Positive School Climate: Improving Student Mental Health and Wellbeing

An intentionally positive school climate’s impact on improving student mental health and well-being is well documented.
John S Young
Mar 1, 2024
A collaborative plan to boost student wellbeing.

School climate is affected by everything and everyone in the school ecosystem. Individuals’ perceptions of self-worth, ability and value affect school climate. School climate is significant when addressing students’ social-emotional well-being and academic achievement and is crucial when developing inviting schools where students engage and want to learn.

Appointed by the Hon Jason Clare MP, Federal Minister for Education, Dr Lisa O’Brien chairs the review panel to determine the targets and reforms to be funded in the National School Reform Agreement (NSRA). The review will look at how public funding is delivering on national agreements. Closing the Gap (CTG) and improving Australia’s social cohesion each depend on improving the data and improving equity in education. A key recommendation of the CTG Report in 2023 states:
“Australian governments, in partnership with the community-controlled sector, develop strengths-based, place-based, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-led social and emotional wellbeing initiatives.”

As the Hon Jason Clare MP, Federal Minister for Education said: “Australia has a good school education system, but it can be a lot better and a lot fairer.”

The scope of the reform includes how the next agreement can contribute to improving student mental health and wellbeing. The NSRA will seek to address in-school factors while acknowledging the impact of non-school factors.

Across Western Australia student mental health is now one of teachers' most significant concerns. Teachers have been critical about a lack of support. The State School Teachers' Union of Western Australia and the WA Principals' Federation want improved interagency collaboration between the Department of Education and Health Department.

The Commissioner for Children and Young People in Western Australia said in 2024:

“What is needed is a holistic, integrated approach to health and mental health care that prioritises health promotion and prevention; provides effective early diagnosis, intervention and support; provides universal access to affordable health and mental health care; implements culturally safe practices, empowers children and young people to make decisions about their health and wellbeing; and ensures the wellbeing of children and young people with complex and intersecting needs.”

As the Director-General of the World Health Organisation Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said:  “Ultimately, there is no health without mental health.”

In 2023, a survey* of 2369 teachers across Australia saw 84% choose poor mental health as the #1 problem affecting young people.

(*The Beyond Blue survey of 2,369 schoolteachers across Australia, asked to pick the top three major health issues facing people under 18.)

In March 2023, the National Australia Bank reported:
“1 in 5 high school age students identify as having ‘low’ levels of mental wellbeing. Compared to a year ago, on balance just 1 in 10 students said their mental wellbeing had improved. Almost 1 in 2 students said school wellbeing programs did not help much. Around 1 in 5 parents believe their children don’t have any personal concerns or worries. This is not to imply that parents don’t care. In fact, there is much to suggests quite the opposite. But it does raise some important questions, particularly for schools, around how young people feel. “ (NAB Education Insights Special Report (Part 1) March 2023, Page 5).

The 2023 Beyond Blue statistics and the results of the NAB research, bring challenges and opportunities. Schools must have an increasing focus on mental health and wellbeing. Parental expectations around effective wellbeing strategies for students are increasing.

Teachers and the whole school community play a significant role in promoting learner wellbeing. Academic achievement and student wellbeing have a synergy that is important to improve learning. And, measuring the impact is important for any whole-of-school community wellbeing program.

An ambitious example of interagency cooperation is being developed on Long Island and could provide insight and guidance for Australia. The Nassau County Schools’ Mental Wellness Collaborative developed a guide to address the growing increase of mental health issues in school communities.

Superintendents in over fifty independent school districts in Nassau County, Long Island, New York, created The Nassau County Schools’ Mental Wellness Collaborative to help districts develop partnerships with community-based service providers and address growing concerns about mental health, substance abuse, mental wellness, and social-emotional learning (SEL) in Nassau County.

The purpose is to raise awareness, cultivate strategic community partnerships, provide resources and suggest best practices.  The guide has already fostered numerous school and health agency partnerships which are bringing additional resources to local schools and families. The Nassau County Mental Health and Wellness Strategic Plan has five key areas:

Mental Wellness Team Development and Leadership
Establishing a team to put policies and processes in place is fundamental. The team and its members develop the systems and practices needed to carry out teaching and learning; ensure that students receive access to supports; create systems that support a healthy workforce; and measure the program’s effectiveness.

The wellness team uses a multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS). MTSS is a data-driven, problem-solving framework designed to improve outcomes for all students. It relies on a continuum of evidence-based practices matched to student needs.

Staff Mental Wellness and Social and Emotional Literacy
A safe and supportive school relies on everyone. Developing a positive school climate is crucial. A shared mindset and an intentional way of communicating are important. Positive communication skills do not excuse poor behavioural choices.

We can strive to understand others' behavioural choices and invite them to resolve situations. Understanding means a greater willingness to set things right. The shared mindset and intentional communication are pivotal.

It is important that adults model the social and emotional skills consistently. These are same skills that SEL programs teach. Learning and applying these skills helps all school adults to enjoy mental wellness and respectful, trusting relationships. And, in turn, to contribute to the wellness and success of students.

Interventions in Schools for Students
School climate is a significant predictor of academic and social success. Teaching explicit social and emotional skills is an important consideration in contemporary schools. Many schools are implementing an evidence based Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Program. They provide Tier 1 interventions to the entire student population.

Seven major areas of focus for student mental health initiatives include: implementing SEL programs; creating building level initiatives and strategies; supporting SEL skills and concepts building-wide; using mental health screening and assessments; addressing child sexual abuse; responding to death and trauma; and, monitoring the use of technology.

Home Engagement
Home Engagement is a strategic plan to support students' mental health and wellness. "Home" encompasses parents, siblings an extended family members who care for students. It includes “home” settings, for children who are living in foster care or in shelters. A plan for Home Engagement plays a critical role for the benefit and support of all children. As such, a school district should create a Home Engagement Strategic Plan (HESP).

Community-Based Partnerships
A system of care refers to community-based services and supports for children at risk. It includes mental health, substance abuse, medical, social and other challenges. Home and community-based services and supports target individual needs in a coordinated strategy. Linguistic and cultural competence underpin the strategy.

In Australia, collaborations with schools and mental and physical health service organizations (HUBS) have proven to improve the quality of life for both students and caregivers, as these needs must be addressed before a student will be ‘available’ for learning.

To address the shortage of mental health professionals in schools, the U.S. Department of Education has launched the Long Island Mental Health Professional Expansion Project Scholarship. The scholarships will empower local professionals working in school communities with the highest need of support. The goal of this program is to increase the number and diversity of high-quality, trained providers available to address the shortages of mental health services professionals in schools.

Feedback on the success of the Nassau County Schools’ Mental Health and Wellness Collaborative has been promising. Facing an exponential increase in students’ mental health concerns following Covid-19, schools have been buoyed by the strategic and targeted support afforded by the collaborative approach. The  Nassau collaborative has a long-term commitment to improving positive school climate. There are lessons that can be learned from the strategy to help shape the thinking in Australia about the National School Reform Agreement and Closing the Gap.

Key facts
• Globally, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder, accounting for 13% of the global burden of disease in this age group.
• Depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents.
• Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-29 year-olds.
• The consequences of failing to address adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.

Image by Luis Dalvan