May 8, 2024

Prioritizing Mental Health for Student Success

Mackey Pendergrast
A teacher sits with a student

By Mackey Pendergrast, Education Strategist, District Leadership

Mackey Pendergrast is GoGuardian’s Education Strategist for District Leadership. He was formerly superintendent of schools for the Morris School District in New Jersey for 10 years and was New Jersey Superintendent of the Year in 2020.

Where do we begin?

Those were my first thoughts as I looked at the 2016 achievement data for our 8th-grade students in reading and writing. Only 17% of our economically disadvantaged students met expectations on the state standardized assessment, which was more than 50% points lower than our non-economically disadvantaged students. As the new superintendent of a deeply and historically diverse school community, addressing this disparity rose quickly to the top of our priorities and mission. 

Fast forward three years to 2019, and our 8th-grade economically disadvantaged students improved by over 270% (17% → 63%) in reading and writing from 2016. Moreover, in our high school, the percentage of students participating in AP classes and passing the exam more than doubled in that same period (24% → 57%).

Educators very often ask what steps we took to create the conditions for such forward momentum and our answer was always the same – “We followed the science.”

Following the science

There is a lot of discussion in education about gaps in student achievement or opportunity, among many others. However, one of the biggest gaps existing in education today is between what brain research clearly shows about learning and human development versus the realities of what happens day-to-day in school classrooms, hallways, and sports fields. There is a pretty solid argument that the Knowing-Doing Gap is our most glaring one. 

So what does science say about learning? 

Forty years of brain research and the science of learning shows that human development – including the development of social relationships, a sense of belonging, emotional regulation, perseverance and resilience, and other affective and behavioral elements – is fundamentally intertwined with academic learning. It’s bidirectional and coactive in that the positive development in one area (ex. stronger social ties and a sense of belonging) cascades and sets up the development of competency in other areas (ex. reading at grade level). 

Very often in education, we have binary debates about our approaches. For example, some argue a heavy focus on reading and writing or math ignores the importance of the social and emotional development of students, or vice versa. Most educators and parents know this is a false dichotomy. 

For example, students with strong executive functioning skills and emotional regulation will learn very little if the instruction and curriculum resources are poor – students need to engage with complex texts and think critically each day. Along the same lines, highly skilled instruction will be far less effective, if at all, for a child with ongoing toxic stress, food insecurities, or unhealthy relationships. Academic success does not emerge in isolation. Skills in one area beget skills in the other.

Integrated affective and behavioral habits and mindsets, a healthy community anchored in a variety of quality relationships, and strong instructional models all mutually reinforce each other. The science of learning shows the key driver of student growth is the confluence of these factors

In short, it’s the entire school experience that informs learning and growth. At first glance, that statement can be a little overwhelming because there is such complexity in a school, but a systems-thinking approach can highlight how the different components can coherently fit together. A systems approach can make what seems like intractable complexity less complicated. 

Relationships shape destiny

If “confluence” was the secret sauce, then we became very determined to be successful in all three areas at once. As a result, we anchored our approach with a core set of beliefs that guided our actions: 

  1. High-quality human relationships are the most powerful lever to optimize student potential.

  2. Students learn best when they sense they belong and are an important part of a healthy community.

  3. Reading and writing are the gateway skills for developing student agency and continuous learning.

In our minds, improving our district in all three areas was a solvable problem and very “doable.”

If trusting, supportive relationships lead students to their destiny, then how exactly does a school district go about improving these? Like many of our problems, we went to our students for insight and to explore the topic fully. I’m glad I brought my notebook because our students had an endless supply of ideas. 

The most resonant truth I learned was that although adolescents crave autonomy and independence from the watchful eyes of adults, they also crave connectedness and seek purpose from their experiences. They spoke articulately about how trusting relationships with adults buffered them from negative experiences and helped them create meaning out of the challenges in their lives.

A community of communities

Hundreds of studies document the lack of learning when students are treated as outsiders or are taught with a deficit mindset. Conversely, our goal was to create a “community of communities” in our schools so each child felt as if the school was their home. 

To accomplish this, our goal was simple – to surround each child with an array of caring and talented adults (a phrase borrowed from Julia Fischer Freeland from the Christensen Institute). Through this constructive web of support, it was critically important our students were not only valued for who they were but also that our schools were a place where students could see who they could become. This can only happen through inspiring instruction and strong relationships.

Despite the changes in blended learning environments, the classroom is still the most proximal setting for establishing rich developmental relationships. As a school district, we doubled down on staff training concerning trauma-informed instruction and strategies to help students develop social and emotional competencies, including growth mindset and self-efficacy. 

Critically, it is the integration of these practices within academic lessons and instruction that is most important to empowering students through “desirable difficulties” and fostering independence and self-direction. 

Someone once said, “Don’t tell me about your values, show me your budget.”

To this point, beyond the classroom itself, we also doubled the number of dollars we were spending on co-curricular activities and clubs to support such programs as Girls Who Code and NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) among dozens of other clubs in a period where budgets were extremely tight. 

We also elevated student voices by making them a central part of our Code of Conduct redesign initiative, as well as our Equity and Inclusion Strategic Teams. Through this ongoing dialogue, our students spoke poignantly and honestly about how important it was for the schools to allow them to take ownership and responsibility for the school climate and that we needed to be aware that an overly punitive environment only inhibited their care and motivation. 

After making important and transparent adjustments to our Code of Conduct, we also introduced positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) programs and other steps to foster a climate of responsibility and ownership. Along with the aforementioned ascending academic results in reading and writing, our suspensions were reduced by 80% over four years and student participation in extracurricular programs and sports increased up to 80% in that same period.

The combination of focusing on healthy relationships and academic rigor is powerfully predictive of student development, academic growth, and future success. Along with the “healthy community” initiatives mentioned above, we also took significant steps to redesign our approach to reading and writing in middle school, including doubling the amount of time for ELA instruction, an aggressive expansion of inclusion instruction for our students with IEPs, targeted professional development in curriculum and cross-disciplinary reading and writing strategies, and designing an innovative homework program that engaged ALL of our students in grade-level ELA power standards each night. 

Mental Health Awareness Month

Sound educational policy and practice must be grounded in rigorous science. To this point, relationships are one of the key drivers of human development and human development is one of the key drivers of academic learning and growth – they codevelop. 

During Mental Health Awareness Month, school communities need to continue to explore the concept of “relationships shape destiny” and how our school systems can create powerful learners by creating healthier communities.