Student Well-Being

Parents Worried About Their Kids’ Mental Health See the Fix in New Schooling Options

By Arianna Prothero — February 22, 2024 5 min read
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Parents who are considering changing or adjusting their children’s schooling situation say mental health is a leading factor driving their decisions, concludes a new report by Tyton Partners, an education consulting group.

Forty-six percent of parents who are open to trying new educational options—whether it’s switching their children to a new school, supplementing their children’s existing education, or cobbling together a customized education for their kids—say that mental health is a primary factor in their thinking.

“Right now, for parents, these issues of mental health are front and center in ways that pre-pandemic we wouldn’t have seen,” said Adam Newman, a founder and managing partner at Tyton Partners and one of the report’s authors. He also serves on the school board for the Weston public schools in Massachusetts.

“I think this is really a pandemic echo that will persist and, to be fair, that schools are trying to address as best they can,” Newman added.

Parents have a growing number of schooling options available to them—including virtual schools, micro schools, and home-schooling pods—a level of choice that accelerated during the pandemic. At the same time, more states are enacting policies that will give parents state dollars to put toward private school tuition and other supplemental programs.

These trends are taking place against the backdrop of declines in public school enrollment nationally, the report says. Whether the public school system can adequately address parents’ concerns about mental health and other issues, the report says, could have a “dramatic impact” on enrollment numbers in the coming years.

Parents of elementary children most likely to want to move their kids to a different school

The Tyton Partners’ report focuses on the attitudes of parents who say they are very interested in new or supplemental schooling options for their children. Earlier research by Tyton Partners found that nearly half of all parents likely fall into this “open-minded” group, and the consulting group surveyed more than 2,000 of them nationally to learn more about what’s driving their interest in options beyond a traditional school setting. The researchers also convened a focus group of parents from across the country to inform the report.

The report was funded in part by the Walton Family Foundation and the Stand Together Trust. (The Walton Family Foundation provides support for Education Week coverage of strategies for advancing opportunities for students most in need. Education Week retains sole editorial control over its coverage.)

The majority of these so-called open-minded parents—64 percent—are interested in enrolling their children in supplemental programs. Just 10 percent said they are interested in switching schools. But a little more than a quarter of open-minded parents say they are interested in fully customizing their children’s education by weaving together a variety of programs, resources, and experiences. For example, a virtual school program combined with a home-schooling pod and classes at a community center or college.

Parents of children in elementary school are notably more likely to be interested in switching their kids to different schools than parents of older children, the report says. Parents of high school students are more likely to be interested in customizing their children’s education.

Black parents are slightly more interested in moving their children to different schools or customizing their child’s education than white, Asian, and Hispanic parents.

Parents of middle schoolers were the most worried about their kids’ mental health, followed by high school parents. Elementary parents were the least worried.

There was also a perception among some parents that schools are not equipped to address their children’s mental health needs, the report says, and parents fear that not identifying and addressing those needs could be a threat to their child’s safety.

Schools face hurdles when it comes to responding to students’ mental health and academic needs—the second most cited concern driving parents’ interest in changing or adjusting their children’s schooling.

‘It will take time to see what districts prioritize’

As federal pandemic-era aid runs out, schools that used that money to hire additional mental health support staff will be facing difficult choices.

“I am on my local school board, and we hired 14 people with ESSER funding,” said Newman. “We are having a conversation now about how many of these people do we transfer over into the operating budget. … Districts grappling with those decisions and what trade-offs they’re going to make: ‘I’m going to keep these two mental health professionals and not continue with the two literacy interventionists we got.’”

School districts need to get creative about how they address these challenges, said Newman. Schools have additional resources and solutions to explore, from partnering with outside organizations to offer some support services to reimagining the school schedule to promote a more positive school climate.

“School schedules can make it very challenging for students and professionals to find the spaces and the time to make the connections they need,” he said. “A sense of belonging and connectivity, that is partly informed by the schedule and the pace of everything that’s being crammed into a school day.”

Although large shares of parents say they are very interested in exploring other educational options for their children, there’s a lot keeping parents from taking the plunge. One major barrier, the report found, is finances: Parents making less than $50,000 annually are more than twice as likely as parents making more than $150,000 to cite affordability as a barrier to either switching schools, supplementing their child’s current education, or customizing a new one for them.

Parents are also concerned about their children missing out on the various formal and informal experiences—such as the community and extracurriculars—offered by more conventional schools, the report notes. Parents also thought that a more traditional school setting may better prepare their children for college and the workforce.

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