From awareness to action: Expanding mental health resources for students, families and educators

In recent years, educators in day schools have voiced growing concern regarding the need to better support students facing mental health and social-emotional challenges. This concern is not unfounded: Recent data underscores a noticeable uptick in the prevalence and severity of mental health issues among school-aged children, a trend that is mirrored within local day school communities. 

Approximately one-fifth of children and adolescents aged 3-17 in the United States experience a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder. Furthermore, instances of suicidal behaviors among high school students surged by over 40% in the decade leading up to 2019. These statistics paint a stark picture of the pressing need for proactive intervention and support mechanisms within educational settings. Amidst these escalating concerns, day school staff find themselves under mounting pressure to adopt a more robust stance in addressing mental health issues. 

At the core of our mission at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education is a commitment to ensuring access to Jewish education for every child who seeks it. Attuned to the evolving needs of the day school community, we recognized mental health challenges as a significant barrier to learning in Jewish day schools and expanded our focus to proactively address this area accordingly.

With the visionary support of the Ruderman Family Foundation,  Gateways is pioneering innovative solutions that tackle mental health-related barriers to learning head-on. Understanding the complex web of relationships and influences — educators, peers, parents, culture — that shape a child’s mental well-being in school, we have developed a holistic, comprehensive approach to support students’ mental wellness at every level.

Central to Gateways’ approach is recognition of the need for substantial intervention in mental health. Through a generous grant from the Ruderman Family Foundation, in 2018 Gateways began a mental health initiative that utilized the concept of the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS), a systemic approach adopted by public schools to promote students’ social-emotional well-being and proactively support those with mental health challenges. MTSS features three tiers, each offering a tailored set of interventions to provide comprehensive support to educators, students and families. 

This Ruderman-funded initiative empowered Gateways to expand its scope to deploy its expertise and resources to improve mental health outcomes in Jewish educational settings. Through this work, Gateways has found that schools can equip educators with the tools and insights to support students grappling with mental health challenges through the following types of targeted interventions:

Universal supports and teacher training: A key lesson for other organizations is the importance of equipping teachers with adequate training to identify and respond to signs of mental health struggles. Gateways’ MTSS emphasizes universal supports that benefit all students. Programs like Youth Mental Health First Aid provide teachers with essential skills to recognize and address student needs effectively. Additionally, prioritizing teachers’ own mental health through training and support in areas such as trauma and resilience can create a more supportive and effective educational environment. Jewish institutions can similarly invest in comprehensive teacher training programs to foster a healthier school community.

Integration of social-emotional learning (SEL): Recognizing the profound impact of SEL on student outcomes, Gateways integrates it throughout its educational programs. The adoption of the collaborative problem-solving (CPS) method, supported by the Beker Family Foundation, has been instrumental in reframing how educators view and address challenging behaviors. CPS teaches that challenging behavior often stems from a lack of necessary skills rather than a lack of will. This approach has been effective in reducing challenging behavior, teaching essential skills and fostering positive relationships. Other Jewish institutions can benefit from incorporating SEL programs and CPS training to improve student behavior and the overall school climate.

Community education and stigma reduction: Gateways emphasizes the importance of community education to combat the stigmas surrounding mental illness. For example, Gateways ran a mental health webinar series, with the support of The Miriam Fund, which provided valuable resources for parents, caregivers and educators within the Jewish community. Additionally, inviting young adults to share their lived experiences with mental illness with students helps to normalize conversations about mental health. Jewish institutions can replicate these initiatives to foster open dialogue and reduce stigma in their communities.

Targeted interventions and in-school therapy: As the need for more individualized support grows, targeted direct interventions, including in-school therapy, can make a difference in student mental health outcomes. With support from the Beker Foundation, Gateways launched in-school counseling for Boston-area day school students. This in-school counseling was crucial for addressing growing mental health needs among students, who often face lengthy waitlists and other logistical barriers to accessing other outside therapy. Furthermore, partnering with local mental health clinics and professionals to provide this one-on-one in-school therapy allows this model to become sustainable. 

Intensive interventions for students in crisis: At the highest level of Gateways’ MTSS framework, Tier 3, intensive interventions are provided for students in crisis. A bridge program offers a structured transition back into regular learning for students experiencing severe mental health challenges, allowing them to remain in their regular educational environments. Gateways’ Bridge Program, supported by a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, is currently being piloted in two Jewish day schools, with plans for expansion. Other Jewish institutions can look to the Bridge Program as a model for supporting students in crisis, ensuring they receive the necessary care while continuing their education.

By using schools, parents, mental health professionals and philanthropic and community leaders, Gateways has leveraged collective wisdom and resources to effect meaningful change. When we implement a continuum of interventions across different tiers, we empower educators, students and families to navigate the complex landscape of mental health with resilience and compassion, and we clear a path for them to engage meaningfully in Jewish community. As societal challenges evolve, Jewish institutions have an opportunity to be at the forefront of mental health advocacy within Jewish education. By acting now, we can foster more resilient Jewish communities and pave the way for a brighter, mentally healthier future for all our students.

Ali Shwartz is the staff mental health specialist and Sharon Goldstein is the director of day school programs at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education. Ali Shwartz has worked as a school psychologist in both the public and private sectors, providing comprehensive mental health support within school settings. Sharon Goldstein is a licensed clinical social worker and worked in child welfare before coming to Gateways.