College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

Study finds more than half of teachers often personally handled student wellness concerns during pandemic

October 13, 2020

NEWS RELEASE

October 13, 2020

Study finds more than half of teachers often personally handled student wellness concerns during pandemic

Nationwide survey also reveals almost six out of 10 PK-12 teachers experienced distress because of students’ trauma during spring 2020

FAIRFAX, Va. – More than half of full-time PK-12 teachers reported personally handling wellness concerns of their students during the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, according to a new nationwide study.

Fifty-five percent of teachers said they tended to student wellness issues from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 through the end of the 2019-20 school year. Nearly six out of 10 (57%) teachers reported that their students’ trauma caused them personal distress. The study also found that teachers who served marginalized populations encountered more student wellness concerns but had less access to support for their students or themselves.

The study was conducted by research collaborators from George Mason University, Loyola University Chicago, the University of Missouri, and the University of South Carolina. Associate Professor Elizabeth Levine Brown in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University and Associate Professor Kate Phillippo in the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago served as co-principal investigators.

“We know that teachers make powerful contributions to student well-being through their unique, daily contact with students,” Levine Brown said. “With the turbulence that our world experienced last spring, we wanted to hear from teachers about how this part of their work may have changed and how it informed their own well-being under these unprecedented strains.”

The researchers surveyed more than 2,100 full-time PK-12 teachers from 46 states during the summer of 2020. The study found that 46% of teachers reported encountering student mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief more often than they did before the pandemic.

Teachers in schools serving large proportions of immigrant students, students of color, lower-income students, and housing-unstable students more often reported high levels of student wellness-concerns. Nearly 70% of teachers in schools with more than half of students either homeless or housing-unstable addressed student wellness concerns themselves, without making referrals.

Teachers felt at least some competence to address student wellness concerns, but the responsibilities of doing so overwhelmed them and, at times, negatively affected their well-being. Teachers who received wellness-related training more often made referrals for student support and reported higher levels of their own well-being. While 55% addressed their students’ wellness concerns themselves, just 19% referred students to school-based professionals such as counselors, social workers, and nurses, and only 13% contacted administrators.

“Teachers are telling us important things,” Phillippo said. “They are tuned into their students' wellness challenges. Many teachers also feel they are on their own to support their students. This is especially true for those who teach our most marginalized students. Teachers are doing the wellness work but it is taking a toll on many of them. To promote student and teacher well-being, school and district leaders will do best to meet teachers where they are: attuned to student concerns, willing to step in, and in need of concrete support.”

Based on the survey findings, the researchers recommend that teachers ask school administrators for wellness support and resources for students, utilize available wellness supports already in place, not place the entire burden of addressing students’ needs on themselves, and remember to prioritize their own physical, financial, psychological, and professional wellness.

The researchers also recommend that school leaders, district leaders, and school-based wellness personnel put an emphasis on providing wellness personnel (social workers, nurses, and counselors); encourage outreach by school-based wellness personnel to teachers and students; and provide referral lists, guidelines, and professional development to support teachers’ knowledge and understanding of student wellness concerns and effective responses.

“Teachers are a critical piece of schools’ ability to support student wellness, but they can’t—and shouldn’t—do it alone,” Levine Brown said.

The research team included: Audra Parker, professor in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University; Ken A. Fujimoto, associate professor in the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago; Aidyn L. Iachini, associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of South Carolina; Melissa A. Maras, research consultant of the Assessment Resource Center at the University of Missouri; Amy J. Heineke, professor in the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago; and Crystal Lennix, doctoral student in the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago.

Media contacts:

  • Jerome Boettcher, Strategic Communications Specialist, College of Education and Human Development, George Mason University, 703-993-6253, jboettch@gmu.edu
  • Anna Shymanski, Communications Specialist, University Marketing & Communication, Loyola University Chicago, 312-915-6158, ashymanski@luc.edu
  • About George Mason University

    George Mason University is Virginia's largest and most diverse public research university. Located in Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 38,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility. For more information, visit https://www2.gmu.edu/.

    About Loyola University Chicago

    Founded in 1870, Loyola University Chicago is one of the nation’s largest Jesuit, Catholic universities, with more than 16,600 students. Nearly 11,500 undergraduates call Loyola home. Ranked a top national university by U.S. News & World Report, Loyola is also among a select group of universities recognized for community service and engagement by prestigious national organizations like the Carnegie Foundation and the Corporation for National and Community Service. To learn more about Loyola, visit https://LUC.edu.

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