“Return to Learn” is a term used by those in the concussion field. It refers to research-based practices that guide clinicians, their patients, parents, and educators on how to care for those who have experienced head trauma in order to facilitate their return-to-learn process at a neurologically appropriate pace. The concept is one that school psychologists, counselors, and learning specialists can borrow and apply to mental health and education as students return to the classroom this fall, after a year or more of pandemic-based remote or hybrid learning.

Children Orphaned by COVID Going Back to School

Estimates suggest that, as of August 4, 2021, in the United States, approximately 145,800 children have lost their primary or secondary caregivers due to COVID-19. In addition, many have endured quarantines, food and house insecurity, fear, anxiety, and perhaps COVID infection themselves. We know that their mental health will be a very real impediment to learning. (More on treating adolescent anxiety as well as depression.)

In addition, we know that many students have experienced limited and inconsistent access to learning since March 2020. These circumstances and experiences take a toll and can set students up for failure. Byron McClure, EdD, NCSP, founder of Lessons for SEL (Social Emotional Learning) and a practitioner who has successfully fought to merge community and educational systems, addresses this clearly in his blog post, “Why Every School Must Have A Social Emotional Learning Plan Prior to Reopening:”

Without a doubt, this pandemic is wreaking havoc and causing a collective trauma…. This is a collective adverse childhood experience (ACE) that has directly or indirectly impacted everyone…. It’s important to understand these experiences because they can affect a student’s attention, decision-making ability, how they learn, and even how they respond to stress. Children who experience traumatic events may even have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships.

Return to Learn Strategies for School Psychologists and Counselors

So, how can learning specialists and school psychologists address the current emotional state of children and help students return to school?

Recall School Crisis Models

Fortunately, the field of education already has many protocols and research-based practices in place, although not all schools or educators are familiar or fluid in their use. “We can use systems developed during crises and extend those best practices to meet current needs,” Shane Jimerson, PhD, professor and department chair of counseling, clinical, and school psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Psycom Pro. In addition to using crisis models of intervention, we can borrow from the field of special education, which has been addressing similar challenges of identifying needs and providing interventions and accommodations for decades.

Best practices in these models include assessment, research-based programming, accommodations, creative scheduling, and a willingness to remain flexible. Many of these approaches may be familiar to those in the mental health care field but rarely in the context of collaboration with school systems and their local communities. Let’s look at a few of these models and how they can be broadened to help all students thrive this fall.

Apply Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

At first, the thought of assessing all students for reading, writing, math, executive skills, and mental health seems insurmountable. But if we begin by looking at the basic needs required to help all students become available to learn, we can begin to sort things out using simple informal assessments.

Consider starting with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which outlines the basic needs for all humans to thrive, and especially for students to be available to learn and perform. At the base level, students need food and housing security, good nutrition, and water and to turn their attentional systems to learning. Next, they need safety and good health – including mental health. The next level describes a sense of belonging, and finally esteem and self-esteem. When each of these is in place, and only then, is the student available to learn.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs for education, student needs

A simple district-wide questionnaire that queries these needs in the community (it could be anonymous if deemed appropriate), would allow schools and mental health counselors to prepare to meet students’ basic needs as we enter the school year.

In addition to preparing school districts to anticipate broad levels of need, this kind of informal inventory would also highlight those students who may be experiencing multiple or severe levels of need. Additional assessments could be added to determine the exact nature and/or impact of these elements to effectively plan for their specific social and emotional learning needs.

Lean on Professional Learning Communities

Once student needs are identified, interventions can be planned using fluid multiple levels of support. In this regard, we mimic the return to learn protocols developed for the concussion patient and can apply familiar collaborative strategies to help students return to learn safely and effectively.

Use Response to Intervention (RTI)

For example, school counselors may work with teachers and administrators to employ response to intervention (RTI), also known as multitiered systems of support, combining community mental health resources with school-based interventions to help students attain their greatest potential given difficult times.

