Using Technology to Support Student Mental Health Needs
The mental health of students is now more of a focus than ever before, leaving short-staffed school districts struggling to meet the shifting needs of their students. While schools continue to experience a sharp uptick in requests for mental health services, identifying issues early and efficiently using available resources can help administrators stay afloat. Despite the fresh challenges, however, educators do have some options in advanced, user-friendly EdTech to handle the environment and provide the critical assistance that students need.
Part of addressing the problem is creating a flexible and supportive atmosphere at the administrative level. When dealing with the social and emotional learning of students, there are few easy answers and educators – who are not expected to be child psychologists – need to be able to learn as they go.
Considering that even the leading experts are still grappling with shifts in student mental health, helping the student populous begins by providing a support system for educators that can be successful.
It also helps if that system can assist with identifying problems, especially with children who exhibit more subtle signs of distress. Learning management systems and automation-assisted technology can help cover the blind spots of busy teachers, creating paths forward for both students and educators. Although new eras bring unique challenges, technology is already creating exciting new opportunities to reach students who need help.
About Three-Quarters of Schools Acknowledged Increased Mental Health Concerns
With very little impact from socioeconomic factors, the survey painted a very clear picture of educators identifying new signs of distress from students. Depression and increased anxiety levels were the main factors at play, with school officials regularly seeing increases in both since the start of the pandemic.
Correspondingly, there has been a significant uptick in students asking to utilize mental health services. According to the survey, 70% of schools indicated that they have seen an increase in students seeking mental health services since the pandemic, which has stretched schools to their limits.
Only 12 Percent of Schools Strongly Agreed They Had the Right Mental Health Resources
Looking to identify the confidence in schools' mental health services, the survey asked schools if they agreed that "My school is able to effectively provide mental health services to all students in need." To this statement, only 12 percent of schools acknowledged that they strongly agreed.
On the flip side, another 44% of schools felt they moderately agreed with the statement – an outcome the NCES was happy to promote in their summary of the survey. But while this number reflects at least some confidence in the systems and resources in place, it also provides significant room for improvement. A less rosy view of this data would point out that nearly half of schools lack confidence in their mental health services and 88 percent show room for growth.
Two in Three Schools Increased Their Mental Health Services
As mental health issues rose (or at least were better identified than previously), schools began making additions to their services. 67% of schools overall said they increased their mental health services to address the new concerns. Although there wasn't a dramatic variance between regions, suburban areas added the most services and rural areas added the least.
An enormous part of this expansion was focused on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) strategies. Almost half of the schools in the survey said they either created a new SEL-focused program or enhanced the one already in place.
As an encouraging sign, more than half of schools surveyed said they provided SEL training for teachers and staff members. This shows that most schools A) recognize the importance of SEL and B) are taking decisive action to incorporate it into their overarching mental health programs.
Elementary Schools Struggle the Most
Although high schools and middle schools showcased the most confidence in their mental health services, elementary schools struggled in comparison. The reason is likely at least partially associated with being understaffed for mental health, but it's also possible that mental health issues among young students are more difficult to identify. While more data is needed to understand this aspect of the problem, elementary school officials might need to be more wary of the disconnect between mental health and available services.
87 Percent of Schools Reported a Negative Impact on SEL
In another NCES study released shortly after the School Pulse Panel, we again see the same pattern. Building on the established mental health concerns, the study showed that 87% of schools acknowledged a decline in social-emotional development. An assortment of behavioral issues was attributed to the pandemic in the survey, including general student misconduct and additional problems with electronic devices.
The Covid-19 Pandemic Likely Sped Up Longer Trends
Although the survey findings are certainly alarming, a question does come to the surface. How many of these issues predated the pandemic but were simply not identified? Similar to the rapid adoption of video conferencing and food delivery, which built upon established trends, the pandemic likely brought forward student mental health issues that had been simmering for many years.
Data released by the CDC just prior to the pandemic showcase the longer student mental health trends already in place before Covid-19. Although focused on high school students, the data are nonetheless illuminating. From 2009 to 2019, there was a 40% increase in the number of students who felt persistent sadness or hopelessness. The 10-year trendline also showed a steady increase over the decade in question, highlighted by a sharp rise from 2017 to 2019.
Now, with educators being retrained to look more closely for mental health concerns, it's very likely the pandemic merely brought a spotlight to a rising problem. Also from this perspective, it's not that surprising that two out of three schools actually increased their mental health services; while many issues might have predated Covid-19, schools around the country had a sudden influx in available funding due to the pandemic.
