Children’s dreams and well-being can be empowered through their everyday schooling experiences.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2015) does offer provisions for whole student development and well-being as a part of the definition of “achievement or student success” and alternative measures.
We are proud to have influenced the new ESSA requirements and provisions through our research, publishing, consulting to the U.S. Department of Education, and advocacy work.
We are leading a national conversation about the importance of “prevention” versus “treatment” of health and well-being of our youth, families and society. It is critical in our view that all 50 state governors relay to students, parents, health care professionals and teachers, the interconnectedness among mental health and well-being to their success in school and in life.
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Leaders in Pennsylvania and nationally have expressed sincere intentions, “Like the rest of the nation, Pennsylvania is in the throes of the worst overdose death epidemic ever. In 2014, nearly 2,500 Pennsylvanians died from a drug overdose,” with 3,500 in 2015. According to the CDC, “More people died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any year on record. The majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involve an opioid. And since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin) nearly quadrupled. From 2000 to 2014 nearly half a million people died from drug overdoses.”
Still, there is no prevention strategy that includes the 3,300 public schools in Pennsylvania. Most state Departments of Education are not prepared to offer holistic supports and services to local school districts. We recommend that the governor’s office provide this multi-agency leadership and coordination.
The statistics for a few states are critical, and include: West Virginia, New Hampshire, Utah and New Mexico, among others. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf signed five new bills recently to fight the heroin epidemic, all address treatment, none about prevention — a serious oversight yet consistent with the emphasis upon treatment in our health care system.
Treatment is not prevention. While we expand the scope of our interventions and treatment options, we must also strengthen proven prevention strategies. As a part of an integrated, inter-agency, broad spectrum approach to addressing this issue, mental health prevention requires school-based models and teaching, learning, counseling best practices that empower young people to take control of their own well-being.
We have found that within most departments of education, the functional responsibilities for school climate assessments, safe and supportive schools, Every Student Succeeds Act accountability measures, mental health needs, expanding holistic measures of student success and social-emotional learning supports are not coordinated in such a manner to affect the health and well-being of children in local school districts. Even in forward thinking states such as California, where they are offering SEL practices to 18 school districts as a pilot, they are using a common SEL framework for improving academic and behavior outcomes, not health and well-being outcomes as is needed.
Mental health prevention requires multitiered, school-based models of teaching, learning, and counseling best practices that empower students to take control of their own well-being, and that reach 100 percent of students. School leaders can equip front-line classroom teachers and counselors with research-based, breakthrough methods, while informing school board members, parents, and their community about acute mental health needs. Mental health prevention is not a widespread screening process for depression or comorbidity diagnosis. When students progress to screenings they are already in the intervention and treatment phases of support.
Schools are ideally suited to offer student development programs that consider the whole child and will actually be measured on how they do. There are multiple goals of programs designed to promote positive youth development: promote bonding; foster resilience; promote social, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and moral competence; foster self-determination, spirituality, self-efficacy, clear and positive identity, belief in the future and prosocial norms; construct a healthy and positive self-understanding, and provide recognition for positive behavior and prosocial involvement.
In Pennsylvania the Department of Education’s ESSA Accountability Work Group Meetings, conducted over the previous six months, have demonstrated, and key stakeholders have expressed a number of themes and recommendations to meet their growing needs in the 3,200 public and charter schools in Pennsylvania, as well as meet ESSA regulations for a holistic, well-rounded education. These regulations allow for up to 40 percent of school quality measures to include: comprehensive school mental health, drug and violence prevention, health and physical education, supporting safe and healthy students, providing students with a well-rounded education, social-emotional factors, culture and climate factors.
Therefore, leadership is needed to meet new ESSA accountability regulations and district stakeholder expectations and needs for health and well-being services and supports. It is critical to include schools and school-based mental health programs as a key component part of an integrated prevention strategy in Pennsylvania and all 50 states.
In a recent announcement, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera expanded the definition of student success and new metrics to measure in the Future Ready PA Index, in order to move away from the narrow testing focus that has created such a toxic culture in public education in Pennsylvania and nationally. Bellefonte Superintendent Michelle Saylor said in the CDT recently, “There are so many elements that go into not just generating opportunities for academic success, but also for building a foundation for lifetime success for our students.” Yet, the new metrics in the lauded Future Ready PA Index for student success do not include whole person, social emotional or well-being attributions. Educators need more direction and tools to understand the meaning of providing a holistic education and tools to impact the well-being needs of students in today’s complex society for “lifetime success.”
In conclusion, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has not adequately expanded its definition of holistic education to meet the growing requirements of ESSA or to meet the needs of today’s students.
Let’s work together to improve the lives of all Pennsylvanians, and in particular imparting important protective factors to our children everywhere.
Dr. Henry G. Brzycki is a positive psychology and education expert and president of The Brzycki Group and co-founder with Elaine J. Brzycki, of The Center of the Self in Schools. He can be contacted at Henry@Brzyckigroup.com.