Moving Schools Towards Wellness: Systemic change to reduce mental health and substance abuse problems. ___ By Robert Tymann, EdD

To support every student in their intellectual and personal growth every day.  This, I believe, is the purpose of public education. Students will struggle to "grow" in either area if mental health issues prevent them from developing the cognitive regulation, emotional regulation, and social/interpersonal skills appropriate for their developmental stage. June 30, 2019, Sunday edition of the New York Times featured an article titled, What You Need to Know About the Opioid Epidemic. This article was in the "Kids" section. The Editors Note on the first page states, "This section should not be read by grown-ups." Our children are faced with challenges that are more complex and more pervasive at younger and younger ages. As adults, some of us have built up strategies to get past the hurdles life presents to us and maintain a focus on what needs to be done. Yet there are times when we all need help maintaining our vision of a positive future. Anyone struggling with family disharmony, low self-esteem, peer rejection, or emotional trauma has difficulty focusing on their work. It is not realistic to expect children struggling with mental health to focus on learning; you can't separate those things. Nationwide Children's Hospital shares the following statistics:

1 in 5 children and teenagers struggle with mental illness

Half of all lifetime mental illnesses start before age 14

The rate of deaths by suicide for kids aged 10 to 14 doubled between 2007 and 2014

42% increase in the rate of children diagnosed with ADHD between 2003 and 2011

8% of teenagers have depression

Our work preparing students with the tools to overcome barriers to wellness begins the first day they enter our schools. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, (NIDA) writing about early childhood prevention, states "These behaviors that manifest during adolescence have their roots in the developmental changes that occur earlier - as far back as the prenatal period. While prevention can be effective at any age, it can have particularly strong effects when applied early in a person's life." Strengthening the protective factors that build resiliency and buffering the risk factors that increase their susceptibility to mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders requires knowing every student deeply, modeling "wellness," and being cognizant that all of our words and actions matter when interacting with students. This can not be an individual effort; it requires a team supported by all the resources available to the district. It requires systemic change. 

There are many factors beyond the control of schools. We are not able to change the circumstances of our students' lives, but focusing on what we can not do is counterproductive. What can we do? Most elementary, middle, and high schools have a program designed to nurture social-emotional competence in our students. These wellness programs provide lesson plans specifically designed to expose students to the problems they will face and the skills they will need. Role-playing is often used to help students develop skills to combat bullying, resist peer pressure, and make the right decisions in general by building their resilience. Support staff meets with students individually and in groups to help them through difficult transitions and develop their resilience. All of these initiatives are well intended and have a positive effect on many of our students. But if you have an honest conversation with any high school principal, mental health problems and related substance abuse are devastating, many of our students' lives. Opioids and e-cigarette use have been labeled "epidemics," adolescent deaths by suicide are increasing dramatically; marijuana and alcohol use are ever present. We are working hard but not having enough of an impact on the problem, and for many of our students, we are their best hope for a positive future.  Although the effects of poor mental health reach the public consciousness in late middle school and high school, the earlier we start prevention, the better. NIDA Prevention Principle 6 states, "Prevention programs can be designed to intervene as early as preschool to address risk factors, such as aggressive behavior, poor social skills, and academic difficulties." Districts can do a much better job of giving our students the confidence and skills they need to make healthy choices if we frame this problem with a systems view, a Pre K through 12th-grade mental health initiative focused on prevention and support. This requires district-level leadership, a willingness to accept responsibility for implementation with an understanding of the time necessary to achieve long-term goals. A team of frontline professionals; teachers, counselors, psychologists, social workers, and community mental health professionals, should design the "nuts and bolts" of the program. The responsibility of keeping the team on task and producing results, often by negotiating a compromise, is the role of district-level administration. 

 East Hampton School District (N.Y.) is in the planning stages for such an initiative. The ideas presented below began with that thought process. This is written from the view of a central office administrator with an understanding that systemic innovation requires a clear direction to focus cultural and structural changes, presenting each change, large or small, as part of an orchestrated movement in a direction that makes the system more responsive to the needs of students. 

