Editor’s Note: Today’s post provides an excerpt from a new resource from ACSI Research called “Leading Insights: Mental Health & Well-Being.” To download the first chapter and order your copy of the full resource, please click here.
The Heart of a Christian School’s Mission
At the heart of Christian schools’ missions is ministry to children. Christian educators desire that students flourish and achieve their God-given potential both educationally and spiritually. And yet, the reality of living in a fallen world means that every student will experience brokenness at some point in their lives, whether from family issues, relational conflict, trauma, poor self-image, social pressures, or a variety of other sources. And research suggests that mental health issues are on the rise among today’s school-age students; the American Psychiatric Association found in 2017 that 34 percent—over one-third—of students were being treated for some sort of mental health issue, compared to 19 percent of students in 2007 (Ketchen et al. 2018). Christian school educators need to develop an approach to mental health and well-being that is grounded in a biblical worldview and reflects the Christ-centered principles upon which their schools are founded. This new resource from ACSI will help Christian school educators to do just that.
A Biblical Foundation
Most Christian school leaders and teachers perceive the urgency of mental health trends and desire to care for the whole student. Yet most will find themselves unprepared to meet students’ needs, as addressing students’ mental health concerns is not typically part of either formal educational preparation or on-the-job training for Christian educators. Complicating matters further, many Christian schools do not have the resources necessary for hiring full-time, qualified mental health personnel on staff. These realities can create a serious gap in Christian schools’ duty to care for individual students in need, as well as to provide a healthy learning environment conducive to all students’ flourishing. Moreover, many Christian school educators are in need of a biblically-based understanding of mental health and well-being, in the midst of differing worldviews and approaches in modern culture.
This is to say nothing of the growing mental health concerns for educators, who face increasing levels of stress and burnout (Miller et al. 2020). These trends have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Will 2021) with Christian school leaders citing overwork of teachers and the mental health of all staff as their top concerns (Swaner and Lee 2020). While troubling in and of itself, the decline in educator well-being is even more concerning because of its potential impact on students; as research has shown, “teacher burnout appears to affect the stress levels of the students they teach” (Lever et al. 2019, 6).
These concerns—and the corresponding risk to students, leaders, and teachers, and the school community as a whole—can be mitigated if schools become more proactive and intentional in addressing student and educator mental health. This will certainly require increases and improvements in schoolwide prevention efforts, safety nets, systems of care, collaborative support teams, staff training, and clear policies and procedures. But as mentioned, it will also mean developing a whole-school approach to well-being—one that is grounded in a biblical philosophy of education and tailored to each school’s unique context. Research has demonstrated that constructs within the Flourishing Schools domain of well-being are correlated with flourishing in the Christian school setting (Swaner and Wolfe 2021), including stress (feelings of being overwhelmed for teachers and leaders) and resilience (students’ ability to handle stress effectively and respond well to difficult situations).
Developing Systematic Programs and Policies
This issue of ACSI’s Leading Insights series is designed to help Christian school leaders develop systematic programs and policies to not only address mental health concerns of students, but also promote student well-being within a biblical framework and drawing upon best practices.
To this end, the monograph is divided into three sections:
- In the first section, on Philosophy and Research, chapters address topics like defining well-being and developing a schoolwide philosophy of mental health from a biblical worldview (Chapter 1); understanding factors, influences, and trends impacting student mental health (Chapter 2); and exploring unique factors affecting Christian schools (Chapter 3).
- In the second section, on Christian School Perspectives of mental health and well-being, readers will gain insights from a school counselor in a Christian school setting (Chapter 4); a director of evaluation services who specializes in supporting students in the classroom through trauma-informed instruction (Chapter 5); and two Christian wellness advocates and consultants who explore educator well-being and the importance of leader and teacher mental health (Chapter 6).
- In the final part of the monograph, on Programs and Practices, Christian professional counselors share specifics around how schools can develop a comprehensive approach to student mental health and well-being, including core components for care (Chapter 7), how to systematize support for students (Chapter 8), and the basics of crisis intervention in the school setting (Chapter 9). Real-life case studies and reflection questions are also provided across several of the chapters, as well as a final resources section.
Christian educators will find this resource useful, whether their schools are just beginning the process of addressing student mental health, or have already begun developing programs and policies. When taken together, practical recommendations in these areas can help administrators to reduce their sense of vulnerability in the face of mental health concerns, while equipping them to care holistically for students and the school community’s needs.
Ultimately, as we consider the mental health and well-being of our students and all within our school community, we can take encouragement from Psalm 115:14 (NIV): “May the Lord cause you to flourish, both you and your children.” This blessing certainly applies to us as educators and also to the children within our own families, but also may be extended to Christian schools as they seek to partner with parents in fulfilling their Deuteronomy 6 responsibility to disciple their children. May we seek to excel all the more at intentionally addressing student and educator mental health within the biblical framework at the core of our Christian schools, with the goal of increased flourishing for all those in our care.
About the Author
Dr. Lynn E. Swaner is the chief strategy and innovation officer at the Association of Christian Schools International, where she leads initiatives and develops strategies to address compelling questions and challenges facing Christian education. Dr. Swaner serves as a Cardus senior fellow and is the co-author or editor of numerous books on Christian education, including Flourishing Together: A Christian Vision for Students, Educators, and Schools< and MindShift: Catalyzing Change in Christian Education. She can be reached via email at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @LynnSwaner1.