Returning to School: Children with Special Needs and Mental Health Post-COVID

One state’s solution The NJ Department of Education has put out a Quick Reference Mental Health Guide (see Resources). It is noted, “Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) and Response to Intervention (RTI) models provide frameworks for districts to develop tiered levels of prevention, support and intervention that can include comprehensive school mental health and therapeutic supports in addition to academic supports. One benefit of these frameworks is the development of an array of interventions that vary by intensity based on students’ needs.

BY Lauren Agoratus, M.A. | May 2021 | Category: Mobility

Returning to School: Children with Special Needs and Mental Health Post-COVID
  • Primary Prevention or Tier 1 strategies to support all students;
  • Secondary Supports for small groups; and
  • Tertiary, or Tier 3 Intensive, Interventions.”

This guide has linkages to planning a school based mental health system, screening/referral, and the tiered supports mentioned above. It addresses school climate, social-emotional learning, mental health of staff, and positive behavioral supports. 

            Health/Mental Health                                  Professionals’ Ideas

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) statement on returning to school and planning notes that “School policies should be guided by supporting the overall health and well-being of all children, adolescents, their families, and their communities but should also look to create safe working environments for educators and school staff. This focus on overall health and well-being includes addressing the behavioral/ mental health needs of students and staff.”

Students with Disabilities: The AAP recognizes that “The impact of loss of instructional time and related services, including mental health services, as well as occupational, physical, and speech/language therapy during the period of school closures and remote learning is significant for students with disabilities. All students, but especially those with disabilities may have more difficulty with the social and emotional aspects of transitioning out of and back into the school setting.” Regarding behavioral health and emotional support, the AAP recommends that educators need training on how to support children post-pandemic. School mental health professionals must provide clear messaging to allay fears. IEP teams, which include parents, can discuss possible compensatory services.

The AAP recommends, “Special considerations are warranted for students with pre-existing anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions; children with a prior history of trauma or loss; children with autism spectrum disorder; and students in early education who may be particularly sensitive to disruptions in routine and caregivers. Students facing other challenges, such as poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness, and those subjected to ongoing racial inequities may benefit from additional support and assistance.” Lastly, the AAP notes that as suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among adolescents age 10 and up, schools should develop referral mechanisms if a student is in crisis.

Addressing Social-Emotional Learning and Mental Health Needs: The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has school reentry considerations. These include:

  • Developing strategies for students, parents, and staff
  • Having a referral system for targeted support
  • Conducting universal social/emotional screenings
  • Promoting well-being and resilience
  • Establishing periodic informal check-ins with school mental health professionals
  • Identifying high-risk students (e.g., pre-existing mental health, experience of loss, etc.)
  • Holding classroom meetings with school mental health to discuss impact as a group
  • Embedding social-emotional learning into core academic subjects 

Guidance from the U.S. Department of Education

The Department has released “ED COVID-19 Handbook Volume 1: Strategies for Safely Reopening Elementary and Secondary Schools”. This includes basics like stakeholder engagement, physical distancing, and masks. By the time this article goes to print, the Department will release Volume 2 (see www.ed.gov/news/press-releases). This volume will provide specific strategies to reduce the disruption for students, families, and professionals. The needs of underserved populations, who were the hardest hit, will be addressed. This will include:

  1. “Meeting the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of students
  2. Supporting educator and school staff well-being
  3. Addressing lost instructional time for students.
  4. Stabilizing a diverse and qualified educator workforce
  5. Ensuring equitable access to broadband and the devices needed to participate in remote learning
  6. Supporting the effective use of technology for in-person learning and periodic shifts to remote learning
  7. Providing school nutrition, regardless of the educational setting
  8. Providing all students with access to a safe and inclusive learning environment
  9. Extending learning time

10. Addressing resource inequities to provide all students with the educational opportunities they need to succeed, including access to a well-rounded education (including advanced courses, music, and the arts), quality educators, and integrated student support services

11. Using data to inform students, parents, and educators of progress and areas requiring additional support.”

In summary, the Department will provide research-based strategies to address the impact of COVID-19 on students, educators, and staff, especially for historically underserved students and communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

These approaches are consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Whole School, Whole Child, Whole Community coordinated school health program, which consists of 10 interrelated components: health education, physical education and physical activity, health services, nutrition environment and services, social and emotional climate, counseling/ psychological and social services, physical environment, employee wellness, community involvement, and family engagement. (See www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/wscc/index.htm).

Students and their families, as well as educators, have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Social-emotional learning concepts and behavioral/mental health supports will be crucial in recovering academic progress. Positive behavioral supports, being proactive rather than reactive, will ensure success for all students. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Lauren Agoratus, M.A. is a parent of a medically-complex young adult and serves as the "Coordinator for Family Voices-NJ and as the regional coordinator in her state’s Family-to-Family Health Information Center, both housed at the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) at www.spanadvocacy.org (SPAN) at www.spanadvocacy.org 

Extra Help:  Students with Disabilities and Social-Emotional Learning and Mental Health Needs 

NJ Department of Education

Quick Reference Mental Health Guide

www.nj.gov/education/specialed/MHWG%20Return%20to%20School%20Mental%20Health%20Resources.pdf 

American Academy of Pediatrics

COVID Guidance for Safe Schools

https://services.aap.org/en/pages/2019-novel-coronavirus-covid-19-infections/clinical-guidance/covid-19-planning-considerations-return-to-in-person-education-in-schools 

National Association of School Psychologists

COVID-19 Resource Center

www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/covid-19-resource-center

School Reentry Considerations

www.nasponline.org/x55418.xml 

U.S. Department of Education

COVID-19 Handbook Volume 1: Strategies for Safely Reopening Elementary and Secondary Schools

www2.ed.gov/documents/coronavirus/reopening.pdf

COVID-19 Handbook Volume 1: Press Release

www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-covid-19-handbook-volume-1-strategies-safely-reopening-elementary-and-secondary-schools

U.S. Department of Education Continues Aggressive Plan to Safely Reopen Schools: Press Release

www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-continues-aggressive-plan-safely-reopen-schools 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC)

www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/wscc/index.htm  

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