How PK-12 schools are getting back-to-school ready amid mental health crisis

Students are about to return to the classroom, many for their first full year of in-person learning since before the pandemic. Educational leaders aren’t just stocking their classrooms with supplies, they’re also increasing efforts to support student well-being amid a mental health crisis.

A recent survey reveals that 7 in 10 public schools have seen a rise in the number of children seeking mental health services. Most (76%) have said that faculty and staff members have concerns about depression, anxiety, and trauma in students since the start of the pandemic.

Back-to-school is a fresh start; an opportunity to embrace new programs and to set students up for success from the beginning. So, what are schools doing? Here’s a look at how PK-12 schools across the country are supporting student mental and emotional health this fall.

Expanding social and emotional learning (SEL) programs

Just last December, the US Surgeon General issued a rare Advisory to highlight the urgent need of addressing youth mental health. In it, he urged districts and schools to “expand social and emotional learning programs and other evidence-based approaches that promote healthy development.”

Districts and schools are taking action in response. Burbio’s School Budget Tracker showed a spike in K-12 spending on social-emotional learning (SEL) and mental health services. The quality of these efforts matters. SEL isn’t just a box to check, and it requires proper training to effectively implement.

Kognito’s SEL solutions for PK-12 schools address student mental health using practice-based learning in a safe environment. Through role-play with virtual humans, educators and students can learn how to recognize warning signs, reach out to at-risk students, and connect them to the appropriate resources when needed.

Many of our solutions align with the recommendations provided by the US Surgeon General Advisory, particularly the following as outlined in the report:

  • Learn how to recognize signs of change in mental and physical health among students, including trauma and behavior changes.
  • Provide a continuum of support to meet student mental health needs, including evidence-based prevention practices and trauma-informed mental health care.

Learn more about our comprehensive library of evidence-based products that 94% of educators would recommend to others at

Adding/increasing mental health-focused staff

There’s a heightened demand for mental health-focused professionals in school settings. The Biden administration recently announced grant programs to increase the number of qualified mental health services providers delivering school-based mental health services.

The administration also plans to fund a pipeline of mental health-focused professionals to fill these vital positions. Some roles needed include:

  • Social workers
  • School counselors
  • SEL leaders

These grants haven’t been distributed yet, and many schools have already made new hires. Others are finding creative solutions, like the state of Mississippi. The Mississippi Department of Education has partnered with the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) to provide telehealth services, including behavioral health services, to K-12 students.

Adding excusable mental health absences

Nearly 30% of schools said they made changes to their daily or yearly academic calendars last year. Canceling classes and designating “mental health days” for teachers and students was controversial, because it caused stress on families needing to scramble to find care.

To mitigate this issue, some schools will give students mental health days off that they can use as needed. For example, the state of Illinois unanimously passed legislation in 2022 that allows K-12 public school students to have five excused mental health-related absences per year.

Creating safe spaces for children to manage emotions

Classrooms are creating safe spaces — places where children can go to calm down, regulate their emotions, and recharge so they are ready to learn.

Some schools are taking this concept a step further. The Post Fall School District in Idaho is creating an entire therapeutic support classroom and the Beaufort County School District in South Carolina created a virtual calming room — complete with links to yoga, live animal videos, puzzles, and crisis hotline resources.

These safe spaces are SEL tools that can assist with classroom management and help children develop healthy coping and regulation skills at a young age.

Educating parents and caregivers

As the adage says, “it takes a village.” We know the importance of alignment between parents/caregivers and teachers. That’s why many schools are not only promoting or requiring mental health education for their teachers and staff, but also for parents.

Kognito has developed three short, interactive simulations designed for maximum impact specifically for parents and caregivers:

These simulations teach parents and caregivers how to encourage open dialogue with their children, respond in constructive ways, and informs them of when and where to seek additional support if needed.

Forming support groups

Support groups are bringing together students with similar background/experiences to help them find community and support. These support groups may be student-led, school- or staff-sponsored.

Grief groups can help students who may have lost a parent or loved one to COVID-19. BIPOC groups give students a place to discuss challenges their community faces, and take action to create change. And peer mentoring programs can create more nurturing, supportive environments.

Experience the power of interactive SEL curriculum

As we move forward, evidence-based social emotional learning (SEL) is a critical element of district mental health initiatives.

Kognito delivers a practice-based social emotional learning curriculum that helps educators and students build critical life skills to navigate difficult real-life situations, leading to more positive outcomes both in and out of the classroom.

Want to see why 94% of educators and 93% of students would recommend Kognito to others? We invite you to experience the power of role-play conversation with virtual humans by taking a demo today.

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