Developing a system-wide mental health initiative requires a clear focus that considers the risk factors affecting students and the protective factors that will help students build resilience. A few quick definitions are needed here. "Risk factors are qualities of children and their environments that place children at greater risk of... behavioral problems...protective factors are qualities that promote successful coping and adaptation and thereby reduce those risks." (NIDA, Prevention Principles) "Resilience is that ineffable quality that allows some people to be knocked down by life and come back at least as strong as before. Rather than letting difficulties or failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes." (Psychology Today) 

A District Mental Health Initiative should be clearly tied to the District Vision that places a priority on graduates having the resilience to handle life's difficulties and the self-awareness to know when to seek assistance. In support of what we want for our graduates, the District Vision should describe the characteristics, behaviors, and beliefs we want in our staff and the type of instruction that supports the vision. This level of detail is helpful if the mental health initiative is to stay on track. A vision that puts student mental health as a priority will, of its very nature, support academic achievement and instruction grounded in research on how people learn supports student mental health. These are two sides of the same coin; you can not have one without the other. Being part of the district mission sets the initiative as a priority of the Board of Education and Administration. The goal of the initiative is to minimize "at risk" behaviors in our students by modifying risk factors and developing coping mechanisms as protective factors. A combination of research-based, age-appropriate universal and selective interventions can be implemented system-wide. A sample "District Vision" that meets this goal is included in the "Works Cited."

Risk factors and protective factors are sometimes organized into five general domains, the individual, family, school, life events, and social.  Each category has particular risks and protective factors associated with it, but this is an organic system. All parts are connected and overlap.  Any changes in one element will have an effect on how everything interacts. And this complex system has, at its center, a child struggling to perceive and achieve a positive future. The profile of each child, their balance of risk factors and protective factors, is unique.  If we look at two seventh grade students, who have both experienced the death of a loved one, we need to consider the individual circumstances of each student. One student may be successful academically, have poor social skills, have experienced bullying from peers, and have a stable, supportive family. The other student could be an average student, popular with their peers, often acts out in class and unstable family life, including older siblings with known substance abuse problems. These are two very different cases with different risk factors and protective factors. Both students may benefit from a bereavement group to help them through this emotional transition, but the systemic reaction to each of these individuals should be unique. A district-wide system must be designed to create logical support for universal risk factors, educate all staff members to identify students in need of selective interventions, create a culture that supports protective factors through words and actions, and maintain the flexibility to focus resources where they will best meet student needs.

Three "leverage points" to support mental health that are clearly under the influence of schools are:

  •  community outreach 
  • supporting transitions 
  • a supportive school environment

Although discussed here as three broad initiatives, they are interconnected and inextricably part of one district-wide effort. Each leverage point combines universal interventions (all students) and selective interventions (students with elevated risk factors). Schools work hard to provide community outreach. 

East Hampton High School has dedicated building level leadership that provides exemplary parent outreach to educate the community on mental health issues.  A coordinated effort involving town government, high school administration, and a local television station has produced a series of informative presentations featuring experts in the field, local law enforcement and "straight talk" from the high school principal. Spanish translation through district provided headphones are available at all meetings, and all presentations are recorded and available on the district website. This is a herculean effort that reaches a small portion of our parents. How do we make this a district-wide initiative and not a high school event?  How can we get this information to all parents?  

Support during transition periods has been a focal point for schools for many years.  Over twenty years ago, as a high school assistant principal and then as a middle school principal in Levittown, N.Y., I was concerned with the transitions students struggle through at the beginning and end of middle school. The staff at all three buildings, elementary, middle, and high school, worked hard to improve the orientation process and present a welcoming, smooth transition for students and parents.  At a recent meeting with support staff in East Hampton, we discussed the annual meetings to address at-risk students as they transition from elementary to middle and middle to high school. These are important, necessary initiatives, but they need to be part of a much more comprehensive plan to support our students during these transitions. Cultures must shift on both ends of the transition to present students with a gradual, manageable change. Sharing information about at-risk students should not be an event, but an ongoing practice involving teachers and support staff.   