With educators now better equipped to spot mental health issues and backed by more overall funding, it may be the case that we are finally addressing problems that would have surfaced anyway. The question now becomes how we can best use resources to handle a sustained level of mental health concerns that are unlikely to recede as fears from the pandemic fade.
4 Ways EdTech Can Be an Important Ally for Educators
Educators have long faced the same unfortunate reality: there are rarely enough staffed professionals to fully handle the needs of a student populous. That shortage can be felt in many areas of a school district, although it has been felt very acutely when it comes to student health.
With chronically understaffed school districts, technological ability becomes a crucial opportunity to do more with less. Leaning on today's automation-enhanced platforms, teachers have a wealth of ways to better understand their students – especially students who might not have obvious, observable warning signs. EdTech Tools that educators now have at their fingertips include:
1. Ways to Monitor Student Content for Warning Signs
In most cases, teachers simply don't have the ability to monitor a student's electronic devices, although that is exactly what new software solutions can do. Without being intrusive, machine-learning platforms can sift through a student's content and search for troubling warning signs (e.g., intent to self-harm). Instead of making assumptions based on little to no information, educators are given a real chance to locate at-risk behavior that normally flies under the radar.
2. Artificial Intelligence That Can Understand Student Risk Levels
Such warning signs, often developing in complete silence, can be broken down into risk levels and sent on to the appropriate faculty member for evaluation. While a teacher may not notice any physical signs, AI tools can make sense of a student's digital footprint and provide a critical opportunity to anticipate escalation. Even teachers with the best of instincts can still use a science-based AI approach that can break down troublesome behavior in ways humans simply cannot.
3. Helping Educators Put the Right Response System in Place
If a faculty member receives a warning from a learning management system about a student who might be at risk, there needs to be a clear path of response – one that can very quickly address the issue. While tapping the benefits of artificial intelligence is a great way to gain insight into individual students, an appropriate system then needs to be created around the generated data. The right human network developed around next-generation EdTech can then take the insights of machine learning and turn it into critical action.
4. Simplifying Support Through Organization and Better Digital Infrastructure
Data shows that about one out of three students are hesitant to even ask for mental health assistance, regularly leaving educators in the dark. Adding to the challenge, students often are intimidated by approaching an educator for help or are simply unsure who to turn to. To improve the situation, having a single onramp, or a "one front door" process, can allow students to quickly and discretely reach out to the appropriate channels.
With appropriate digital recordkeeping, a secure record of a student's mental health outreach can then be developed. Instead of having to rehash troubling details, students should only have to make a request once. Authorized faculty members will then be able to access the record as needed without students having to repeat themselves. Considering the weight of student hesitancy, a one-front-door approach backed by effective digital recordkeeping can have a tremendous impact.
How SEL is Already Helping Improve Student Mental Health
In order to confront mental health challenges, many schools around the country are leaning on SEL, which is designed to create a skillset that can allow students to process emotional experiences. According to experts from the Education Development Center, promoting SEL-based skills is particularly helpful due to the increased levels of trauma that students are currently experiencing.
But the EDC also points out that SEL doesn't only benefit those who have experienced trauma; even those who are not demonstrating elevated levels of trauma-based anxiety benefit from honing their self-awareness and relationship skills. As with addressing mental health overall, SEL is a work in progress and the best school districts continue to reassess and locate new pathways that reach students.
Of course, reaching students is more challenging than ever before. A 2021 study showed that students feel like they have less social belonging than they did previously, and they often have a hard time engaging in school. With less motivation and more social anxiety, students desperately need the boost that a well-managed SEL program can provide. While some of this could be due to prolonged remote learning, the complexity of today's highly digital world also creates challenges that have nothing to do with the pandemic.
Related: Choosing a New Learning Management System? Find an LMS that Fits Your District's Full EdTech Stack
SEL Should Work Well with Tiered Ranking Systems
Trying to understand how SEL intersects with mental health, some education experts advise that schools keep the strategy as a focus when looking at students through a three-tiered system. Per CASEL (A Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), schools typically use a three-tiered system to evaluate student behavior and look for warning signs. While Tier 1 is designed for early intervention with lower-risk students, Tier 3 students might require a more intensive approach.
Within this system, SEL should be a tool that can be used to assist students in each category. From this approach, Tier 1 support should use SEL-focused programming to support resiliency and healthy development for all students (and young people in general).
For Tiers 1 and 2, the focus should still be on promoting social-emotional skills that can help students overcome internal issues and flourish. Building relationships, understanding emotional impacts, and generating self-awareness can ultimately help counter feelings of social nonbelonging.
