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How to Respond to the Growing Mental Health Crisis in Schools

According to both the American Psychological Association and the Center for Disease Control, there is an overwhelming demand for psychological services for school-age children. 

This translates into millions of children with severe underlying issues that stem from many sources, not the least of which is the ongoing effects of the pandemic.

Many initiatives are underway to send more mental health professionals into our educational institutions. As someone who has worked in the field for many years, I know that there are not enough of them to meet the need. 

School-based mental health specialists (psychologists, social workers, counselors, SEL coordinators) have traditionally been called on to provide services and consultation for all students. They and the classroom teachers are the first service responders students and parents encounter when difficulties arise. They are uniquely positioned to effect change and make a difference in mental health and wellness. This can only occur if they are in a psychologically healthy and safe space themselves. 

Society calls on educators to respond to all students in the face of a worldwide pandemic, which has taken a devastating physical, social, and emotional toll. While meeting all of the individual needs is an impossibility, we can offer schools a simple point of view and process that can profoundly affect the mental health of learners, educators, and parents going forward as we face an uncertain future.

We can promote productive learning and mental health by fostering psychological flexibility and psychological safety. When educators and learners communicate on shared purposes, establish conditions for monitoring the learning space together, and collaborate, they create nurturing and empowering environments.

Psychological flexibility is a crucial ingredient to psychological health. I refer to it simply as noticing what works (and doesn't work) to get you where you want to go, especially when uncomfortable and unwanted memories, thoughts, and emotions "show up." It is the ability to act in the face of difficulties, setbacks, and disappointments while continuing to move toward what matters.

Psychological safety is the feeling that those I am with "have my back" and respect my opinions. When psychological safety exists, groups have a sense of shared purpose and pull together to help each other out. They feel validated and want to contribute to achieving common goals.

Having psychological flexibility and safety does not mean that all problems are solved. Still, it significantly increases the chances that students, parents, teachers, and educators will develop actions that work to move toward success while reducing psychological inflexibility.

Psychological "inflexibility" is a significant obstacle to learning. It leads to avoiding challenges and difficulties. We naturally want to avoid danger and seek safety. However, applying inflexibility to unwanted internal experiences such as thoughts and emotions limits our effective action range. When students (and educators) struggle in school, less time and energy is spent pursuing what is important and worthwhile. And stress increases!


There are countless ways to promote psychological flexibility. Schools need ways that are easy to implement. Something that everyone can do. Something immediately useful. Here are a few resources you can access through National Professional Resources. They are available as laminated guides for use in schools. Use the code SELM22 for a 15% discount (Disclaimer: my guide is there too).

I use the ACT Matrix. ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Training. I offer free training in promoting mental health and social-emotional learning that you can access here.

The ACT Matrix (Polk et al., 2014) is a highly effective intervention to promote mental health in education. It is derived from the evidence-based science of what works. Dr. Kevin Polk developed the model. The Matrix is a visual and verbal cognitive, emotional, and behavioral flexibility process.

Students and teachers use the Matrix to sort experiences and shared perspectives while becoming psychologically flexible. New collaborative behaviors work to help them continue on their way. Once students experience and learn the process, they can do it on their own anytime they want. In short, they learn how to take charge of their own mental health over time. Teachers and educators experience the same benefits and psychological safety flourishes.

The more opportunities we take to promote psychological flexibility and safety with our students, the more they develop resiliency in facing the obstacles they will eventually encounter. School professionals can accomplish this with the Matrix without stepping out of their roles as educators. They simply show and model the Matrix point of view and return to it as needed. So we can support and challenge ourselves and our students by promoting our own flexibility and collaborating with our fellow educators and learners to discover what works together.

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