Strategies to Support Student and Educator Wellness: Post-COVID & Beyond (with Dr. Kelly Vaillancourt-Strobach)

This article is part of a series highlighting the presentations given at the 2021 eLumaNation Summit, held virtually September 30 – October 1, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought to the forefront the importance of prioritizing students’ social emotional learning and mental and behavioral health. It has also raised the importance of supporting educator wellness. At eLumaNation 2021, we heard from Dr. Kelly Vaillancourt-Strobach about key components of a comprehensive mental and behavioral health service delivery system.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Schools must prioritize students social emotional learning and mental and behavioral health to provide a strong foundation for academic success. 
  • Schools should strive to have a full complement of school employed mental health professionals (e.g. school psychologists) and collaborative relationships with community agencies and providers. 
  • You can’t pour from an empty cup.  In order to best support students, it is imperative that staff wellness and self-care be emphasized and included in any school wellness plan.

Dr. Kelly Vaillancourt-Strobach began her wonderful presentation with an acknowledgment of the current realities, which include:

  • More frequent and more intense levels of stress post-crisis.
  • Adult rates of self reported anxiety and depression have tripled. 
  • Struggles to balance student wellness with recovering lost instructional time.
  • Wellness has become a priority for educators, administrators and policy makers.
  • The majority of states are using federal COVID dollars to improve mental health, social-emotional learning, and overall wellness systems for students and staff.
  • Student wellness, social emotional learning, mental and behavioral health is foundational to better learning and improved life success.
  • There are strategies that work!

She then went on to suggest that students are dealing with unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and trauma. Social Emotional Learning and School Mental & Behavioral Health are important to students because they:

  • Improve students’ self esteem, self-concept, and self-efficacy.
  • Improve academic achievement.
  • Reduce bullying, discipline, and other risky behaviors.
  • Facilitate positive peer and teacher-student relationships.
  • Support a positive school climate.

But with so much focus on the plight of the students, we sometimes overlook adult educator wellness and the similar potential benefits to the individuals as well as the impact this may have on the classroom environment, student performance and overall school stability. At the same time, it can positively affect ongoing issues like staff turnover and shortage.

Dr. Vaillancourt-Stroubach then stated that virtually all students and staff have experienced high levels of stress and some level of trauma. The resultant emotional reactions have ranged from grief, fear, anxiety, depression and anger, which in turn have made it difficult to adapt to the reality of our new normal. Unfortunately, educators are reporting unprecedented levels of stress and burnout. Even before COVID, 61% of educators reported being in a constant state of stress in their work.

So while there is no established cookie-cutter approach to addressing these problems, there are some core elements that will help create more comprehensive wellness systems for students and educators alike.

To achieve greater student wellness, Dr. Vaillancourt-Strobach outlined the steps we must start with:

  1. The creation of an MTSS framework based on evidence-based practices, family/school/community partnering, team-driven/shared leadership, data-based problem solving & decision making and layered continuum support systems. 
  1. With a framework in place, schools and districts can establish a multidisciplinary team who will:
    • Develop a system for screening/referral.
    • Review local, state and federal guidance.
    • Coordinate responses.
    • Communicate plans with stakeholders.
    • Map resources.
    • Determine best practices and which should continue.
    • Coordinate professional development and supporting staff in intervention implementation.
  1. The next step is to build strong relationships between students, staff and families through:
    • Utilization of classroom meetings and restorative circles.
    • Inclusion of students in decision making — as appropriate.
    • Engagement of student interest in curriculum and project planning.
    • Pairing students with mentors.
    • Connecting with each student on a regular basis.
    • Providing intentional opportunities to share.
    • Family engagement and buy-in is also highly critical to the success of any system. 
  1. We then can establish safe and positive environments, which are also essential to this process to help:
    • Balance physical and psychological safety.
    • Develop, implement and consistently enforce anti-bullying/discrimination/harrassment policies.
    • Define and model clear behavioral and academic expectations.
    • Provide opportunities for respectful dialogue around current events.
    • Embrace and explicitly teach cultural differences.
    • Provide opportunities to students to engage with topics of personal interest.
    • Gather and use school climate data to drive classroom and school-wide improvements.
  1. Explicitly embed SEL & Wellness into the classroom by establishing:
    • Daily feeling check-ins.
    • Restorative circles.
    • Opportunities for team work, group problem solving and critical thinking around core academic standards.
    • Connections between academic content and the students’ lived experiences.
    • Mini lesson plans targeted at an explicit skill.
  1. Provide greater access to School Mental Health Professionals. Unfortunately, the ratios of students to SMH providers (including school psychologists, counselors, social workers and nurses) are at all time highs and we must find a way to give the students more access.

Dr. Vaillancourt-Strobach then went on to reaffirm that supporting educator wellness was equally critical by referencing the ever-growing problem of educator burnout and attrition. Without the proper number of educators the students would struggle even more.

To support educator wellness, she recommended that school leaders should:

  • Develop systems for supporting all staff. Do not rely on self-referral.
  • Regular gratitude and appreciation acknowledgement.
  • Recurring debriefing sessions with staff/departments.
  • Tap In/Tap Out.
  • Create and model boundary betting.
  • Communicate about Community Resources and EAP services for staff.
  • Regularly collect and use data on staff wellness/burnout.
  • Provide ongoing professional development.
  • Opportunities for professional learning communities.
  • Dedicated planning time.
  • Ensure availability of specialized instructional support personnel.
  • Utilize restorative circles in staff/department meetings.
  • Foster a culture of trust and caring.
  • Staff mentors.
  • Effective information sharing.

But she didn’t stop with recommendations for the school leaders, but also for the educators themselves — because every individual needs to practice self-care by starting with the following suggestions:

  • Ask for help if you need it
  • Focus on positive relationships
  • Set and adhere to personal boundaries
  • Reconnect with the profession
  • Find humor
  • Take time to relax and recharge
  • Avoid glamorizing “being busy”

About Dr. Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach

Dr. Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and  is currently the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the National  Association of School Psychologists. Dr. Strobach consults with, advises, and collaborates with members of Congress, the Department of Education, and other key  federal partners and national organizations to advance the availability of comprehensive school psychological services, promote safe schools, promote comprehensive school mental and behavioral health services, address the shortages in school psychology, and other education related issues. Dr. Strobach has developed, authored, and co-authored numerous articles and resources, including NASP’s Framework for Safe and Successful Schools and has presented nationally on issues related to school safety, school mental health, effective discipline policies, and the relationship between education policy and school practices.

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George Dayton

George Dayton

George Dayton is the Director of Marketing & Business Development at eLuma Online Therapy. He earned a Bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University as well as a Master's Degree in Business Administration from the Woodbury School of Business. Mr. Dayton has spent the larger part of his career developing, producing and distributing filmed content for kids and families ( including the award-winning remake of the film Where the Red Fern Grows for Buena Vista Home Entertainment). In more recent years, he has worked on ventures more closely related to children's welfare and education. He served as one of the founding members of Kidnected World, the Student Orphan Aid Program, and also helped launched the Autism Initiative for Vivint Gives Back. Mr. Dayton is passionate about eLuma and its cause, and hopes to help find new ways in which the company can partner with schools to maximize student outcomes!