Tim Fulenwider headshot

from the field

by Tim Fulenwider
Improving student well-being post-pandemic

n the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing social-emotional support for students sits atop the minds of many school board members. For many communities, the increased exposure to trauma, social isolation and learning format changes have brought forth frustration, a sense of hopelessness and increasing mental health concerns.

The focus now centers on efforts to help students move away from maladaptive coping strategies due to an unhealthy diet of social media and a sense of being academically behind.

While districts across the state have received additional funding resources to provide counseling and other services, the action of hiring mental health support staff alone will not effectively address student mental health. When analyzing the social-emotional challenges facing us today, an important truth emerges — addressing this crisis requires a more thoughtful approach across all tiers of support.

The following is a breakdown of key questions used by the Bakersfield City School District (BCSD) to frame the development, implementation and refinement of social-emotional systems and supports. While the context below relates to social-emotional support, the questions can apply to almost any context.

What is your logic model for addressing your challenges?
A logic model is a roadmap for change that starts with an analysis of the current reality and available resources to determine actions that will lead to specific impacts and behaviors, thereby bringing about the outcomes you want and preventing outcomes you do not want. The addition of identifying impacts and actions allows for regular monitoring and refinement throughout the year rather than waiting to measure end-of-year outcomes. The logic model employed by BCSD is tied closely to our suicide prevention board policy. The policy recognizes that the district must invest at the Tier 1 (classroom) level in order to make the investment of mental health staff and higher-tier supports effective. Investing in Tier 1 and Tier 2 supports lessens the number of students needing intensive intervention, thereby maximizing the use of mental health staff, improving positive outcomes and mitigating negative ones.
What are your Tier 1 priorities and key practices?
Most districts employ a tiered-support model to address academic and social-emotional needs. By identifying key Tier 1 priorities and practices, districts can identify the teaching and student behaviors they expect. For example, to develop self-awareness in students and staff, BCSD employs mindfulness practices in the classroom. Similarly, regular morning meetings and community-building circle structures support the development of relationship-building skills.
How are you supporting staff engagement and wellness?
As a school district, our greatest resource will always be the personnel we employ. Whether classified or certificated, management or confidential, every staff member plays a critical role in supporting students’ mental health. As such, encouraging wellness and engagement with staff helps mitigate compassion fatigue and burnout. Engaging in staff wellness activities and practices supports student wellness. Rebuilding a sense of community with administration and staff at school is essential to rebuilding community with students and parents.
What are your multiple avenues for people to request support?
Everyone needs support, but only some feel comfortable requesting support. Multiple avenues for students, parents and staff to request support increase access and reduce the stigma often associated with mental health. Districts should consider creating multiple pathways to ask for support. This might include reporting apps, Google Forms or other methods. As one strategy, BCSD employs a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week reporting website and phone app that allows students and parents to seek assistance for bullying, threats or social-emotional support.
What are your Tier 2 and Tier 3 structures?
Having a defined structure to provide social-emotional support increases speed, effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of services. BCSD utilizes Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) teams at each school. The MTSS teams are composed of administrators, academic specialists, psychologists, other site-based staff and itinerant social-emotional support staff who work with parents and teachers to determine the level of intervention needed for identified students.
How are you delivering services for collective accountability?
Every effort to improve outcomes requires monitoring methods. Holding everyone in a system accountable for the delivery of services not only helps to ensure the implementation of expectations but inspires healthy morale and a sense of purpose. Collective accountability does not solely arise from top-down observation and supervision either. Instead, districts should consider developing systems for obtaining feedback from students, parents and staff in addition to traditional evaluation methods.
How are you integrating services within the school community?
A common mistake that districts can make when adding new resources to address challenges often centers around ensuring integration and alignment of both internal and external resources. Without strategies to address integration, services and providers from multiple agencies can overlap causing conflict and, in some cases, wasteful redundancy. Districts should consider developing advisory councils or professional working groups that bring together providers and leaders to collaborate around high-quality service delivery through overview and feedback.
How are you creating sustainability?
Lastly, every plan should focus on ensuring the sustainability of resources. The importance of strategically using current funding streams and initiatives to help create sustainable practices and structures for when grant or COVID-19 funds dry up cannot be overstated. Inevitable economic downturns or shifts in enrollment patterns mean identifying new potential funding sources, whether they come to the district or a supportive community agency. Keeping watch on legislative initiatives through CSBA, which is advocating for changes to Medi-Cal Managed Care requirements, and contacting agencies such as the California School-Based Health Alliance can help in identifying future resources needed to sustain your efforts to provide mental health support to students.

As communities across the state recover from the pandemic, the need to address student mental health challenges continues. A systematic way to frame the development, implementation and refinement of social-emotional systems and supports can help school districts improve student well-being, efficiency and sustainability for years to come.

Tim Fulenwider, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Instructional Support Services Division in the Bakersfield City School District, where he oversees student support programs for over 30,000 preK- 8 students attending the district’s 44 schools in urban Bakersfield.