Student Well-Being Q&A

Why Some Schools Are Adding ‘Directors of Wellness’ to Their Leadership Teams

By Caitlynn Peetz — October 26, 2022 6 min read
Statuettes of meditating monkeys sit on a table at Venado Middle School's Well Space in Irvine, Calif., on July 28, 2022. Districts across the country are using federal pandemic money to hire more mental health specialists, rolling out new coping tools and expanding curriculum that prioritizes emotional health.
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Schools across the country are working to address an increase in students’ and staff members’ mental health needs post-pandemic. Now, some have hired new administrators charged with making well-being a communitywide endeavor.

Top health officials and organizations, , including the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Psychological Association, have proclaimed a youth mental health crisis. Districts have struggled to handle an increase in behavioral challenges, and more students have reported problems with anxiety and depression.

Districts have prioritized hiring counselors and school psychologists, and implementing new or expanded social-emotional curriculums and programs. (Social-emotional learning differs from providing mental health services. SEL teaches students skills, such as relationship skills and self-awareness, to support their wellbeing. It does not provide diagnostic or clinical treatment for mental health conditions.)

A handful of schools are now taking efforts a step further, adding “directors of wellness” to their staffs. They’re responsible for assessing the state of mental health in the school and the school’s community, figuring out ways to improve it, and coordinating supports with SEL and other schoolwide goals.

One of those directors is Lade Akande, who works at University High School in Carmel, Ind.

Akande said she believes she is among the first in the country to hold the position. A consortium of other directors counts about 20 members across the country, she said. At University High, Akande has created support groups for students, offers daily tips for students to combat stress and anxiety, offers one-on-one counseling, and helps teach staff and community members about mental wellness.

Akande spoke with Education Week about her job, why it’s important now, and the impact she hopes it has on students and staff.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does a director of wellness do, and how does it differ from school counselors and other mental health professionals?

School counselors will also often be tasked with other duties, like scheduling classes and more administrative types of work, as well as one-on-one counseling.

The director of wellness is an administrator who’s taking a more holistic approach, not just including students but also including faculty, staff, community members, parents, and caregivers, and basically creating systems and a framework for what health and wellness looks like in our school and in our community.

Part of what that looks like is assessing and getting a baseline of wellness at the school. We’re doing that by administering a school-wide survey of both our students and our faculty. From that information, we’ll be able to identify where our immediate needs are, and that will help inform us about the specific needs of the school so we can implement programming within the structure of the day.

I look at themes for monthly, whole school check-ins that align with the National Mental Health calendar and the school calendar, where there might be times of higher stress around midterms or finals or holidays. So that’s where we’re starting, creating what I’m calling a comprehensive wellness program for the school, which is very unique to fit our mission and specific needs.

Why now?

I think with the growing field of neuroscience, we are starting to see that when students are in states of stress or have experienced trauma, that their brains are not primed to learn. So if the goal of school is to learn, and if our students have chronic stress, we’re going to diminish our ability and capacity to be able to do so.

It’s not just about educating kids about mental health, it’s actually equipping and teaching people the tools and strategies to manage themselves which is going to, in turn, enhance their learning ability and the school environment. The idea is to help empower students in this climate of rising levels of anxiety and depression and to empower students to feel like they have some autonomy and some power in bringing themselves back to equilibrium to balance.

Because they’re spending the majority of their time in school, and this is for most students the only access they have to resources like counseling or social-emotional support, then that should really be a focus and at the heart of the school and the organizations that are serving students.

It’s also important to be intentional to include the staff because I think in this field—similar to health care—it’s always about the students, or the patients or clients. A lot of people in this field need permission and opportunities to fill their own cup, to put their oxygen mask on first.

It’s the idea of, if we take care of our faculty and staff, they’ll take care of our children.

What are some examples of initiatives you’ve implemented at University High?

Every morning our entire school gets together for what’s called a morning meeting, where students can make announcements. There may be time for a student or someone in the community to present on a topic that’s interesting to them. Sometimes that’s students sharing things about their culture, their heritage, certain holidays that are coming up, or topics that are important to them.

One of the things that I’ve been doing every Monday is a mindful minute. Basically, that’s a chance for me to share a stress-reduction practice or regulation strategy with the whole school, and we’ll all try it together, whether it’s a breathing technique, or certain kinds of stretches.

Because of the pandemic, there are a lot more students than usual who have experienced grief, either with bereavement or just loss in general, so this semester I’ve been able to run small groups on grief. And also small groups for students who are coming from split family households.

We’re just creating smaller groups for students to be able to relate and identify with each other through certain hardships, and more of those small groups and workshops will be formulated once we get the results back from the survey. It is all optional, but students don’t come [in] knowing that it’s there, and hearing that there’s space being created for that, I think is also helpful for students to feel like those topics matter.

Are there any best practices to get buy-in from students?

You definitely want to be mindful about the age appropriateness. A lot of these kinds of social-emotional activities or curriculum are tailored more toward elementary and middle school-aged children, and then falls off a little bit in high school.

I think students are really hungry for classes and information and spaces to address these topics of mental health and wellness, and not just in a crisis situation where you have to go and see a school counselor, but more of a part of their growth and development and a part of their learning as well, just like we’re learning academic subjects. It helps them learn more about themselves and create self awareness.

I would say my advice is to ask what they want to learn or know, because a lot of times, nobody’s really asking students. They’re just showing up to class and they’re being taught whatever the teacher decides, but asking them what they’re interested in learning and kind of getting an idea could also give some guidance as to where to start and create that buy-in at the school.

I think we’ll get a lot of feedback from students and staff members, and that’s going to be really valuable information. Then when we have some more clear direction on the topics we’d like to tackle first and how, we might be able to offer opportunities for maybe a pre-and post-assessment on whatever it is we’d like to measure, or whatever it is we’re hoping to impact.


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