Recently I wrote about the decision my wife and I made to send our youngest children to in-person instruction. Although the learning benefits played a factor in that decision, it was ultimately a mental health decision. Our young children were struggling with social isolation and feeling academically unsuccessful. There seemed to be more tears than laughs, and more meltdowns than celebrations. In talking with other parents, I discovered our children were not the only ones experiencing these emotions, and I felt returning to in-person instruction was necessary.

Our schools play a vital role in the mental well-being of our students. Schools provide critical social interactions, opportunities for experiencing success, and relationships with caring adults. For some children, school may be the only place where they have these experiences.

As County School Superintendent, I lead the Maricopa County Regional School District. This small district specializes in educating students whose needs are not otherwise being met by traditional schools. Many of our students have experienced multiple suspensions, struggle with attendance, and are sometimes years behind their peers academically.

In 2019, I decided to emphasize relationship building as a way for teachers to lay a foundation to support academic learning. All staff members were trained and supported in trauma-responsive strategies. We even made over every classroom to create therapeutic learning environments.

In just one year of change in this direction, we saw an increase in overall mental well-being, increased attendance, a decrease in serious behavior incidents, and an increase in academic achievement. And this was in a year where our campuses were closed in the state-wide COVID-19 shut down three months before the school year was scheduled to end.

You can learn a bit more about one of the schools in the district here.

As we face a school year with continued uncertainty, prioritizing mental health interventions must be a major focus for our most vulnerable students. Emotionally healthy students contribute to strong schools, which, in turn, contribute to strong and thriving communities.

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