Youth mental health drives student learning

by Katie Dorn on May 19, 2021

As we count down the days to this school year finally ending, we are witnessing the disengagement and mental health struggles of students continue to rise. And the data from the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic supports what we are seeing on the front lines: American’s mental health needs have skyrocketed, and young people’s mental health needs are at an all-time high.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that a third of students struggled with anxiety, depression, trauma or attention issues that made it hard to focus, stay motivated and engaged, much less learn. Then the pandemic hit, and families were forced to adjust to constantly-changing learning models, social distancing, canceled events and lost milestones. It’s been a lot.


A school year full of unpredictable changes and losses did nothing but amplify threats to student mental health. This reality left large groups of students feeling chronically overwhelmed, disengaged, stressed, unmotivated and anxious.

Teen girl looking at laptop computer

The trouble is, learning takes a back seat when students are unable to focus and engage,  which comes as no surprise to educators.

Academic loss for students who have navigated the pandemic is a reality across the entire country right now, especially for students who had the fewest academic opportunities before the pandemic began.

But even after a school year like we’ve just had, schools and families have a tremendous opportunity to work together and create a bright future for students. The more caring adults a student has, at home and at school, the greater potential for health and healing. 

And with May being Youth Mental Health Month, it’s the perfect time to think about the ways we can work together to help our children and teenagers emerge from the last year with the resilience and persistence that lead to success in school and success in life.


  • Understand the signs of a student who is struggling with mental health. Pay attention to attitudes, behavior, attendance and grades. Teachers, office staff and leaders are all experts at picking up on these types of changes. And noticing a student with signs of chronic stress or overwhelm is the perfect opportunity to intentionally connect with the student and their family to express caring concern and learn more. 

  • Offer evidence-based SEL support to all students. Especially in 2021, it’s time to move beyond the status quo when it comes to counseling in schools. Every single student benefits from a high-quality SEL program, and students with advanced needs or concerns should be provided individualized support to reduce the effects of stress and anxiety and increase success in the classroom. School-based Tier 1 and Tier 2 interventions should be standard in every school.

  • Make early, evidence-based interventions your priority. Whether academics or behavior, school leaders know that early interventions are the key to preventing more costly and time-consuming support. System-wide professional learning and new curriculum adoption are too slow for a student body whose mental health needs are now at an all-time high. Instead, look for turnkey solutions based on the latest SEL research that connect students quickly to evidence-based interventions, extending the reach of your existing mental health team.

  • Offer services from licensed mental health professionals. A school’s team of counselors, psychologists and social workers is a real credit to the value a school places on all students’ wellbeing. However, coming out of the pandemic, our youth mental health crisis is too big for the traditional counseling support model. As student needs for mental health support have increased, capacity must keep up. Partnering with an evidence-based, scalable SEL program allows your school to serve more students in need of additional support, including Tier 2 students in need of one-on-one interventions, at a fraction of the cost of an additional counselor. 

  • Let teachers teach. Teachers are gifted champions of student growth, and students are more likely to succeed when they have a trusted connection to at least one teacher at school. But teachers should not bear the burden of delivering the intensive mental health and coping supports that students need now. The work of delivering support to students should rest on the shoulders of the school’s counseling and mental health team, or a partner specializing in evidence-based strategies.


  • Understand the signs of a struggling young person at home. Parents and guardians know their children better than anyone at school, and they’re likely to notice changes in behavior, attitudes and school work in the earliest stages, when helpful support is the simplest to provide. Keep an open line with your child’s teacher, counselor or principal to share any concerns that you notice so that you can work together.

  • Daily connection for every kid. It doesn’t matter how young and naive — or old and annoyed — a student is. Kids need to feel seen and heard by the adults in their lives, especially at home. A habit of small talk in the car, or sharing “highs and lows” at meal times can create the space your child needs to bring up other conversations. Not sure what to say? These strategies to get teenagers talking can enhance communication with people of any virtually age.

  • Contact the school for support. A parent whose child is out of sorts for more than a few days should reach out to the school to learn what services are available. Many schools have licensed mental health professionals on their team who can provide different types of social, emotional and mental health support to any student in need. To jump start learning and social-emotional support before school starts in the fall, check out EmpowerU’s summer program, open to any Minnesota student as space is available.

  • Focus on the value of small steps for bigger change. A struggling student is likely overwhelmed and uncertain of how to “fix” what’s wrong. While it’s tempting to see the big picture and suggest sweeping changes, the evidence and brain research tells us that the shortest path to lasting change comes in small steps toward changing daily habits. Parents and kids can work together to identify one small habit — personal, social, emotional or academic — to become a focus. Then families can look for ways to point out and celebrate progress and small successes along the way. 

  • Know when more help is needed. Some concerns or struggles require the intensive support of a professional therapist. If the school-based supports are not enough, ask for a referral to community-based resources, or look up the Community Mental Health Center that serves your area. Under federal and state law, CMHCs offer behavioral health services to any resident, with a sliding scale for fees and payments. And if you ever suspect your child is at risk for hurting themself or someone else, call the Crisis Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the word HELLO to 741741. Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


Schools that focus on building social and emotional skills have better results in the short- and long-term than schools that are simply focused on raising test scores. 

Research shows that students who receive social-emotional and mental health support have higher grades, fewer absences, fewer arrests and disciplinary issues, and graduate and attend college at higher rates. The data makes it clear that schools will only be successful when they prioritize the mental health and social-emotional needs of students, particularly the students who had the fewest academic opportunities before the pandemic. 


The cost of disengaged and unmotivated students is enormous to school districts. When a student misses school, it costs the district on average $70 per day in direct lost revenues and re-teaching time. And when anxiety or depression levels rise to a level that requires Tier 3 school support (i.e., special education), it costs schools an average of $5,000 to complete an evaluation for special education and an additional $17,000 per student per year to educate this student. 

In the last several months, supporting social-emotional and mental health needs for students and educators has moved from nice to have to must have. To maximize the benefit of any investment, school system leaders should seek an evidence-based turnkey program shown to help students meet academic milestones equitably and create long-term benefits for student resilience, persistence and success. 

A study in 2018 found that for every $1 invested in SEL programs, there is a direct cost benefit to the school district of $11 gained from reduced mental health and disciplinary issues and increased academic achievement. 

Your SEL Funding Toolkit

Recently, legislation for the CARES Act, ESSER II and now ESSER III have earmarked billions of dollars to help states and districts make up for lost time in the classroom. With new federal dollars, districts have the opportunity to thoughtfully embed turnkey, holistic SEL solutions that will support student mental health and social-emotional development with an intentional focus on increasing student coping skills, persistence and resilience.




Katie Dorn, MA, LSC, MFT is co-founder of EmpowerU and an experienced licensed school counselor and therapist. A mother of seven grown children and a successful entrepreneur and author, Katie is a strategic thinker with an ability to connect and build functional and productive teams. Her passion for finding effective ways to help students and families with mental health obstacles has fueled her work for EmpowerU since 2015.



EmpowerU’s highly personalized, online social-emotional learning program helps young people replace anxiety and depression with resilience and confidence, fueling student transformation without a heavy lift on staff or need for additional hires. We provide each student interactive lessons and personalized coaching, and we pair technology with brain research in a unique way that supports students and empowers them to grow. Our multi-year data makes it clear: Nobody else understands Multi-Tiered System of Supports and approaches SEL the way we do at EmpowerU.

Topics: student resilience, social emotional learning