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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brake

A Perfect Storm in K12 Education

Updated: Apr 3

According to the American Psychological Association, in their 2023 Trends Report:

“Kids’ mental health is in crisis.”

Taking a closer look, from 1999 until 2012, the percentage of high school students feeling sad or hopeless for at least two consecutive weeks hovered around 28 percent. Then it began to rise: 

  • 29.9 percent in 2013 and 2015 

  • 31.5 percent in 2017

  • 36.7 percent in 2019 

By 2021, that number was 42.3 percent. 

We do indeed have a mental health crisis in our schools. It is impacting the learning environment. It is contributing to the exodus of teachers. It is a major challenge for schools trying to develop and inspire future-ready students.

In focus groups conducted by The Grandview Group in 2022 and 2023, most of the 100 high school teachers participating had stories that put a face on this mental health crisis. They reported spending more time handling the second and third-order consequences of the crisis, time that impeded momentum and overall student engagement in the classroom. 

As important, the mental health crisis is taking a toll on teachers themselves. As reported by the National Institutes of Health in 2022, anxiety among US teachers ranged from 38 percent to 41.2%. Anxiety, depression, and stress are contributing to a teacher burnout rate ranging from 25.15 percent to 74 percent.

More Teachers are Leaving the Profession

A recent RAND report based on surveys of K12 teachers, found that educator well-being played a significant role in decisions to leave the profession.

A combination of job-related stress factors, including managing student behavior and dealing with mental health issues in the classroom, led many of them to other professions. They are not easily replaced, and not surprisingly, there is a shortage of substitute teachers.

So, what are these substitute teachers experiencing? In a survey conducted by Red Rover, an employee management software company for school districts, nearly 50 percent of substitute teachers indicated their classroom effectiveness would benefit from more trauma-informed teaching strategies. Translated: they need survival skills to deal with the depression, anxiety, and mental health issues in American classrooms.

How are School Districts Responding?

Meanwhile, back at the Superintendent’s office, most administrators are working tirelessly with their district and building teams to ensure that today’s students are graduating with the academic knowledge and hard and soft skills that will make them successful post-secondary students, employees, entrepreneurs, business owners, and citizens of a rapidly changing world. They are working with behavior health specialists, when they can find them, and community partners to address the mental health crisis. It’s a tall order.

The national shortage of behavior specialists and mental health counselors should be a major concern for school boards, parents, and every stakeholder in a school district. Brain scientists have known for some time that students with trauma-related mental health conditions can exhibit classroom behaviors that have been considered disruptive and inappropriate. Most teachers, substitutes, and paraprofessionals have not been trained to recognize the behaviors they see in the classroom as involuntary, natural responses to a triggering event. This underscores the Red Rover report where 50 percent of substitute teachers were asking for trauma-informed teaching strategies. 

Getting Out of the Storm

So, what’s the answer? Does anyone have a playbook that can help schools improve the learning environment, retain and train trauma-informed teachers, and develop future-ready students?

Unfortunately, there is not a universal playbook with proven strategies guaranteed to work for every school district. That’s the bad news. The good news is that every school system has the raw materials to assess their current realities and create their own playbook. The most crucial of these “raw materials” are the stakeholders themselves.

There is a tremendous amount of collective wisdom among stakeholders in every school district. There are resources and programs to help address each school district’s current realities. 

The key is getting stakeholders on the same page. More on that in my next blog post.


David Brake is the founder and CEO of The Grandview Group, a consulting firm that helps organizations engage their stakeholders and elevate impact. We would love to talk with you about how your organization is engaging stakeholders and elevating impact.

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