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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
A framework for this moment
Finding ways to support students' SEL
By Al Mijares | September | October 2021
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The message arrived on a recent evening from the head of our crisis response team. Two of our high school students tragically overdosed and died while studying together. One of their friends found them. Both were juniors, ready to move on to their senior years. Fentanyl was suspected.
I read and reread the words on my phone, grasping for some detail that might change the outcome. Flooded by grief, my mind turned to their families, their friends, their plans. There would be no senior prom, no award ceremonies, no racing to meet deadlines for college applications. There would be no yearbook signings, no graduation caps and gowns — no pursuing lifelong dreams. Even simple things like harmless high school pranks, late night calls with best friends and singing songs in the car were gone in a few preventable moments.
Nationally, 1 in 8 teenagers abused an illicit drug last year, and drug use among eighth-graders increased 61 percent between 2016 and 2020. By their senior years, 62 percent of teenagers have abused alcohol, and 86 percent know someone who smokes, drinks or uses drugs during the school day (National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 2021). These rates are a reflection of deeper, underlying issues.
In 2017, more than 550 young people ages 5 to 24 took their own lives in California, and 37 were from Orange County. Current California Healthy Kids Survey results indicate that one quarter of seventh-graders and 35 percent of 11th-graders in our county reported feeling chronically sad or experienced feelings of hopelessness over the course of the year (CHKS, 2019). Eleven percent of local seventh-graders, 13 percent of ninth-graders and 14 percent of 11th-graders indicated they had seriously considered attempting suicide.
There was a time when mental health was considered something external to education, and social-emotional learning was framed as an offramp from regular classroom instruction. But today’s educators are acutely aware that the ability of students to understand and manage their own feelings has a direct bearing on their learning, and grim statistics coupled with tragic firsthand accounts have desperately raised the stakes in recent years. This conversation carries even more gravity as we welcome students back to schools at the tail end of a global pandemic that forced many to face sickness, isolation from peers, income insecurity and, in some cases, the loss of loved ones.
We will rightfully be judged by our ability to mitigate learning losses in the fall. Yet the reality is students who are distressed or otherwise dysregulated have a more difficult time accessing the parts of the brain where learning occurs. And there is no doubt the pandemic has only exacerbated stress and dislocation, particularly for those who lack a strong social network or access to mental health services. So how can we ensure that students who have suffered through more than a year of pandemic-related trauma are in the proper space for learning? I contend that it starts with building an infrastructure of social-emotional support, and county offices of education can play a central and meaningful role.
A framework for this moment
If you need a refresher on social-emotional learning, it’s generally based on the five competencies of self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness and relationship skills. These competencies can be modeled, embedded into regular lessons or taught on their own. Either way, there’s a mountain of data to show how improved social and emotional competence correlates with academic engagement and performance.
In partnership with our local districts, the education and health teams at the Orange County Department of Education have made it a top priority to support the mental and physical health and wellbeing of all students, and that encompasses social-emotional learning. In practical terms, much of our work centers on providing robust training and technical assistance to schools and districts that are aligned with California’s Multi-Tiered System of Support.
MTSS predates the pandemic, but the framework feels like it was made for this moment. It can be thought of as a schoolwide commitment to a set of proven strategies that address academic, behavioral and social-emotional needs. Essentially, staff members collaborate to provide a baseline of support for all students, additional assistance for some and targeted interventions for those with the greatest needs. Since 2016, OCDE has led the statewide implementation of MTSS based on the maxim “All Means All.” It’s become our flagship for the simple reason that it is effective in all educational settings.
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Building healthy communities
In the COVID-19 era, our staff has also developed an array of resources and trainings for school employees and families who have experienced pandemic-related trauma. And with funding from the Orange County Health Care Agency through Proposition 63 — also known as the Mental Health Services Act — the Orange County Department of Education has hired seven regional mental health coordinators, creating a countywide network to strengthen mental health procedures and protocols. All of this is based on a simple concept that has been proven true time and again: Healthy communities lead to improved outcomes for students.
Another OCDE-led program is taking a more direct approach by empowering student leaders to serve as school-based champions of mental health. The Student Advocates for Mental Health initiative, also funded through Proposition 63, trains young people to raise mental health awareness and reduce stigmas at their schools through peer-influencer campaigns, workshops, activities and an annual video contest. To date, 36 schools are participating from 18 school districts.
Meanwhile, OCDE has partnered with CHOC, a pediatric healthcare system in Orange County, to pilot a number of school-based WellSpace centers that will encourage students to take a break from life’s daily stressors in supervised settings that are safe, calm and inclusive. Two centers have already opened this year, and plans are underway for additional sites throughout the county. Each campus WellSpace has been thoughtfully designed with comfortable furniture and a soothing, natural aesthetic, allowing students to recenter and reset for 10 to 15 minutes based on a teacher’s referral or by request.
We know that the ability of students to understand and manage their feelings has a direct bearing on their learning.
There have been numerous scientific studies that show how calming the amygdala — the part of the brain responsible for intense emotions — impacts learning and cognition, according to Mayu Iwatani, who serves as OCDE’s manager of Mental Health and Wellness Care Coordination and holds a master’s degree in social work. “Giving a student who is having a rough day 10 to 15 minutes to reset essentially gains more focused learning time,” Iwatani said. “Every campus needs a space of calm where students can come and reset.”
A direct impact on learning
Mental health experts across the country have been sounding alarms over the rates of youth depression and anxiety, which were spiking even before COVID-19 entered our lexicon, and we as educators have taken on increasingly larger roles in service of healthy communities. At the same time, our schools and districts are under extraordinary pressure to bridge learning gaps caused by pandemic-era disruptions. But these should not be viewed as distinct or competing pursuits.
We know that the ability of students to understand and manage their feelings has a direct bearing on their learning. That alone positions social-emotional learning and mental health supports as prerequisites to effectively delivering instruction in the wake of the pandemic and beyond. Just as important, the social-emotional investments we make now are essential to helping our students build resilience and self-confidence, make responsible decisions, establish healthy relationships and find purpose throughout their lives.
National Association of Drug Abuse Statistics, https://drugabusestatistics.org/teen-drug-use/.
California Healthy Kids Survey, https://calschls.org/reports-data/public-dashboards/secondary-student/.
California’s Multi-Tiered System of Support: https://ocde.us/MTSS/Pages/CA-MTSS.aspx
Student Advocates for Mental Health Initiative https://newsroom.ocde.us/ocde-program-empowers-students-to-raise-mental-health-awareness-reduce-stigmas/
WellSpace Centers: https://newsroom.ocde.us/with-mental-health-in-focus-school-based-wellspace-centers-offer-a-space-of-calm/

Al Mijares is the Orange County Superintendent of Schools
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