Integrated Student Support: Now more than ever, students need support schools can't provide alone

As students head back to the classroom in the coming weeks, many will be carrying with them social, emotional, physical, and economic scars from the past year. So much has changed since all students were last in school full-time. Eight million people have slipped into poverty, and 14 percent of households with children are struggling with food insecurity. Meanwhile, mental health-related emergency department visits are up 24 percent for children and 31 percent for adolescents. We will be learning about the impact of COVID-19 on children for years to come. But what we know right now is that they need extra support.

Children who are hungry, worried about their families, or struggling with mental health concerns can’t focus on learning. If we don’t help children address these challenges, we risk further widening the disparities already exacerbated by COVID-19. 

Now more than ever, students need support that schools can’t provide alone. Some need connections to vital services that provide food and a safe place to sleep. Others need help accessing mental and physical health care. Many need opportunities for enrichment—even if virtual—to nurture their strengths and give them social connections in this isolating time. To fully support students, schools need an integrated system of support that can evaluate every student’s unique strengths and needs and connect them to the right resources.

So how can schools—who are stretched so thin already—build a system like this? Our Systemic Student Support (S3) Academy is here to help. S3 Academy is an initiative of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education which we manage in partnership with Boston College Lynch School of Education and Development’s Center for Optimized Student Support. Through S3, we are currently working with 25 schools across nine districts to implement a system that understands each student holistically and fosters their development through connections to a broader set of services, like mentorships, physical and mental health care, food banks, or enrichment opportunities.

S3 Academy has a three-year model that helps schools implement a proactive approach to evaluating and establishing a plan for every single student. So often, schools only connect students to extra support in a reactive way—if a student is struggling academically, missing schools, or exhibiting concerning behavior. By focusing on every child, schools can ensure no student falls through the cracks and identify trends in a classroom, school, or district for a more equitable system overall.

We know this sounds daunting. So S3 is working with schools on a student review process that brings a classroom teacher and a school social worker or guidance counselor together to review each student in under 8 minutes. From there, this team puts together a support plan for the student that could include anything from reaching out to their family, to connecting them with a mentor, to helping them access services like mental health care. Our S3 team provides specific guidance on this process, based on research by the Center for Optimized Student Support, and offers training through large (currently virtual) group convenings, asynchronous learning materials, and individualized support to help each school tailor best practices to their needs. This year, participants piloted this approach in at least one classroom. Next year, those schools will aim to provide reviews and plans for 20 percent of their students, and 50 percent the following year.

Supporting students’ needs and nurturing their strengths has undeniable benefits. We know effective systems of integrated student support lead to an increase in academic achievement, attendance, classroom effort, teacher-student relationship, and school climate.

Do students in your school need extra support right now? Would your school benefit from an integrated system of student support? If so, apply now to join next year’s Systemic Student Support Academy! We are currently accepting applications from school-based teams of at least three members, including a school administrator with decision-making authority, a student support-related staff member, and a teacher. Learn more now or contact us with questions.