Preparing for the 2020-21 School Year: Advice from Students on Caring for their Well-Being in the Distance Learning Setting
July 23, 2020
In preparation for the start of another potentially virtual school year, The Adolescent and Young Adult Behavioral Health CoIIN state teams convened online earlier this month to hear from experts on strategies for supporting student well-being, including mental health,  in the distance learning setting. Included in the group of experts were two student leaders representing the Moving INew DirectionS (M.I.N.D.S.) group of Rice County Minnesota, a school-based student group working to support the mental health of their peers. Recently, the M.I.N.D.S. team administered a survey to fellow students in four high schools and two middle schools to understand the state of mental health among their peers, how COVID-19 had affected their mental health, and how they were coping given the switch to a fully virtual school setting. A major takeaway from this survey was that students were missing their connections to their classmates, teachers, and school counselors. Because of this, the CoIIN state teams posed several questions to the M.I.N.D.S. leaders on how to best reestablish these connections in an online setting. The students suggested the following strategies:
  1. Prioritize building trust between new teachers and/or counselors and their students, especially at the start of a new school year. Suggestions for how to facilitate trust-building online included:
    • One-on-one meetings between teacher and/or counselor and each student to get to know each other with sufficient time to dive into deeper issues
    • Encourage teachers to organize study groups for their students where they make themselves available to pop in and assist with assignments
    • Create a “Wellness Wednesday” class that is mandatory where health teachers speak on the topic of wellness or facilitate a conversation with the students regarding their emotional well-being
    • Create space at the beginning of regular class and/or study group interactions to ask students how they’re doing or feeling 
  2. Utilize innovations, such as the free CloseGap software, to regularly check-in on student well-being. It’s important that these check ins come from a trusted teacher or school counselor rather than from administration, which may not have achieved the same level of rapport as a teacher. 
  3. Consider that not all students are comfortable turning on their webcams because they may not want teachers/peers to see the space where they live and be open to audio-only check ins. Training on how to pick up on cues without being able to read body language or gauge appearance is important for teachers and/or counselors that are operating in a virtual environment where their students may not feel comfortable using their webcams.
  4. Connect students directly to relevant mental health/wellness resources and don’t assume that students—or even the staff at the schools they attend—are aware of the available virtual resources for supporting their mental health and wellbeing. 
In summary, intentionality around scheduling time for teachers and school counselors to engage with their students is crucial in building the trust required for students to ask for help when they need it. As MCH professionals, one step we can take to assist these efforts is to ensure that our partners in the local school systems are aware of relevant mental health resources and services so that our partners in education can share them with students during their trust-building events. As the technical assistance and training center with a focus on advancing research, training, policy, and practice in school mental health, The National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH) has a treasure trove of resources, including: