In the process of focusing on students’ academic success, teachers, administrators and other school employees may lose sight of the sense of belonging and feeling cared for that form the base of students’ wellbeing.

Now, with help of an award from the American Educational Research Association, a faculty member from Washington State University Spokane is working with the Northeast Washington Educational Service District 101 (NEWESD) to buck that trend in K-12th graders in Eastern Washington.

Jeff Walls, an assistant professor of educational leadership at WSU Spokane, said a lot of problems schools face have to do with uneven or insufficient social support and students’ lack of a sense of belonging.

“Anxiety, depression, and self-harm are at alarming levels among students,” Walls said. “But even without mental health problems there’s a lot of students who feel like school is just about achievement, and not as much about relationships or being in a community.”

Walls said many of the social and emotional wellbeing issues students struggle with currently get dealt with at the school level. He thinks officials and policymakers at the district level need to play a greater role in addressing these issues as they are a systemic problem and  there are many resources – social workers and counselors, to name a few – that are shared across schools.

“Plus, there are a lot of students who move among schools, so it makes sense to have some common programming,” he said.

Earlier this year, Walls presented his research examining how organizational policies and practices can help support students’ emotional and social needs to all superintendents in the region.

NEWESD superintendent Michael Dunn said that districts were sold.

“It is hard to argue with its importance, so in the spirit of wanting to do what is right, and in being a good partner with higher education, we see this as a very worthy undertaking,” Dunn said.

No one-size-fits-all definition

Walls said caring isn’t a one-size-fits-all practice. It is something that is specific to the individual needs of students. Thus, it doesn’t so much matter what he thinks caring is, but what the student who needs the caring thinks it is.

“I also think that for schools, but especially for districts, caring and social support aren’t so much ‘overlooked’ as it is something that has been taken for granted, or that districts haven’t had to think about before,” Walls said. “We assume that teachers really care for kids, and often they do, but there are also kids who don’t have an adult at school who they can turn to, and there are also a lot of kids who feel like the adults in their lives care for them, but this often gets crowded out by academic expectations and pressure to achieve.”

As part of the project, NEWESD officials will help connect Walls with superintendents and district leaders so that he can interview them about what they currently are doing to provide system-level support for student care, as well as what they feel their shortcomings and areas for growth are.

“At NEWESD, we are a conduit to, a convener of, and a collaborator with the 59 public school districts and the public charter and private schools in our region,” Dunn said. “We will work with Dr. Walls in helping him have access to them, and them to him. And because this is a topic he cares about, and we care about, we are all interested to learn from it.”

Ultimately, Walls said the project will result in a rubric and toolkit to help district leaders assess their current strengths and weakness in supporting caring schools, as well as develop recommendations and organizational activities to build capacity to address identified weaknesses.

“Districts often find themselves reacting to problems or tragedies, such as bullying or attempted suicides, but I hope this can help them with proactive plans to help students feel supported,” Walls said.