Leah Rainey is one of many students who now begin their days with an emotional check-in. It is a way for teachers, who often struggle to break through students' tough exteriors, to identify potential problems and help them.
How are you doing?-greets the automated voice on her phone screen. It offers an emoji for her state of mind: Happy, sad, worried, angry, frustrated, peaceful, silly, tired, or calm.
Depending on the answer, Leah, 9, gets advice from a cartoon avatar on how to manage her mood; follow-up questions: Did you eat breakfast? Are you hurt or sick? Is everything OK at home? Is someone at school being unkind? Today, Leah chooses silly but said she struggled with sadness during online learning.
At Lakewood Elementary School, all 420 students will start their days the same way in Kentucky this year. This Kentucky school is one of the thousands across the country using technology to screen students' mental states and alert teachers to any student that needs help.
Mental health on school campuses has reached crisis levels this year, and the pressure on schools to solve the problem has never been greater. In response, districts have invested in hiring more mental health specialists, implementing new coping mechanisms, and expanding educational curricula that prioritize emotional well-being.
Still, some parents believe schools should not be involved in mental health. So-called social-emotional learning, or SEL, has become the latest political flashpoint, with conservatives believing it promotes progressive ideas about race, gender, and sexuality. It also takes attention away from academics.
Educators at schools like Lakewood say helping students manage emotions and stress will benefit them both in the classroom and throughout life.
Shelly Kerr, the school counselor, explains how take-a-break corner spots were created in each classroom with federal money. Students are encouraged to use these corners to help decompress and speak to someone with expertise. The school is building a reset room next year as part of an emerging national trend for student sanctuaries.
This online student screening Lakewood offers, called Closegap, helps teachers locate kids who might be shy or quiet and may not have been identified.
Earlier this year, the founder of close gap launched her online platform with a few schools and saw interest explode after the pandemic hit. This year, more than 3,600 U.S schools will be using the technology with free and premium versions.
The demand for new and more innovative ways of teaching has never been higher, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the national School Superintendents Association. Education is about more than just teaching kids reading, writing, and arithmetic, as many schools are starting to recognize. The idea is that a hungry child cannot learn, and a cluttered or perplexed mind cannot focus on schoolwork.
The pandemic of the 2009 flu played on mental health and suicide tendencies among youth. A recent report found that 44% of high school students reported “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the pandemic, with girls and LGBTQ youth reporting the highest levels of poor mental health and suicide attempts.
If there was a silver lining to this crisis, the pandemic also helped de-stigmatize talking about mental health work and brought attention to the school's shortcomings in handling it. Recently, President Joe Biden announced over $500 million of funding to schools struggling with pandemic-era needs, adding to federal and state money that has poured into schools this year.
Faith in school responses is low.
These are just some of the many abusive and catastrophic problems that students mental health faces, said sophomore Claire Chi, who attends State College Area High School in central Pennsylvania. This year, her school has added more emergency counseling, therapy dogs, and other support to help students deal with these issues. However, most of this help lasted only a day or two before it was gone. And that is not an investment in mental health for students.
Some parents, including conservatives, do not want schools to have an education on mental health because they do not want the campuses to become a liberal territory. Asra Nomani, a mother from Fairfax county, Virginia, says the school is using mental illness as the gateway to introducing youth to their sexual and racial identities. She also worries that schools do not have the expertise to deal with the mental health needs of students.
Social-emotional well-being has become a top excuse to have children enter the lives of people who are not professionals and are dangerous and irresponsible, Nomani said. It is in the hands of untrained individuals before the individual even know the risks involved.
Schools have been having trouble with the lack of counselors, mirroring the issue in several other industries, and are finding it difficult to find a solution.
Goshen Junior High School in northwest Indiana is struggling to fill a counselor position because issues with student anxiety and behavioral problems were off the charts last year, said Jan Desmarais-Morse.
It is practically impossible to provide quality care for 500 students, so why bother?-said Desmarais-Morse.
Few state school counselors report to 250 students per counselor. According to the American School Counselor Association, that ratio would be ideal.
For the 2020-21 school year, only two states, New Hampshire and Vermont have achieved that goal, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Arizona averages one counselor to 716 students; in Michigan, 1 to 638; and in Minnesota, 1 to 592.
In Indiana, the School City of Hammond won a grant to hire specialists at all 17 of its schools but has not been able to fill most of the new jobs. Schools are stealing from other schools. There are not enough workers to go around. And despite more funding, school salaries can not compete with private counseling practices, which are also overwhelmed and trying to hire more staff.
Another challenge for schools is identifying struggling children before they feel distressed or anxious. At the Houston Independent School District, one of the largest in the country with 277 schools and nearly 200,000 students, students are asked each morning to hold up fingers to show how they feel. One finger means a child is hurting deeply; five means happy.
It identifies your site issues before they get out of hand, said Sean Ricks, the district's senior manager of crisis intervention.
Administrators in Houston are now including mindfulness lessons with YouTube videos, and the school district is introducing two dogs named Luci and Omi to help individuals through difficult times.
Grant funding for relaxing rooms, called Thinkers, helped Houston build 10 last year. University data show campuses with these tranquil environments saw a 62% decrease in students calling in for help last year. The district is building more this year.
But the spaces are not a panacea for all school problems. For calming Spaces to work, schools must teach students to recognize when they are feeling angry or frustrated. Then, once inside the room, there is an opportunity for self-reflection before outbursts occur.
In the last days of summer vacation, a Well Space at University High School in Irvine, California, is getting the finishing touches from an artist who painted a giant moon over mountains. Potted succulents, jute rugs, Buddha-like statues, and an egg chair brought an un-school-like feeling. When school starts this week, the room will be filled with counselors or mental health specialists.
With this new strategy, students have a break from schoolwork to re-center and refocus on their education. It allows them to be ready for new lessons when they return from their short walk out of the building.