Shrinking the Change: Advancing Comprehensive Mental Health Systems in Schools

By Amanda Chung, Rennie Center Associate

There has been an unprecedented need for schools to support students’ social emotional learning (SEL) and mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Educators, administrators, and counselors in Massachusetts face the challenge of mediating day-to-day crises while simultaneously building comprehensive mental health support systems to proactively address students’ needs. Many dedicated mental health practitioners have boldly undertaken this difficult balancing act in order to create safe, stable learning environments for students. 

This work is challenging. It requires vigilant attention to the demands of the present and careful consideration to create impactful change for the future. Moreover, students need mental health support now more than ever. Nationwide, 42% of high school students report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. That number is even higher for female students (57%) and LGBTQ+ students (69%). Schools continue to be a valuable source of mental health support; of the adolescents who receive mental and behavioral services, two-thirds do so only in school. Dedicated practitioners are instrumental in fostering their students’ mental health and overall wellbeing, with 64.2% of Massachusetts students reporting there is at least one teacher or other adult in their school that they can talk to if they have a problem. 

Efforts to bolster mental health services in school environments are paying off, but there remains a great deal of work to be done. Through our work on Thriving Minds—an initiative aimed at helping schools build comprehensive mental health systems—we partner with practitioners to promote approaches for creating systemic change. Below are four of the many ways they have successfully advanced systemic support for students this year. 

1. Shrink the change

Building momentum for systems change starts with early success. It can be tempting to shoot for the moon when seeking to address mental health challenges, but beginning with easily attainable steps lays a foundation of confidence for work going forward. Thinking big but acting small provides a key starting point for broader change. For instance, adopting universal screening procedures to identify mental health needs among a whole school may not happen tomorrow. However, beginning by screening one student, with one measure, on one day is a progress step that can be achieved in the short term. Lowering the stakes does not diminish the value of work. Rather, the implementation of measures on a smaller scale can illuminate important lessons learned and help practitioners steer clear of the major consequences that would accompany a failed test. It is better to take small steps to move forward rather than large leaps that never land.


2. Go with what (and who) you know

Practitioners should set themselves up for early success by working with receptive audiences when initiating change. Piloting a screening measure with a student whose family has been historically responsive, engaged, and appreciative of support–or rolling out a new practice with a student who is historically comfortable engaging with school-based mental health staff–can help build certainty in the prospect of change. Additionally, implementing new practices with staff members who are already invested in the work can help to identify early adopters, set a precedent for involvement, and generate buy-in among educators who are open-minded to the implementation of new practices. Calling on staff outside of the Student Support Team (SST) to assist with early, easy wins is also a great way to identify champions of change.


3. Teamwork makes the dream work

The work of strengthening students’ mental health cannot be done by an individual on an island. Generating buy-in to support mental health requires the involvement of more than just the SST, since students’ wellbeing impacts every aspect of the school day. Engaging new stakeholders to support systems change can take place in a variety of ways. Often, changing hearts and minds begins with a conversation. Connecting with one person outside of the SST can be a first step to generate buy-in throughout a building. Practitioners can seek a teacher’s opinion on a new CASEL Signature Practice or follow up on a student’s progress in class to make it clear that addressing mental health needs is a shared responsibility. Asking, rather than directing, teachers about SST practices introduces new ideas while still respecting their role in the classroom. Emphasizing students' progress in class also helps remind teachers of the unique position they are in to support students’ overall wellbeing along with their academic progress. 


4. A win is a win

Any success—no matter how big or small—should be celebrated. At times, the looming demand to create large-scale change in a short period of time can overshadow progress in the present. Every new screening measure, classroom practice, and tiered intervention is a valuable stepping stone in improving students’ mental health. Practitioners can highlight a student who was able to stay in the classroom for the first time this month or a positive interaction with a student’s family to maintain focus on positive development. Recognition of progress relieves the pressure to create large-scale change in a short period of time. In the midst of intense demand for building an MTSS, celebrating what went right this week is more productive than dwelling on what has gone wrong throughout the year. Practitioners should be cognizant of gaps to fill, but they should also remember to bask in the bright spots that can be leveraged and scaled up. 

Despite the rise in the day-to-day demands on mental health practitioners, school teams have done a tremendous amount of valuable work toward building comprehensive mental health systems following the crisis of COVID-19. Nationally, 46% of schools have created or expanded SEL or mental health programs, while remaining engaged with the many day-to-day challenges that arise, since the start of the pandemic. Massachusetts teachers, counselors, and staff are boldly committed to creating stable and therapeutic environments to advance the wellbeing of their students in and beyond the classroom. By shrinking the change and taking one or more of the small steps outlined above, practitioners can strengthen comprehensive school mental health systems that meet all students' needs.

For more ideas on how to advance comprehensive school mental health systems, check out this guide from our Thriving Minds team.