For Students, We Must Solve the Mental Health Equation
By Adrain Hudson
One of my 4th graders, John, spends his class time sleeping or just sitting. His mental health challenges make it impossible for him to engage in class work or discussion, and no efforts by his mom or me have been able to change that. Jessica, another student in my class, is very bright but shows major signs of anxiety. There are some days when she is calm and able to answer every question. There are other days where she breaks down crying under her desk because she is terrified of getting the wrong answer. I have tried numerous times to encourage her, but she truly does not believe in herself.
Jessica and John desperately need mental health support, but our school does not have a counselor. In the absence of one, I have attempted to help the kids express themselves by journaling their emotions as writing practice. I integrated emotional and social learning skills into my lessons. The journaling and our restorative conversations have had an impact, but both kids need more.
School-based mental health services have gotten a lot of attention during the 86th Legislative Session, and I testified at the Senate Select Committee on School Safety to share my experience as a teacher. This attention is critical; while the recommended ratio of students to counselors is 250 to 1, Texas’ average is closer to 450 to 1, according to Houston Public Media. I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen thus far during this session: several influential legislators have filed legislation that would ensure districts and teachers are prepared to support students who have experienced trauma and provide funds that districts could use to add counseling resources.
My cohort of the Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellows published a policy memo calling on the Texas Legislature to support student mental health. We conducted a statewide survey of teachers asking how many of them had at least one student who had experienced trauma, which we defined as experiences on the list of “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or ACEs. ACEs are used by the Centers for Disease Control as part of a study demonstrating the long-term negative impacts of trauma. Ninety-one percent of teachers reported having at least one student who had experienced trauma, and 85 percent said that training teachers on trauma-informed instructional strategies was “very important,” yet half reported that their schools are not equipped to support these students.
My experience reflects the results of our survey. John has missed out on two months of learning because my school and his mother do not have the resources to help him. Jessica breaks down during every major test and will miss out on so many life opportunities because we do not have the tools to help her overcome anxiety. I do everything I can to support my students and study ways to try and help them. But what they need are dedicated mental health resources. They need counselors.
Counselors are specifically trained to help kids express emotions that they struggle with. As a teacher, I do not have such training and can only use my past experiences to help my students. Counselors can also take the necessary time to help a student without taking away learning time from other students, as a teacher, I must choose between the two.
With all the attention being paid to mental health, the time is now to provide our students with the support they need. We must get more counselors in schools to help children like John and Jessica who are in desperate need of one. John, Jessica, and other students across the state deserve it.
Adrain Hudson teaches 4th grade math in Houston. He is a Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow.