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Student Learning Improves with Mental Well-being Support

Nov 05, 2021 2021-11-05

By Katie Dorn, MA, LSC, MFT

Schools are open, children and teachers are settling into classrooms, and there is consensus among researchers that young people are struggling mentally more than ever before.

Prior to the pandemic, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that a third of students struggled with anxiety, depression, trauma, or attention issues that made it hard to focus and stay motivated and engaged—much less learn. Then the pandemic hit, and families were forced to adjust to constantly changing learning models, social distancing, canceled events, and lost milestones. It’s been a lot.

With the third school year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic now officially underway, the months of uncertainty, isolation, loss, and need for continual adjustment have taken their toll. Researchers tell us that the collective trauma of the pandemic has caused already high mental health obstacles among school-age youth to soar by 25 percent.

Today, schools are welcoming students of all ages who are overwhelmed, discouraged, worried, and distracted. Educators know that learning takes a back seat when a child struggles to focus or engage. That’s where social–emotional learning (SEL) comes in to help students move from feeling overwhelmed and challenged to motivated and confident.

The Widespread Benefits of SEL
Research shows that a school’s SEL investment also results in better grades, fewer absences, and fewer disciplinary issues. While evidence-based SEL makes a lasting difference for students at every level, elementary is a perfect age to acquire a firm foundation of skills and mindset that can lead to long-term success in school and in life.

In fact, when children learn to recognize and listen to their inner coach (and tune out their inner critic), they acquire skills such as persistence and resilience in the face of obstacles that many adults have yet to master.

What Schools Can Do Right Now
Schools of every size have a uniquely powerful opportunity to meet the mental well-being needs of struggling students by overcoming the most common barriers that stand between young people and professional support.

A 2019 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that nearly 60 percent of the 3.8 million youth aged 12–17 who reported a major depressive episode in 2019 did not receive any treatment. But those who did receive help? The majority got the support they needed only at school.

School-based SEL doesn’t just improve the well-being of the young people who need it by breaking down traditional barriers of stigma, cost, and access. It also changes the trajectory of each student’s learning experience for years to come.

While it’s natural to focus only on the mental health crisis we collectively face, many years of data demonstrate a broad range of benefits that result from SEL efforts. For more than 20 years, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has found that SEL programs that meet quality standards increase students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points and inspire students to exhibit better classroom behavior, stress management, and attitudes about themselves and others. In fact, a CASEL meta-analysis in 2017 showed that SEL benefits academics, attitudes, and social behaviors for as much as 18 years.

There is no doubt that educators have an opportunity right now to serve young people with an abundance of care. We see, over and over, that when we help students build resilience, persistence, confidence, and motivation, they experience less anxiety and depression.

Katie Dorn, MA, LSC, MFT, is cofounder of EmpowerU and an experienced licensed school counselor and therapist. EmpowerU’s Tier 1 and Tier 2 programs support students in kindergarten through college as a better way to deliver an evidence-based, high-quality, turnkey SEL program at school—one that overcomes barriers and creates long-lasting positive changes that benefit students and the schools where they go each day. Her passion for finding effective ways to help students and families with mental health obstacles has fueled her work for EmpowerU since 2015. She can be reached at

Social-Emotional Learning Diversity/Equity/Inclusion Academic Achievement Administrative Solutions

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