The changes in the school environment may prove to be the most difficult because they necessitate rethinking some core values of how we "do school." School culture is" wired" for order and efficient coverage of content.  This is what teachers experienced when they were students and what we replicate in schools today. Many teachers find comfort in the predictability and order that dominates school, where they flourished in their youth. "Good students" follow the rules and raise their hands quickly and are given extrinsic rewards for completing assignments or winning.  A school environment that intentionally builds protective factors will balance intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Teachers will believe in a "growth mindset," ( Dweck, 2012) designing experiences for students that result in their knowing that hard work, failure, and perseverance can result in personally rewarding experiences and mastery of content and skills that are connected to their future goals.  All three leverage points, community outreach, supporting transitions, and a supportive school environment can benefit from a coordinated Pre K through 12 plan that consistently provides students with as much age-appropriate support as possible.The ideas below are by no means all-inclusive nor a prescription to fix this problem. It is, I believe, a start at moving a district-wide system in a direction that makes schools more responsive to the cognitive and emotional needs of our students.

Through community outreach, we can educate parents at every opportunity and connect families with multiple risk factors to the appropriate community resources.  The objective is to mitigate some risk factors and strengthen some protective factors. Universal interventions can take the form of mental health/drug prevention forums, "commercials" at all parent meetings, and extensions of wellness programs designed for parents. Selective interventions can be implemented for students and families with high-risk factors. 

Mental health/drug prevention forums are an opportunity to educate the community on prevention and warning signs to be on the watch for.  Building level administration can share with parents what they are experiencing in the schools. Often this results in the "dog and pony show" where administrators tell parents about the great programs they have implemented and what a fantastic school they run.  That may be true, but that is not what is needed. Honest conversations about what we are doing, the behaviors we are seeing, the number of incidents involving mental health issues and substance abuse we deal with, how we deal with them, and how we can work together to support our students are much more productive.  Bringing in expert speakers on addiction, mental health issues, and law enforcement brings credibility to the conversation. This can not be a once a year event. The forums need to be ongoing, well-publicized, and at times that are convenient for parents. Some topics may be for all parents, Pr k - 12th Grade, while others may be specific to certain grade levels.  As mentioned above, a good practice is to tape all of the forums and have them available on the district website to be viewed by parents who were not able to attend. In the best case scenario, these forums will be a presentation that sparks a conversation connecting parents to professionals and the research to inform decision making to support our students. 

There are many parent meetings during the evening at school, and few parents can make them all.  Traditional parent meetings on other topics can begin with a brief (2 - 3 minutes) "infomercial" that shares a valuable insight, parenting strategy, new paraphernalia to be on the lookout for, or a clip from a recent forum.  This will keep the topic, and the priority the school places on it, front and center.   

Selective Interventions include support staff making connections to community mental health supports for families in need.  This can take the form of counseling services, psychiatric services, legal aid, law enforcement, a food pantry, place of worship, etc.  Support staff should be well versed on what is available and payment options that are available for parents. Many areas are beyond the purview of schools, but we can inform parents about the available services.  Selective interventions can also take place within the school in the form of support for students identified as "at risk." Small support groups for students with significant risk factors under the guidance of a trained social worker or counselor can help bolster students' protective factors.  Classroom teachers can be made aware of the situation and given strategies from the support staff that can add to the students' resilience. Often, it is the classroom teacher who will identify a student in need and recommend them to support staff. Identifying students with elevated risk factors and helping to strengthen their protective factors are directly connected to the supportive school environment discussed below.

A second leverage point is to support students during transition periods to mitigate some of the risk factors and strengthen some protective factors.  Universal transitions include changing schools, usually from 5th to 6th Grade and 8th to 9th Grade, and the difficult transition from home to school upon entry to pre K or kindergarten.  Supports for selective transitions are needed for new entrants into the school from other districts or other countries, students experiencing divorce, loss of a loved one, etc.  

 For universal transitions, we need to minimize the cultural change at each transition level, either between grade levels or between home and school. If we look at the academic and social culture students live in at school at the beginning of eighth Grade and compare it to the academic and social culture they will live in at the end of ninth Grade, the differences are stark, and the personal adjustments for each student are significant. This is exacerbated by an imbalance of risk and protective factors for many of our students. In the present system, the transition is abrupt, and the expectations for students adapting are difficult for all students and unrealistic in many cases. Changes are needed on both sides of the transition, eighth Grade becoming more like ninth Grade and ninth Grade becoming more like eighth. The two endpoints may not need to change. If the culture that exists at the beginning of eighth Grade and the end of ninth Grade is appropriate for students, those endpoints in the transition are fine.  What needs to change is the abrupt transition. The end of the Eighth Grade is very similar to the beginning of the eighth Grade in many schools, as is the beginning and end of the Ninth Grade. We can adjust expectations, socially and academically, to ease the transition for our students. This type of adjustment is needed for all universal transitions. 


