Student Well-Being Q&A

Making Mental Health a Priority for School Staff as Well as Students

By Corey Mitchell — March 10, 2020 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Leaders to Learn From honoree Jeff Wellington helped steer the Hamilton Township, N.J., schools through trying times after a series of suicides rocked the community. Years later, he’s still focused on making sure the district’s schools are welcoming, supportive environments where students and staff can seek help.

In this Q&A, Wellington, the district’s supervisor of special projects, offers insight about the importance of acknowledging adverse childhood experiences and how he manages to stave off compassion fatigue.This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Education Week: Why should schools make mental health a priority both for students and employees?

Wellington: We’re trying to create both physically and emotionally safe environments, where our kids are comfortable coming to school. If we can be successful with that, we can see our kids, I guess, more or less realizing their potential, being more successful in life over time with that relationship-rich environment, that environment that they feel safe in, physically and emotionally. That’s the main focus as to why we’re really putting an emphasis on mental health in schools.

It’s not just our kids, it’s our staff too. Our staff come to school sometimes unready to teach because they’re struggling as well, either [with]themselves, or maybe with a family member. When a person has mental illness, often they don’t realize it, or they don’t know it, or they don’t understand the extent of it. And they don’t seek treatment. So, I think it’s really important to be talking to our students and our staff about mental health and wellness. People, they’re often thinking that, “nothing’s going to help me,” or “I’m never going to get better. This is my life. This is the way it is.” But, in fact, people who do seek appropriate treatment often do really well.

Education Week: You encourage staff to focus on and address the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Why is that so important?

Wellington: Kids who have high ACE scores are always feeling like they’re on edge or feeling like they’re threatened. And that can cause a lot of problems for our kids socially, emotionally, behaviorally here at school. And it definitely affects their ability to learn. That’s kind of where the schools come in.

If [teachers] can create a safe environment where there’s positive interactions every day with their students, our kids are going to learn. Because when [students are] in that stress mode, when that cortisol is being released, it kind of shuts down the learning parts of the brain. The learning takes place more or less in the prefrontal cortex. And when that cortisol is released, and the amygdala is activated, and we’re in that fight-or-flight response, we can’t pay attention, we can’t focus, we forget things, we can’t memorize things, and we don’t learn.

Education Week: How do you ensure your own mental health?

Wellington: You’re talking about compassion fatigue. Anybody that’s working in mental health and then even education nowadays, people need to de-stress. They need to rationally detach from the workplace. For me, family is always my go-to. I always like to spend time with them, but they’re active, they’re busy. So, sometimes I guess the other way I relax is getting outdoors.

The past couple of years, I started engaging in beekeeping and working with bonsai trees. Learning about bees and how they work and just the intricate details of the hive and that type of thing—It’s just very interesting to me. Same thing with the bonsai, just taking care of the bonsai and learning about that process of nurturing that tree and taking care of that tree and just learning about that process interests me. So, I just enjoy things that keep me interested, keep my brain working and thinking maybe off the topic of kids who have struggles with mental illness. You need a break from that sometimes.

Related Reading

Weaving A Mental Health Safety Net

Schools Grapple With Student Depression as Data Show Problem Worsening

Why Principals Need to Make Student Mental Health A Priority

Image Credit: Jeff Wellington, the supervisor of special projects for the Hamilton Township, N.J., schools, works with a group of 2nd graders

--Graeme Sloan/Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion Educators, Be Future-Ready, But Don’t Ignore the Present
Being ready for what lies ahead is important, but we also need to gain a better understanding of the here and now.
5 min read
shutterstock 226918177
Student Well-Being Opinion How to Prioritize Student Well-Being This Year
Use the Student Thriving Index to find out where your kids stand. Because you cannot manage what you cannot measure.
2 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Student Well-Being Spotlight Spotlight on Supporting Teachers & Students
In this Spotlight, evaluate your district and what supports your schools offer, assess attendance policies to avoid burnout, and more
Student Well-Being What the Research Says Child Hospitalizations Spike Under Delta, Particularly in Low-Vaccination States
Nationwide, the number of children and teens hospitalized due to COVID-19 has ballooned nearly tenfold since midsummer, new CDC data show.
2 min read
hopital stethescope 1222194507
Aleksandr Titov/iStock/Getty