How EdTech Helps from a Student's POV
As more and more schools come around to the necessity of SEL, technology can offer a tremendous boost where students need it the most. While EdTech can give educators a big advantage in discovering at-risk behavior, it can also support SEL programs and encourage appropriate socialization among students of any age. Here are just some of the ways schools are using technology to enhance SEL:
- Flexible collaboration. More than just video conferencing, the right digital infrastructure can allow for effortless collaboration on group projects and activities. Even if a student has to miss extended time, they can still track progress for a project and stay connected with a group through different collaborative tools. With options that provide flexible collaboration, students should no longer feel completely disconnected from their peers just because they can't physically be in school.
- Making it easier to engage in class with tools like screen mirroring. Students are used to being on their devices and being connected to a wide network of information. Teachers who cannot offer a similar atmosphere in a classroom setting can face an uphill challenge when trying to generate student engagement. Options like screen mirroring not only give the teacher many different ways to construct a memorable lesson, but students can very easily contribute and interact using their own devices and apps. By placing students in their comfort zone, educators can help reinforce SEL guidelines by increasing student engagement.
- Giving a voice to introverted or quieter students. While some students might hesitate to speak much – or even at all – during a lecture or lesson, they also might be very comfortable with using technology to give them a voice. Being able to easily share content from their computer or other devices can help introverted students make connections that previously were difficult to impossible.
When digital technology is easy to use, it encourages positive behavior from students that can improve social and emotional learning. Today's teachers can enjoy a dynamic and collaborative environment that is flexible enough to reach a wide range of personalities and skill sets.
Pairing the Best Technology with the Right System
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services highlights SEL as a critical foundation for any mental health program in a school. Schools are now retraining faculty members to identify risk factors while also promoting social and emotional development across the board. With limited resources and staff, however, how do schools handle such an enormous task?
While technology can give educators a tremendous boost of efficiency and foresight, school officials still need to know how to maximize its potential and meet the challenge. Just as critical as the technology itself is having a support system that puts educators in a position to succeed. Instead of looking to technology to solve mental health issues, educators should view today's best EdTech as a way to enhance current systems and increase overall mental health awareness.
When looking to assimilate a learning management system, screen mirroring solution, or another component of EdTech for purposes of reaching students positively or monitoring student mental health, consider the following questions:
- Is the technology easy to use?
- Do faculty members know what the AI-generated mental health data means?
- Is there a clear pathway forward if warning signs are shown?
- Are you using technology to improve student collaboration?
- Does the technology complement your SEL program?
Ultimately, technology should provide insight while working alongside a school's goals for student mental health. Although the adopted technology should be intuitive and easy to learn, an appropriate training program will be needed to ensure that your district is using the tech in the best possible way.
The Importance of Positive Adult Relationships on Student Mental Health
One of the most important traits that an educator can foster is a sense of resiliency in the face of adversity. Learning to cope with emotional events is a critical component of SEL and a focus of schools with robust mental health programs. This dynamic is at play when schools look to create positive adult-student relationships, which mental health experts believe are essential to improving student resiliency.
But the same mental health professionals highlight another important factor to consider: the mental health of teachers and faculty members. While generating positive relationships is very important, this can be extremely difficult in situations where the adults don't feel they are supported and valued. In order to consistently build positive relationships that can improve social-emotional learning, administrators need to be mindful of the morale of faculty members.
One avenue that can often undercut progress in this area is turnover, a dilemma that can be inflated in schools that have outdated technology. Two out of three schools in a recent study acknowledged losing teachers due to limits in their own tech infrastructure. As schools look to facilitate positive adult-student relationships as a conduit to improving mental health, this challenge becomes even more pronounced when outdated technology creates staff inconsistency.
In addition to new opportunities to upgrade a school's tech capabilities, there are all sorts of resources that schools can use to help improve the mental health of students and teachers. Some available tools include:
Finding Answers in a Difficult Environment
Although mental health concerns have long been a component of education, gaining the upper hand is especially difficult in the current era. Whether it is pandemic-related issues or concerns that have been developing for much longer, educators have their hands full trying to identify and react to mental health risks.
But schools also have new tools that haven't always been available, offering pathways that can help teachers better understand their students. Technology that can help analyze student behavior, increase engagement, and improve comfort levels in classroom settings can be enormously beneficial. The schools that are proactive on the tech front also have an easier time limiting turnover and building successful relationships.
To find new ways that your school can use technology to improve student mental health, contact us today for a demo with Vivi and see how we can help transform your SEL efforts.