One step that should be implemented is to agree on a single mental health program appropriate for all three schools.  Presently, in many districts, each school has a different program. The programs all have the same goals and their own process and unique vocabulary.  We have students adjusting to us, making the transition needlessly more complicated. This change will require staff to be flexible with the programs they have invested significant time and energy in, which they feel are benefiting their students. (Additional discussion below)

Selective supports for students in unique circumstances cited above focus on strengthening protective factors and minimizing risk factors. Individual and small group support is crucial for students experiencing life events that represent significant change or make it difficult to see a way out. A caring adult and compassionate peers can help a student visualize a possible positive future and strengthen their resilience. 


A third leverage point to support mental health is developing a supportive school environment.  The universal interventions are not only the social and emotional learning (S.E.L.) program we adopt but how we use research on resilience and motivation to inform our daily interactions with students. No faculty feels it does not provide a supportive school environment.  We intend to support every student in their intellectual and personal growth every day. But sometimes the traditions of a school run counter to the science of learning. A supportive school environment will have the following universal interventions:

  •  a system-wide S.E.L. program
  •  a program that connects every student to an adult and peers in a meaningful relationship (advisory)
  • instruction founded on the science of learning.  

A standard Pre K through 12th-grade S.E.L. program seems like a logical step if we are putting the needs of our students first. As mentioned above under "transitions," a universal program will have a consistent vocabulary and philosophy, leaving fewer adjustment for students. In "Preparing for Effective S.E.L. Implementation," Stephanie Jones offers helpful insights into program selection and implementation.  She states, "positive outcomes associated with S.E.L. programs (e.g., academic achievement, physical and emotional well-being, etc.) are often less powerful than expected. This may be due to inconsistent or ineffective implementation practices." I believe positive outcomes will be bolstered by utilizing a system-wide program. S.E.L. programs vary significantly in their content focus, instructional methods, and additional features and support beyond core lessons. (Jones, 2018) This is important when considering the shifts in student adult interactions throughout the school. Language is powerful, and consistency/familiarity can be comforting to someone dealing with adjusting to an unfamiliar environment.

Establishing an "Advisory Program" as part of the S.E.L. program implementation can provide a powerful forum for delivery of the S.E.L. curriculum. "An advisory program facilitates…relationships and provides the structure that creates 'connectedness' in a middle school.  Connectedness is a characteristic of school cultures in which students have meaningful relationships with adults within the school, are engaged in the school, and feel a sense of belonging to the school." (Schulkind, Foote, 2009, p. 2) Although advisory is often associated with middle school and is listed as one of nine "essential elements" of any middle school, this type of relationship will benefit students at any age. The research tells us, "the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adults." (Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University)  This is the goal of an advisory program.

The presence of at least one caring person in a child's life can provide the support needed for healthy development and learning. (Bernard, 1995) (Truebridge, Bernard, 2013) (NIDA)  The form of advisory may look different at different grade levels. The core outcome, every student having a meaningful relationship with an adult, can be accomplished in many ways. I remember very clearly coming back to school as a seventh grader after the death of my father.  No adult said a word about it. Within a few days of my return, my seat was changed, so I was sitting next to another boy whose father had also passed. I know this was well intended, but I also remember looking at my classmate and seeing in his eyes what I was thinking, "Is this supposed to help?" We never spoke to each other about our fathers. I was lucky to have a wonderful family and great support; I was probably low in risk factors. But this was an incredibly difficult transition, which is still the defining event of my life and the root of many of my strengths and cause of many of my difficulties.  I can't imagine the impact of a life event like this for a child with an unstable home, poverty, a predisposition to mental illness, or simply being shy with no close friends. I believe having a small group of peers, guided by a caring adult, who have built a supportive relationship, can make these difficult transitions an opportunity to build resilience and maintain a focus on a positive future. I also look back to the student I was seated next to and wish we had the conversation intended by the move. That will be discussed below in selective interventions. 

