MAKING AN IMPACT…Investing in Student Mental Health and Well-Being

An important part of the mission of the Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools is to address the many challenges students face in the process of learning. A student’s overall health and well-being are critical to their performance in school. When it comes to mental health, students whose emotional needs are met are more likely to come to school prepared to learn, engage in school activities, and have positive interactions with their peers and school staff.

In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory calling attention to a national crisis of youth mental health and well-being. President Biden also called special attention to the youth mental health crisis during his State of the Union address in March. In February the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 42 percent of high school students surveyed in 2021 said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness during the past year. This is a 14 percent increase from 2019 and a 47 percent increase from 2011.

With most children spending nearly half of their waking hours in schools, staff and community-based partners are in a unique position to help meet students’ mental health needs through early identification, prevention, and application of interventions in a safe, supportive environment where youth already are.

Long before the Surgeon General’s call to action, Vancouver Public Schools had begun to initiate measures to help address student health and well-being. The Foundation for VPS supports the District’s efforts, providing funding for mental health and wellness, prevention, intervention, mentoring programs, and other supports. To help address these needs, the Foundation budgeted $69,000 for the 2022-23 school year, a 138% increase over the previous year’s budget.

Examples of services supported with Foundation for VPS funding:
• Funding to VPS Family and Community Resource (FCRC) staff to support student social-emotional health and resilience.
• Prevention/intervention funds at the secondary level that promote and support healthy behaviors.
• Support for two new VPS Mental Health and Wellness Coordinators serving three middle schools.
• Training and technical assistance for FCRC staff to better assist families facing complex trauma and crisis situations and support for School Mobilization and Response Teams (SMART) responding to students and families in crisis.
• Funds to help engage students participating in the District’s IMPACT Program, a collaborative program designed as an alternative to exclusionary programs that provides support and resources to help students gain the coping skills to address issues negatively impacting their access to education.
• Support to address student truancy.
• Funding for student engagement and attendance promotion.

In addition to funds specifically dedicated toward health and well-being, each year the Foundation offers Engagement Grants to all VPS schools. Some schools used their grant funds last year to support social-emotional learning, resiliency tools, and incentives for positive behavior and attendance.

“Not all students come to school ready to learn. Many students experience complex forms of trauma that cause them to arrive at school dysregulated. Students cannot learn if they feel unsafe,” said Emma Forslund, Restorative Justice Coach at Discovery Middle School. Discovery used a Foundation grant to create “break spaces” in all of the classrooms to help students learn to regulate their emotions so they can get back to learning. Based on recommendations from students, items were purchased for each space that help with sensory processing, trauma awareness, emotional regulation, and de-escalation. “Discovery Middle School believes in being trauma informed which means providing ways for students to regulate themselves and feel safe in their learning environment,” said Forslund.

Minnehaha Elementary used an Engagement Grant to purchase books, activities, games, and manipulatives that can be used in a variety of ways to teach and practice social emotional skills. The books included topics such as managing emotions, working with peers, making mistakes, asking for help, positive self-talks, etc. Many of the items can be used for years to come. “Based on surveys and discussion with students, families, and staff, our school has a strong need to support students with social emotional learning,” said Jennifer Budde, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports/Intervention Specialist. “We want to make social emotional learning kid-friendly, engaging, and effective. Our goal is that students will actively participate in increasing their social emotional skills so they are better prepared to engage in school and manage peer relationships.”

Several schools have also used some of their allocated funds to purchase small incentive items that encourage positive behavior and recognize students who are consistently doing what they are asked to do. “These items help create a sense of belonging, build community, improve attendance, and create a positive culture and positivity among students,” said Gaiser Middle School principal, Esteban Delgadillo. In addition to incentives, items like sensory tools can help manage anxiety, improve attention, increase the ability to focus, and help develop gross motor skills.

The pandemic demonstrated the importance of supporting students beyond just academics. The Foundation for VPS invests hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on services and programs that support the whole child. Ensuring access to food, stable housing, and other basic needs helps a student focus on learning. Support for activities that connect families to their school community helps create a sense of belonging and connects them to resources. Providing access to positive adult mentors builds confidence and encourages personal development. When we come together as a community to support students by making sure all their needs are met, including their social and emotional health and well-being, we help them grow and reach their potential in and out of school.