This summer, Gaggle joined forces with Dr. Lisa Strohman for our Student Mental Health Summer Series. Education leaders from across the country connected with us for these virtual roundtable discussions, sharing their student mental health concerns and diving into the trauma students have been experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One common concern we heard from educators was identifying students who may be suffering from abuse and how to look for those warning signs when teachers aren’t physically seeing students on a daily basis. It’s a topic we’re all too familiar with—we saw a 79% increase in incidents of abuse in the home during the pandemic time frame last school year. In fact, four out of five of the highest weeks of domestic abuse we recorded during the 2019–20 school year occurred from mid-March to mid-May.
“We’re trying to pull in as many resources as possible so that we don’t overburden teachers who already have a lot on their plate,” said Lakinsha Swinton, director of student services at Beaufort County School District in South Carolina. “One of our partners does Erin’s Law lessons for us, teaching abuse prevention to students in the second and third grades. But what happens if a student is in the room with the person who has been abusing them? What if they abruptly get off a Zoom meeting? Those are the kinds of conversations we're having as we look forward to how we support our students who may be in those types of situations.”
In a classroom setting, teachers can generally get a sense of students’ behavior patterns. But what’s considered “normal behavior” on a virtual call? When the pandemic hit at the end of the school year, those relationships with students had already been established and it was easier to get a sense of which students may have been struggling. Going into the new school year, educators will be trying to make those connections with new students. So how will teachers be able to create those bonds and learn their new students’ behaviors remotely?
“One thing we’ve put in place this year for the mental well-being of our staff, as well as our students, is trauma-informed care,” said Dr. LaShanda Lewis, counseling services coordinator at Round Rock Independent School District in Texas. “We’re asking that every teacher learn trauma-informed care before the school year starts and they have students in the virtual classroom setting. Having teachers understand what they need to look for in students—especially our students who may be self-harming or having thoughts of suicide.”
“We’ve written a protocol for teachers this year about the steps they need to go through if they’re working with a student virtually and that student appears to be in some type of crisis,” continued Dr. Lewis. “One thing we have to think about is how to get people to read everything that’s happening in the room to make the right decision. We don’t want to call the police if a student’s internet went out, but we do want to call if the child is in danger.”
Donna Fowler, assistant director of special education at Schenectady City School District in New York, shared some of the positive changes she saw in her district when school buildings closed. “Our social workers, counselors, and psychologists immediately united when we went out, starting teletherapy right from the beginning and connecting even more with some of the students,” said Fowler. “Some of our individual and group therapy sessions with students became family sessions, so we were able to build those relationships with families that we didn’t have before.”
“Our counselors and social workers are online in the classrooms with teachers,” added Fowler. “They’ve created their own classrooms to do some stress reduction, some mindful moments for the students, and make connections through Google Meet. Those are the types of things we hope to carry through this year, even if students are back in person.”
Starting off the school year with new students, it’s vital that educators build in the time to connect with all students to get a better sense of normal behavior so they can spot any warning signs when something isn’t right. While the swift transition to distance learning was tricky for many educators, our summer series showed us just how much these educators stepped up to the challenge—and how they plan to continue to do so if they return to the virtual environment this fall. We applaud the steps educators across the country have taken, and are continuing to take, in order to identify struggling students remotely.