"The curriculum that supports resilience respects the way humans learn." (Bernard, 1995) Yet instruction in most classrooms has not changed significantly since I was a student.  Students are told what they should know and what they should think, and if they can remember what they were told at the time of the assessment, they are good students. Today we know much more about how people learn, and we are beginning to understand that mastery of content means being able to do something with the new knowledge and skills you have gained through hard work, not just regurgitating what you have been told. Many schools are struggling with this cultural shift. At East Hampton Schools, we are taking great strides moving the system in this direction. Best instructional practices, as described broadly above, are aligned with prevention research (NIDA), which should not be surprising, both seek to foster intrinsic motivation and resilience, two qualities that will serve all of our graduates well by building and strengthening protective factors. Empowering students by giving them choices and project-based learning, when it fits the desired instructional outcomes, have been shown to strengthen protective factors. Giving students choices does not mean they can do whatever they choose. We must design units of study around the knowledge and skills implicit in the standards for our content area. How students can achieve and demonstrate mastery of the skills and knowledge is where we can create flexibility allowing for student choice. Depending on the subject and specific unit, the possible options will vary in significance.  In mathematics classes, I often see teachers presenting multiple ways to solve problems and encouraging students to choose the method that they prefer. This is much better than a few years back when a single process was taught, memorized, and rotely applied. In some mathematics classes, teachers find the time for small groups of students to struggle problems and share their thinking. Students make mistakes with the understanding that this is how they learn. In a tenth grade English Language Arts (A.P. Capstone) class, I observed students presenting their ideas for a multi-week project to their peers for feedback. The topics were important to the students; the views were well thought out and researched. If I stopped right here, it was already an excellent class to observe, but the student to student interaction set it apart from most classes I have observed. The feedback from students each group received was thoughtful, intended to make their final presentations better. I noted in my observation that the time dedicated to listening to the teachers was less than five minutes of the 41 minutes. The students were in control, and it was powerful to see what they could do when they connected the work to their lives. Here is the point where many readers will say, "I would love to teach that way, but I have a state assessment I have to prepare my students for." At the end of the year, these 10th-grade students took the N.Y.S. English Language Arts Regents, usually given in the 11th Grade.

The teachers took two days at the end of the year to go over the format of the assessment.  Throughout the year, the student worked on projects designed to improve the skills and knowledge represented by the standards. Students were in charge of their learning.  About fifty percent of the Grade was enrolled in the A.P. Capstone classes. Every student passed the regent, and 75% demonstrated mastery by achieving 85% or higher. This type of instruction may not be possible every day in every subject, but every opportunity to design learning experiences that foster intrinsic motivation and build resiliency, as these classes do, should be the goal of the systemic shift, a cultural change in instructional practice pre-K - 12th Grade.  This will strengthen protective factors and improve student learning. 

NIDA lists "good grades" as a protective factor. This does not mean everyone gets a trophy.  We need to embrace a growth mindset in ourselves and our students. Students need to experience hard work and the resulting accomplishment that will foster intrinsic motivation and the stick-to-itiveness that is the foundation of resilience. Grades should reflect accomplishment, progress towards mastery of content and skills deemed essential for future success. If a student does not do homework yet achieves high grades on all assessments, should their grades reflect what they have learned or their lack of compliance? Does the "extra credit report" demonstrate progress towards mastery? It can, but often is not indicative of learning. Grades should feel fair and earned. This is related to the words and actions we use to motivate our students, starting the first day they walk in our schools.  I have sat in many elementary classrooms and listened to teachers complimenting students in a way that places the reward for good work, or good behavior, as making someone else happy. In many elementary classrooms, you will hear teachers complimenting students by relating their actions to how they make the teacher feel. "I am so proud of Steven for…" "I love the way Anna is…" These phrases are well intended but do not connect good behavior and hard work to the student's happiness. Recently, at East Hampton Elementary School, I hear more teachers consciously changing their language to foster a growth mindset. In a 1st Grade physical education class, I heard, "Listen to be successful!" During fourth-grade music lessons, the teacher provided honest feedback to a student saying, "You got the D perfectly; you missed the f." Later he encouraged another student saying, "It's hard, but it's really not beyond you." In a school that wants to develop resilient students, we will hear more of this type of encouragement to build intrinsic motivation. Being motivated to learn, to succeed, because it is inherently satisfying will help our students when the "carrot or stick" is not present.   Research by Lepper and Green, going back to the 70s and often repeated, highlights that extrinsic motivation, in the form of rewards promised for completion of a task, can reduce student motivation in the absence of rewards. I understand that this is a significant cultural shift for schools that are dominated by extrinsic motivation and compliance. Our tried and true methods of motivating children to be "good students" achieve short term goals at best and may harm some students at worst. This is not to say that there is no place for extrinsic motivation in school. What is needed is a logical balance. Mike Anderson's book, What We Say and How We Say It Matter, is a quick read with excellent ideas on how changes in our choice of words can have a positive impact on student motivation. 

