call to action is critical. In this work, school leaders like you are well positioned to make a transformative impact in your schools.

Catching kids before the waterfall: why we urgently need more proactive measures to support SEL

Imagine a beautiful lake that feeds into a raging river. That river eventually feeds into a gargantuan waterfall. Imagine you’re out relaxing on a summer day, just listening to the gurgles of the rapids. All of a sudden, you look up and see a child caught in the rapids, headed to the waterfall – and fast. You don’t have to think about it: You just dive into the water, shoes and all, and swim out to try to save this child. And you barely get to the kid. Their toes are hanging over the waterfall, and you grab hold of them just in the nick of time. You then have to fight the current back up the river. It’s a hard swim, and you’re fighting the entire way, but you finally get them back to the riverbank. 

You’re huffing and puffing, and they’re huffing and puffing – but before the relief sets in, you look up the river to the lake – and freeze. In that same lake, thousands of kids are playing and more are getting pulled into the mouth of the river. You immediately think, “No, no, no. Somebody has got to get up to that lake and teach those kids to stay out of the river.”

This “lake, river, waterfall” image is a metaphor for what I see happening to our students’ mental health in the absence of multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). 

Too often in our schools, there is very little help provided at the lake, and we don’t consistently step in to intervene at the river. Most schools have systems for responding that don’t activate until we get to the waterfall, when students are already slipping over the edge. This perpetuates students needing to escalate to get help: When students are struggling in the river, they are not thriving. Getting students proactive support to help them manage issues before they become challenges, and recognizing and supporting students with challenges before they become crises, is crucial.

This is a much-needed paradigm shift in our schools: We need to become a wellness model instead of a sickness model around student well-being and mental health.

I want to share three areas that you might consider for your next conversation about how your team can build systems to better support student well-being and mental health in the wake of this national crisis.

If you’re not sure where to start, try starting here:

1. The lake: Teach SEL skills to students.

There are many out there to choose from. Check out CASEL’s guide  to evidence-based programs. Explicit instruction is what is primarily linked to all of the studies around benefits of SEL. You need a program that you know works to help you build the common language, and to keep you connected to a research-based scope and sequence. Without an evidence-based program, you could be spinning your wheels or, even worse, making it harder for your staff to restart on campus, because people might say, “We tried that and it doesn’t work.” I am a co-author of School-Connect, a research- and evidence-based SEL program in more than 2,500 secondary schools.

Create a structure for a strong relationship between students and campus adults

It is very important to create some kind of advisory relationship where each adult has a small group of students that they know by name, by face, by interest and by need, and have some connection to their family. This safe and connected adult relationship enables the teacher/advisor to check in regularly with their small group and recognize when a student might be struggling to connect them with additional support. I call this an anchor point system for student staff relationships.

Do regular emotional “check-ins” for students

These check-ins can range from broad check-ins to deep check-ins. Examples of broad check-ins are mood meters, quick surveys or even just an intentional greeting at the door. Deeper check-ins might be a check-in circle, like the one I train teachers on regularly, which you can find a video of here.

Try finding ways to integrate SEL skills across your school day

One of the main goals of your explicit skill instruction using an SEL program is building common language. This common language allows teachers and students opportunities to reference, reinforce and reflect on these skills throughout the day. You want to build your integration strategies and activities off your explicit instruction so there is a coherent narrative for all teachers and students. Teachers can also use classroom procedures to automate SEL support into their classes and across campus. Check out my recent book on how to automate SEL integration into all classes.

2. The river: Connect teachers to resources, training and experts.

When you’re at the river, you have kids that are struggling with a challenge because they hadn’t been taught those crucial SEL skills earlier on. These might be kids who are getting into fights because they haven’t learned how to manage conflict and anger on their own. Or, these might be kids who are struggling socially because they haven’t learned how to actively listen or show empathy to others. These kids are trying their hardest to swim through the rapids and back to shore – but they don’t have the strength or all the skills to get themselves out.

This creates obstacles to their success, feelings of isolation and all kinds of challenges for their mental health. It’s critical that the adults in their lives have the tools they need to recognize and respond to those struggles. As school leaders, you’re empowered to provide professional development opportunities that help your team collaboratively support students who are struggling. Because after all, educators simply cannot do this work alone.

I have helped many schools add Tier II emotional management supports like calm down corners in elementary classrooms and wellness centers on secondary campuses. These supports are for students to use when they are struggling, before they escalate to crisis. If done well, these supports do not only help students de-escalate, but also build skills. Calm down corners and wellness centers when combined with reflection can also help students become more aware and learn better self-awareness and self-management skills for the future.

In addition, many schools have started lunch bunches and other targeted support for students who are struggling with specific issues to get additional support. Examples might be group support for students dealing with grief, or coping with anxiety or depression. Small group support with a trained counselor can be very helpful in addressing student needs in the river before they escalate to crisis. Unfortunately, too few of these proactive tier supports exist because our trained mental health professionals are often overwhelmed with crises, or other assigned duties like testing and scheduling. When we increase our support at the lake, however, the crises will reduce, allowing our mental health professionals to give better support to fewer crises and to swim upstream and provide more support for emerging challenges.

3. The waterfall: Provide extra support for students experiencing challenges.

When you’re at the waterfall, the challenges these kids have been facing for some time have now escalated into a full-blown crisis. Responsive crisis intervention plans need to be well designed, vetted and communicated. Teachers are not trained mental health experts and need to know when and how to refer students in need to quality resources. One priority needs to be training staff on how to recognize red flags and how to make a referral to someone on campus that can get students access to support. There are partners that schools and districts can connect with that can help with the process of accessing and referring to community mental health support.

In many cases, our current systems say to our students: “If you want mental health help, you have to absolutely show us you’ve lost it before we will step in to help you. Up until that point of crisis, you will have no opportunity to learn any of those skills.” If we want to do right by our students, we have got to flip from a sickness-and-crisis model to a wellness model in our schools. This is the great challenge of our field – to proactively step up and build systems to step in before the crisis. And I have full confidence that, with the right support, we can rise to this challenge.

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