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Supporting Students in Tough Economic Times: Information for Educators

The current economic crisis is taking its toll on school communities across the country. Students see parents coping with the stress of potential loss of incomes, homes, or medical insurance. Teachers and school based support staff are seeing an increase in individual student and classroom issues that interfere with learning. Schools as a whole are being forced to make tough decisions about programs and staffing with impending budget cuts.

Research has shown that students’ social, emotional, and behavioral health affects their academic achievement. This has enormous implications for teachers, school mental health providers, and the students themselves. A student body that is hungry, disengaged, preoccupied, or behaviorally disruptive will not respond as well to instruction, even by the best teachers. Teachers cannot meet all of the needs of their students alone. Resources include action planning and utilizing school-based mental health support, like school psychologists and other professionals, who can assist during these difficult times.

While schools may not be able to provide an economic safety net to the families they serve, school-based support staff members are in an ideal position to help students and families deal with the increased stress and continue to support positive academic outcomes. The following recommendations come without significant, or in most cases any, additional costs.

Create and maintain a positive school climate. It is important to acknowledge but not dwell on the current economic realities. Focus on maintaining school routines and a sense of normalcy. School may be the only place where students can count on the predictability of a consistent routine.

Be available to students. How students respond to the economic crisis will depend on how directly they are affected and on how adults in their lives are responding. Many students will rely upon the caring and encouragement of their teachers and other school staff to help get them through stressful times. Let students know that you are thinking about them as individuals: greet them by name, attend extracurricular activities, reinforce small successes.

Make effective mental health support available to all students. Many students are aware of the economic crisis and, if affected, will bring their anxiety into school. Some will show signs of increased stress, behavior problems, fatigue, an inability to concentrate, depression, academic problems, and absenteeism. School-based mental health personnel, such as school psychologists, should be available to support students through assessment, counseling, and referrals. Providing all students with coping strategies can also help promote school-wide behavioral health, and reduce student and staff stress.

Help address basic needs. Work with colleagues to support students with increased basic needs such as clothing, food, or hygiene. Students who are homeless or transient may need additional support before and after school. Connecting with parents is crucial.

Determine most effective use of support staff. Many children who receive mental health services only receive them at school. Determine immediate student needs, anticipate future needs, and explore ways to maintain, increase, or reallocate resources and reassign duties as necessary. School psychologists have diverse skills enabling them to work directly with students in need, consult with teachers and staff to address problems in the classroom that interfere with learning, and improve staff skills in building student resilience.

Train school staff. Collaborate with staff to inform them of the potential social, behavioral, and emotional problems associated with the financial crisis and how they can immediately impact student achievement. School-wide professional development training could help school staff learn about “red flags” to look for in identifying children and families in trouble, resource lists with contact numbers for both school and community resources, and coaching for how teachers can be present, positive, and available for students and each other. Also recognize the extraordinary efforts of colleagues; you may not be aware of how the economic crisis is affecting them on a personal level.

Engage parents. Many parents are unsure of how to help their children cope with the stress that the whole family might be facing. School psychologists or counselors can help facilitate parent information sessions or develop handouts that provide guidance on how to talk to children about their financial situation, how to help their children and themselves manage stress, and how to access school and community resources. Parents may be reluctant to share information, harder to reach, more difficult to deal with because of their stress levels, or need intervention because of the impact of their behavior on their child. Mental health staff can provide guidance to staff on effective outreach, communication, and resources. Continue to provide information through the school website, via e-mail, or with an information clearinghouse available in the front office.

Employ prevention strategies. While behavioral and mental health supports are necessary for those students in crisis, they also benefit all students in the form of school-wide approaches to prevention and early intervention. Support staff can often impact more students when they adopt a prevention perspective and develop interventions that help all students cope with difficult times. Prevention programming that supports positive behavior, school connectedness, and student resilience can have immediate and long-term benefits in terms of maintaining academic progress and well-being for all students.

Incorporate social–emotional learning into curriculum. Whether directly impacted or simply informed by the media, students, particularly older ones, will receive a lot of dire and complex information about the current economic crisis. Much of this they may not understand or know how it will affect them personally. Teachers are in an ideal position to integrate relevant lessons and helpful information into health education, social studies, and other classes. School psychologists and other mental health staff can help teachers incorporate information on the physical and psychological effects of stress and on developing healthy coping strategies into their curricula.

Additional resources on supporting students and maintaining academic progress in difficult times are available from the National Association of School Psychologists online at http://www.nasponline.org/educators/economic.aspx.

Adapted from Desrochers, J. E., Cowan, K. C., & Christner, R. W. (2009). Supporting Students and Successful Learning in Tough Economic Times. Principal Leadership, April, 2009, National Association of Secondary School Principals.