This shift in instructional practices will take significant professional learning and, that most critical resource, time.   Deborah Stipek, Dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, said "this comes down to teacher preparation and school design. Teachers aren't trained to design academically, rigorous lessons that motivate students in the right way. And schools aren't set up to give teachers the time to do so. It is possible, though." (Garcis Mathewson, 2019)  East Hampton Schools has carved out four days from teachers schedules to plan for this type of instruction in grade level or content area teams. This is not adequate for the task but will have to suffice until the political will is mustered to change the master schedule. When discussing these types of instructional shifts, secondary teachers often say that by the time students reach them, they have been trained to learn in a traditional classroom. Yet, I have observed how student steeped in traditional instruction can adjust and flourish in A.P. Capstone courses which exemplify teaching that builds intrinsic motivation and resilience.  But the adjustment should not be necessary. A.P. Capstone uses what we know about how humans learn to the benefit of our students. Students who experience this type of learning culture beginning their first year in school will be more likely to see the connections between Algebra or Global Studies and their future because school has always been about them getting better at things that matter. The system must shift, Pre K through 12th Grade, to this type of instruction. 

Selective Interventions start with assessing students in crisis to determine what supports are needed in the classroom, within the school, and within the community.  Here again, I go back to my own experience as a seventh grader struggling with the loss of a loved one. Looking back, I believe I had a positive balance of protective vs. risk factors, but I also realize that emotional trauma leaves scars. I don't know how children with additional risk factors and fewer protective factors continue to focus on school. I struggled with authority through high school and became a "student" in college, where I had some control over my own path. Having an advisory program may have helped me. I will always wonder what conversations may have happened between myself and my classmate, who also lost his father. I wonder how many other children in my school were experiencing the same or similar transitions. How many others were going home to families with adult substance abuse problems? How many had abusive parents or were not sure where the next meal was coming from? Adults didn't talk about these "family" issues then. We are doing a much better job of shedding light on these problems and supporting students and families now. At East Hampton Schools, we have a robust support system in the form of well-staffed mental health professionals. Social workers meet with individual and groups of students; psychologists work with students on specific skills they determine will help students cope and build resiliency. Teachers bring concerns to the support staff as do parents. Everyone is working hard, but is our system designed for this effort to have the maximum positive effect on students? At a recent meeting with all support staff, we discussed communication within the system. The middle school and high school staffs were quick to address their last meeting (it was June) to discuss eighth graders who would be moving to the high school the following September who were "on their radar." This was an important meeting, and I am hopeful that it happens in most districts for transition years, but it was an event. We need a system that supports communication throughout the year; between schools, between teachers, between support staff and teachers and between all of the above and parents. Teachers need to know what behaviors in students should be of concern, beyond overt class disruption. This happens in some classrooms now; it needs to happen in all classrooms.  When students are identified as in need of support, and all systems fall in place, students receive the supports professionals are trained to provide; families are connected to professionals who will help them through transitions and out of an unhealthy lifestyle, students have a chance at seeing that possible positive future. But is all that effort and progress that happens in say fourth Grade communicated up the stream, so that appropriate middle school and high school staff are aware of what was done and why? I wonder if my high school teachers knew my past would they have chosen different words to motivate me, or different strategies to help me connect what they wanted me to do and my future. During my Junior year in high school, my social studies teacher stopped by the lunch table where I was eating with friends. He told us he was taking a course in Freudian Psychology. One friend asked him to analyze one of us. He chose me. The gist of what he said was that my mother had probably died when I was young and I resented any authority as trying to take her place. He was off on the gender, but as I processed what he said, it was helpful when I wanted to explain me to me. This should not happen as a serendipitous event. Talking to a professional can make a difference in a student's life trajectory. In 1996, J.P. McDonald wrote about "rewiring a school" imagining "the kind of school that not only knows its students well but also manages to keep that knowledge alive across the years that they spend in school." (p 121) Today, almost every district has a student management system capable of storing and sharing information that may be valuable in making decisions on how to best support a specific student. Permissions can be set to allow particular staff access, and this information can be shared in the present and follow the student upstream. There will be a record of risk factors, transitions, what helped, and what didn't. This will require clerical help for support staff, but the transfer of this information should not be left to chance.

