Best Questions: Mental Health
Despite the rumors, school improvement is hard. It's not about a single passionate leader. It's not about "fixing" teachers and teaching or parents and parenting. It's not about poverty. It's not about money. And it's not about standards. It's about all of them. And more.
In this column, I'll take on the real deal of school improvement—for all schools, not just certain kinds. And for all kids. Because it's not about quick fixes or checking off the instant strategy of the moment. It's about saying, "Yes, and...", not "Yes, but..."; no matter what our circumstances are. It's about asking ourselves the best questions.
More than 20 years ago, I spent one school year as the full-time school counselor in an early childhood center in Washington, D.C. Our enrollment was 250 full-day preK and kindergarten students in an old, huge brick building with 20-foot high ceilings and massive center courtyard-like hallways. I spent the year in easily washable clothes and with my hair in a ponytail at all times because, as anyone who has ever worked in early childhood can tell you, fancy clothes and fancy hair don't mix well with peanut butter and finger paint. It may have been the best job (before this one at ASCD, of course) that I ever had.
Yet again and again throughout that year people asked me why an early childhood center would need a full-time counselor. What mental health support could little kids possibly need? It always surprised me a bit because I thought, "Do you know how stressful a birth in a family, a move to a new home, the death of a grandparent, divorce, unemployment, or countless other day-to-day experiences can be?" Any of those could challenge the mental health of an adult with well-developed, well-honed coping skills and the capacity to seek help on his own. Can you imagine what that level of stress can do to a 4- or 5-year-old with no coping skills and little verbal capacity to ask for help? That is why I am there. Of course, our school also focused on developing mental health within our students by directly teaching anger management, self-control, self-awareness, problem solving, and other social-emotional skills that contribute to sustainable mental health for all kids.
My colleague Sean Slade wrote about the health iceberg on this blog last week and placed physical health at the tip—the most visible point of the iceberg. In many ways it would be appropriate to place mental health as the foundation, buried far below what most people see and attend to, but supporting and influencing the social, emotional, and physical aspects that rise above. In other ways we might want to shift to a different graphic representation because mental and physical health are so intertwined and interdependent.
The reality is that although physical health receives extraordinary coverage in popular media, curriculum, education, social arguments, and political conversation, mental health is rarely mentioned, let alone supported. I was lucky enough to work in a school and school district that valued support for mental health as well as physical health. My school district thought it utterly logical to have a full-time school counselor on staff, even in a small early childhood center. Yet how many schools and districts across the country have counseling ratios far above the American School Counselor Association recommendation of 250 students to 1 staff member?
In far too many schools and communities, we simply ignore mental health altogether. Where it is attended to at all, it is solely to identify mental illness (a very different concept from mental health) and provide intervention (not to be confused with prevention!) services to "those" kids. Perhaps then, the best question about mental health is any we actually remember to ask.