You want your children to do well in school? Fund licensed mental health professionals

By Lucinda Mills
Special to the Reporter

Boston Public School students are in the homestretch of the academic year. Under the best of circumstances, looming final exams and grades are a stressful time for students. Enter the complexities and life stressors that many students in our school system face, and the challenge to achieve and thrive becomes much more difficult.

Traumatic events, both in the headlines and outside of public view, happen every day, affecting students and impacting their ability to learn. Half of the students in the Boston Public School system live in economically disadvantaged homes. At least 4,200 are homeless. Facing a steady drumbeat of abuse, neglect, hunger, unresolved immigration status, or housing insecurity, our students bring to school many challenges. These obstacles can stand in the way of successfully completing their year and achieving the outcomes they should.

Importantly, these different circumstances point to the vital role psychologists and social workers play in helping students to be ready and able to learn in the classroom. For too long, these professionals have been thought to be an expendable, nice-to-have resource. The truth is that many students in urban schools simply cannot function without the crucial services provided by skilled — and licensed — mental health professionals.
Currently, the Boston Public Schools have been forced to patch gaping holes in our social and emotional wellness staff with budgetary Band-Aids. Staff members are stretched thin, required to cover the needs of more than one school. Of course, this means that when the need for them arises, they often are not available.

That staff members are being asked to be in two places at once means that the Boston Public Schools cannot hope to attract and retain the best nurses, psychologists, social workers, and other social and emotional wellness professionals. Boston’s students deserve the best. 

Additionally, the school system is currently getting by with unlicensed mental health professionals. This is inadequate on a day-to-day basis, but that deficit becomes all the more clear when crises strike. Behavioral health staff members, including psychologists and social workers (pupil adjustment counselors), are the first responders to school-wide and personal student crises, helping to connect students and families to appropriate outside resources when needed.

Teachers, nurses, and principals all look for support from school mental health professionals, both to triage emergent crises and to implement proactive programs to improve students’ mental health, social skills, and healthy decision-making. The services provided by school psychologists and social workers support virtually every area of the lives of students, including school safety.

School psychologists’ and social workers’ efforts elevate individual student achievement, improve school outcomes, and strengthen communities. Interventions that foster students’ engagement in school have been shown to reduce high school dropout rates and improve academic performance. Psychologists and pupil adjustment counselors are indispensable members of Individualized Education Plan (IEP) teams, helping to determine which students need special services and what supports will be most helpful. 

A long-awaited discussion is taking place on Beacon Hill that could result in more money being distributed to school systems in Boston and all around the state. The public and their lawmakers have noticed the chronic underfunding of public education. This realization has been a long time coming. But as this conversation and the ensuing legislation evolves, we must keep in mind that the costs of social and emotional learning are an integral part of the formula of what it takes to educate a student. Social-emotional support staff is not a ‘nice to have’; it is a must.

Lucinda Mills is a Boston Teachers Union member and a Pupil Adjustment Counselor/School Social Worker with the Behavioral Health Services Department.