Maybe it’s because Halloween is coming, but I’m afraid something scary is happening in our public schools. I refer to mission creep it comes as teachers are increasingly asked to add mental health and social-emotional learning to their already grueling workloads.
Senate Speaker Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore) recently school mental health identified as a priority in the wake of the pandemic. The American Surgeon General warns that “the challenges facing today’s generation of young people are unprecedented and particularly difficult to overcome. And the effect these challenges have had on their mental health is devastating. Student Anxiety, Depression and Suicide Symptoms double during the pandemic.
Saving grace is the remarkable political response. In Maryland, federal COVID and state funds are being spent on a dizzying array of programs, including school health coordinators, teacher training, community schools and school-related partnerships, restorative practices and social and emotional learning (SEL) in classrooms.
SEL, which has the most potential direct impact on teachers, has been around for decades. The main national organization on SEL calls him the process by which students “acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships and make responsible and caring decisions. ”
In an article “Should schools embrace social and emotional learning?” Johns Hopkins expert Robert Balfanz notes “strong arguments for taking an integrated approach to children’s social, emotional, and academic development rather than focusing on academics in isolation.” It should be a win-win situation for students and teachers.
However, it is not that simple. ESA and related mental health programs raise difficult questions. Are they an appropriate role for schools or should they be left to families, communities and mental health providers?
And unsurprisingly, SEL is now a political flashpoint. A prominent conservative opponent told a New York Times reporter that while SEL “sounds positive and uncontroversial in theory, in practice SEL serves as a dissemination mechanism for radical pedagogy, such as critical race theory and gender deconstruction”. Republicans are far more disapproving of SEL than the Democrats.
However, other than its political militarization by the Tories, it’s hard to know what’s really going on because there are so many question marks. How is SEL delivered? Do teachers have adequate training and skills? Is it effective? (The little research on effectiveness seems Split.)
And, in my opinion, here is the most difficult question of all: does SEL distract teachers from their primary academic mission? Does that change roles from the teacher, as one analyst reflected, “from a pedagogue to something more like a therapist, social worker, or clergyman? In a poll81% of teachers said they were spending more time on SEL than ever before.
Teachers had grueling jobs before the pandemic. According to a recent survey, “a typical teacher works an average of 54 hours per week. But only 46% of their time in the school building is spent teaching.
No wonder the mental health of teachers, like that of students, is deteriorating. Another survey found that teachers and principals suffer from work-related stress at a rate about twice that of other working adults.
It is also difficult to predict the future evolution of SEL and related programs. SEL, in particular, comes in many different modes. For example: specialized SEL curricula, teacher-led discussion groups, and integrating SEL into all school courses.
Student mental health issues and programs skyrocket in Maryland. Surveys of several local school districts reveal an impressive assortment of efforts, most notably SEL in the early years where relationships between teachers and children are especially crucial.
One thing is certain: teachers strongly support the goals and values of ASE and other mental health programs. Children need SEL. But it still raises thorny questions about its net effect on classroom instruction and student achievement.
Fortunately, there are simple ways to reduce teacher time and pressure. One is that ESA and related mental health services are provided largely by on the inside school staff who are mental health specialists like social workers, psychologists and counsellors. Even better, the full panoply of mental health services can be better provided outside of the regular school day.
The Blueprint for the Future of Maryland commendably opens the outer track, widening “Coordinated Community Supports” and above all external “complementary services” for families and children. The catch, as I analyzed somewhere elseis that wrap-around programs compete with school-based education and mental health specialists for scarce education funds.
How, then, should the student mental health crisis be solved? Throughout U.S. history, reformers have often attempted to explain the ills of society on the threshold of the school and on the shoulders of the teachers. This has generally not worked out well and today, more than ever, public schools face existential challenges.
This is why policy makers must not be Halloween scary cats and shy away from the challenges of mission drift. At the very least, the next governor of Maryland and the General Assembly should dramatically increase funding for psychologists, social workers, and school counselors, while maintaining support for wraparound external programs. A analysis federal data shows that Maryland ranks near the bottom of all states in the ratio of psychologists and counselors to students.
And the Maryland State Department of Education must follow up on its recent full overview ongoing mental health efforts. There should be comprehensive follow-up planning, data collection, monitoring and evaluation, including if school mental health programs like SEL place undue pressure on teachers at the expense of school teaching.
We will all feel healthier for the future of our schoolchildren if these challenges are met.