Student Well-Being

Principals Share 3 Tips for Centering Mental Health in Schools

By Olina Banerji — November 22, 2023 4 min read
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The path to academic recovery for schools is deeply intertwined with how well they can support their students’ mental health needs. Schools, however, are struggling to bridge the gap between the two.

As mental health needs expand in number and kind—from absenteeism and discipline issues to suicide prevention care—principals are charged with setting the course for responding.

But trying to solve the problem of low grades can’t come at the cost of student well-being. It’s a lesson that Chris Young, the principal of North Country Union High School in Newport, Vt., is trying to instill in his teaching staff, after a spate of student suicides rocked the 700-student school last year.

“Teachers must proactively talk about uncomfortable things like suicide awareness and prevention with their students. It’s not an easy task. but they have to do it, specially when [our school] has lost students,” said Young, in a webinar held Nov. 21 by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Tap your local community’s expertise

Young was one of three principals who shared their strategies for equipping their schools to identify and provide the right support to students who are struggling.

“We don’t just rely on our staff, but bring in outside voices, too, to talk about issues like bipolar disorder or substance abuse. Students like listening to them, and not just their teachers,” said Young.

Located in a ski town, Young’s school brought in professional skier Drew Peterson to talk to students about his own struggles with bipolar disorder.

Young said it’s also important to keep the conversation going, and not just restrict it to a one-time school assembly, which has little impact on the students.

An expert speaker invited to Young’s school sent reading materials and merchandise like t-shirts to spark interest ahead of his upcoming talk on substance abuse and addiction prevention. Students, Young said, created clubs in in advance to discuss these issues, and the school invited the speaker back to speak in smaller groups.

“The learning is better in these smaller environments,” said Young.

Build trust with families

Like Young’s school in Vermont, most of Sham Bevel’s students belong to low-income families.

Bevel is the principal of the Bayside Sixth Grade Campus, in Virginia Beach, Va., a single-grade school. Focusing on one grade, said Bevel, helps focus on specific issues, like the mental health challenges that come with moving from elementary to middle school, where students typically have more teachers and multiplying responsibilities.

When starting out, Bevel said her school had three goals, of which one was dealing with “attendance challenges.”

“I wanted us to focus on social and emotional support, instead of attendance as a disciplinary issue. We re-framed the goal to working on a sense of belonging for our students,” said Bevel.

With a high number of students from low-income backgrounds, Bevel said it’s important to understand what situations their families are in and respond to their needs. Bayside’s sole student counselor has made this a cornerstone of her approach.

“The counselor reaches out to families, often gets them hygiene supplies if these families are lodged in hotels. We’ve even hand-delivered Thanksgiving meals, with sides,” said Bevel. For students and parents, the counselor is a “neutral party,” so they feel more comfortable opening up to her.

By building trust, the counselor may get more information from parents.

“She’s created a space for soft, supportive conversations with students in schools, and their families outside,” said Bevel.

Teachers are key—but should avoid assumptions about kids’ needs

The community outside the school is critical for student well-being. But among all the stakeholders in the building, teachers are at the front line.
Increasing their capacity to identify mental health issues with their students has become Nicole Bottomley’s key strategy.

Bottomley is the principal of King Phillip Regional High in Wrentham, Mass., which serves as the regional school for 1,150 students from three neighboring towns. Bottomley said mental health challenges like school avoidance and the lack of emotional regulation became apparent after the pandemic.

Teachers are always the first ones to notice any changes in a student’s behavior, said Bottomley, so they should be armed with effective strategies to approach a student possibly facing a challenge.

But, Bottomley cautions, teachers shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

“If a teacher’s assumption is that a particular student isn’t motivated to learn, or they are always missing their class, then the teacher should look for some evidence behind their claims,” said Bottomley.

Step two is to figure out what stops a student from doing their work. “Do they have access to the classwork at home? Do they have a place to study? Have they developed skills around time-management? We need to start with more basic questions,” Bottomley added.

Over time, the school has developed a common language for tackling students’ struggles.

“To see students thrive after they’ve received support is great for my mental health,” Bottomley said.

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