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Collaborating to Support Student Well-being

By Megan Gildin- October 25, 2023

Have you ever had someone tell you to “calm down” when you are in the midst of a stressful moment? Or maybe you’ve said this to a student, colleague, or loved one when they are upset. I’m going to guess that in all of these scenarios, the unsolicited advice to “calm down” did not go over well. This is likely because the support provided did not match the need of the person or gravity of the situation.

The same is true when it comes to supporting student well-being. In recent years, we have seen an alarming increase in student mental health challenges. In 2021, the mental health crisis had escalated to such a level that the U.S. Surgeon General released an advisory on protecting youth mental health.  Schools are charged with preparing students for success in school and in life. This involves supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development. But we haven’t always met the needs of students or understood the gravity of the problem. 

However, in the past few years, we have seen an increased investment in interventions to support student mental health and well-being. When we strategize ways to support student well-being, it is important to consider multiple approaches and how they work together. Some approaches are proactive, and can benefit all students, while other approaches are more responsive and address specific needs of individual students. For example, students co-creating classroom norms with their teacher for how they want to treat each other is a proactive social and emotional learning (SEL) strategy that can help students feel a sense of support and belonging. However, those classroom norms may not address all the needs of a student experiencing anxiety, as they may also need additional accommodations or mental health services.

What is SEL?  What is School mental health?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) and school mental health are two approaches that are often highlighted to support student well-being. These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, which can cause confusion and misinformation about their purpose and use. SEL and school mental health should be implemented as two approaches in a larger system of supports. It is important to understand how these two approaches differ, and the relationship between them, so that school communities can implement them in ways that properly meet the needs of students.

  • SEL is a proactive, strengths-based support that can help all students (and adults) develop social and emotional skills like identifying and managing emotions, building supportive relationships, and making responsible decisions. SEL can promote positive mental health and provide individuals with skills they need to successfully navigate school, work, and life.
  • School mental health includes services and supports that promote mental health and provide interventions for those facing mental health challenges. Both SEL and school mental health supports are integral to cultivating a positive learning environment and nurturing student well-being.

To learn more about SEL and school mental health, check out this three-part blog series from the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments on SEL and Mental Health Myths:

As you read these blogs, consider how the two approaches differ and how they can best be utilized to support student and staff well-being. Additionally, consider your role in supporting student well-being, and how you can collaborate with others, including colleagues, families, and community-based organizations, to ensure students are receiving the supports they need for their social, emotional, and academic well-being.

Ongoing efforts in Illinois

Region 9’s work with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) Office of Safe and Healthy Climate places supporting student well-being at the center of our work. The need for diverse approaches is reflected in the increased investment in the variety of initiatives that are implemented by the Office and Safe and Healthy Climate, Wellness Department, Student Care Department, and Nutrition Department. Across these departments, we see a variety of initiatives that provide both proactive and responsive supports including SEL Hubs, mental health, out of school time, Resilience Education to Advance Community Healing (REACH) Statewide Initiative, Bullying Prevention, Student Voices, School Nutrition Programs, and many more. By providing supports that are both proactive and responsive, and address the multitude of student needs, ISBE can ensure that schools, districts, and families are receiving what they need to support student well-being across the state of Illinois.

This year, Region 9 is supporting ISBE’s Office of Safe and Healthy Climate, Wellness Department, Student Care Department, and Nutrition Department in further aligning their various student wellness initiatives across all departments and setting strategic goals. Region 9 will also provide support in mapping the available mental health supports across the state to help ISBE in identifying areas of need as well as provide ongoing thought-partnership to support the advancement of SEL implementation across the state. Through these efforts, the ISBE team will be better able to maximize student wellness initiatives and support schools and districts across Illinois in implementing multiple approaches to support student well-being.  

Related resources:


Megan Gildin (she/her) is a Technical Assistance Consultant at American Institutes for Research (AIR). She serves as a project lead for the Illinois Wellness Initiatives Inventory and Analysis project with the Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC) as well as deputy director for the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. She is a creative and skilled facilitator with fifteen years of experience in education and human development, working at the intersection of group dynamics, social emotional learning, healing-centered engagement, and equity. She has worked with state and local education agencies, as well as youth programs across the globe, centering principles of inclusion and developmentally appropriate learning to build impactful professional learning opportunities, toolkits, and curricula to help individuals and organizations achieve their goals. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Michigan and a Master's in Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education.