According to the New York State Education Department Data Site the N.Y.S. the N.Y.S. average ratio is one counselor for every 377 high school students and one social worker for every 837 students, K through 12th Grade.  A research report sponsored by the New York State School Board Association in December of 2018 states the state average of psychologists to students in 555 students to one psychologist. At East Hampton Schools, we have one counselor for every 225 students, one social worker for every 346 students, and one psychologist for every 562 students. Most of our social workers are bi-lingual, which has been a conscious push district-wide to serve our Spanish speaking community. We are lucky to work in a well-funded district, and still, the discussion among support staff often leads to "I don't have the time." How are districts that are underfunded and understaffed going to provide the support needed?   

As with any innovation within an organic system, there are many right ways to proceed.  I have shared my ideas for what I feel is a comprehensive plan, well aware that the plan is not the destination but a tool to get the system moving in the right direction. This is not a problem we will "fix," but we can do much better than we are now. Looking at the risk factors and protective factors above, we have many leverage points at which we can alter the life trajectory of our students. Many factors we can have a significant influence on, and others we can influence to some degree within our scope of control and to a higher degree by facilitating community connections. We can not change the circumstances of our students' lives, but we can have a significant influence on their futures.

Our work strengthening student's resilience, building the protective factors, and buffering the risk factors, starts the first day they enter our schools, and every day after that. What they hear us say and what they see us do, make an impression that can strengthen their resilience to overcome the adversity that is simply a fact of life. This is an incredible responsibility that we all must accept if we are to achieve our mission: To support every student in their intellectual and personal growth every day.

Works Cited

Anderson, Mike. What We Say and How We Say It Matter: Teacher Talk That Improves Student Learning and Behavior. Alexandria, ASCD, 2019.

Bernard, Bonnie. "Fostering Resilience in Children." ERIC Digest, ERIC Resource Center, Aug. 1995, Accessed 5 June 2019.

Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Kennett Square, Soundview Executive Book Summaries, 2012.

Garcis Mathewson, Tara. "Intrinsic Motivation is the Key to Student Achievement." MindShift, 27 Mar. 2019,  Accessed 31 Mar. 2019.

Greene, D., Lepper, M.R., (1974). Intrinsic Motivation: How to Turn Play Into Work. Psychology Today, 49-54.

Greene, D., and M. R. Lepper. "Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on children's subsequent intrinsic interest." Child Development, 1974, pp. 1141-45.

Heiser, Paul, et al. Of Sound Mind: Do Schools Have Enough Mental Health Support Staff to Meet Student Need? NYSSBA Dec. 2018. New York State School Board Association, Accessed 1 July 2019.

Hlavinka, Elizabeth. "Poor Mental Health Ups Risk for Teen E-Cigarette Use 'Two-way highway' for mental health problems, use of e-cigarettes in this population." MEDPAGE Today, 3 June 2019, Accessed 4 June 2019.

Jones, Stephanie, et al. "Preparing for Effective SEL Implementation." Wallace, 26 Mar. 2018, Accessed 6 Apr. 2019.

Levine, Dan. "One Kid's Experience With The Opioid Crisis." New York Times, 30 June 2019, Kids sec., p. 3.

McDonald, Joseph P. Redesigning School: Lessons for the 21st Century. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1997.

National Institute on Drug Abuse: Advancing addiction science. National Institute on Drug Abuse, Accessed 5 June 2019.


Sarah Brody Shulkind & Jack Foote (2009) Creating a Culture of Connectedness through Middle School Advisory Programs, Middle School Journal, 41:1, 20-27, DOI: 10.1080/00940771.2009.11461700

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