The RTI concept is known to many educators in terms of reading and other academic skills and can easily be adapted for other uses. To address SEL, schools can offer research-based instruction to all students within the regular classroom at Tier I. Then, for those students who show continued or more intensive need, the school can offer Tier II levels of support, which typically include small group meetings and more targeted interventions and accommodations. Tier III involves even smaller groups or individualized instruction and accommodations for those with greater needs, or for those who do not seem to benefit from the lower, broader modes of intervention.

Response to Intervention (RTI) Figure

When implementing RTI, ongoing assessment and fluidity are crucial, with staff encouraged to “keep fingers on a pulse,” as Brian Lee, an assistant principal who utilizes professional learning communities within Leasure Elementary School, explained during a Harvard Data Wise Project MOOC course program. The Data Wise project, which educators can audit in part for free, aims to support schools and systems in equity initiatives so that every student can thrive. (Disclosure: The author was a course instructor for the program in 2009-2014, when it was run by Project Zero’s WIDE World.)

To help students move through carefully designed levels of instruction, and to manage the process at a systems level, professional learning communities can be used in new ways. Social workers, learning specialists, and counselors working in schools can invite our mental health care colleagues into these educational planning teams to ensure robust and responsive programming.

According to Kathryn Parker Boudett, PhD, senior lecturer on education and director of the Data Wise Project, professional learning teams “…typically consist of the principal and other instructionally oriented administrators and coaches, as well as teachers representing a wide range of grade levels or departments.” Teams are meant to focus on evidence. Boudette describes this more in the book, Data Wise: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Assessment Results to Improve Teaching and Learning.

While there are many approaches to establish and enhance professional learning communities, there are few as robust, accessible, and readily applicable as the Data Wise program which offers a step-by-step guide to using all kinds of assessment to improve teaching and learning. A school could use this approach to integrate social-emotional learning and support into school systems rapidly.

More strategies and current perspectives on returning to school during COVID pandemic.

Learning Support Always Comes Back to Funding and Training

Identifying and determining students’ areas of need for social-emotional support is essential, but where do we find the resources to implement these plans? Fortunately, there are federal funds streaming their way into the educational and mental health systems right now (largely as the result of COVID-19’s impact) and it is our job to advocate for smart and efficient use of these funds in well-defined best practices within the educational system. It’s time to attract more mental health professionals, pay them well, and formally integrate them into school systems to meet students’ and families’ growing needs head-on.

Thanks to the American Rescue Plan and other efforts, many legislators and state leaders are currently working to move funds to mental health and educational fields at unprecedented rates.

How to Identify and Apply for Mental Health Funding

  • Quickly train teachers using research-based mental health programs that are already in existence to address students at Tier I. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning or CASEL is a clearinghouse for exactly this type of programming – from assessment to classroom programs – and is research-based.
  • Use increased funding to bring community mental health providers into the school building to assist with Tiers II and III response to intervention
  • Shift school schedules to provide a flexible period (or multiple breaks) for students to decompress and/or meet with providers as needed
  • Adjust course offerings to create consult space in the schedule (eg, offer science and/or art in the fall term and save history and/or music for spring term)

There are many schools and systems that already embrace these approaches –  it makes sense to expand these programs to include even more schools, students, and families as we pivot and prepare to receive our students this fall. If unable to make these adjustments right away, remember that most schools take a hard look at student performance and programming about 6 weeks into the school year and can use that time to make adjustments and take advantage of professional development days (even if virtual) at that time.

We are in unprecedented times that call for unprecedented actions. With robust consideration of what works and some creative adjustments to address our local community needs, school psychologists and educators are in a position to optimize each student’s return to learn. As we strengthen our knowledge and understanding of multitiered support system benefits and as the COVID pandemic continues, we can better prepare ourselves for potential future crises that may affect our communities. We can and must re-envision our schools as systems that are woven into the fabric of each community, each classroom, each student.

Last Updated: Sep 13, 2021