“Brain Health” by Edith Jordan-McCormick, Principal of the Vista Family of Schools

During my time as an educator, I have had the opportunity to learn many aspects of the trade to promote student success. The one that is the most important to me is often the least discussed: Brain Health. The World Health Organization defines Brain Health as “an emerging and growing concept that encompasses neural development, plasticity, functioning, and recovery across the life course.” It further elaborates on what conditions fall under their definition of Brain Health. 

For the duration of this piece, the practitioners of the Vista Family of Schools would also like to add mental health disorders to the list of conditions that fall under the term Brain Health.

In order for learning to happen, the ecosystem for the learner has to be stabilized with clear expectations, goals, articulation, standards, positive relationships, and so much more. A majority of educators often overlook these basic necessities for learning in favor of content. We focus on reading levels and not the ecosystemic conditions needed to be a successful reader. But what happens when a learner’s ecosystem is unstable and combined with trauma, genetics, life, COVID-19, bad and/or unhealthy relationships, houselessness, food insecurities, and so much more?  

Here is a list of potential mental health/brain health disorders that may occur.

  • Behavioral and emotional disorders in children
  • Bipolar affective disorder
  • Depression
  • Dissociation and dissociative disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Paranoia
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia

You may be thinking, “Wow, they may be right, but what can I do as a parent/educator/community member/government official/grandparent, and even a neighbor?” 

  1. First we must be honest with the fact that mental health/brain health disorders often come with a stigma attached to them. There are a myriad of reasons why this happens, but oftentimes it is the simple idea that people need to “pull themselves together” or “you look fine, what is wrong with you?” Let’s normalize asking for help and having courageous conversations with each other about how our kids are really doing.
  1. In school settings, let’s create teams that support the identification of students in need of interventions both academically and behaviorally, (including brain health) in the form of COST/CARE teams. These teams need to operate in conjunction with school-based health systems, if they are available, and include a variety of service providers from throughout the school. Everyone does not have the capacity to self-identify or self-advocate for help when it comes to mental health issues. The outreach that may occur from a concerned educator’s referral to the team may be the lever for a student to get the help and support they need.
  1. We must all advocate for educational change. It is time for us to become more innovative and creative in the way we educate our youth. If we believe children are the future and the greatest love of all, then we must update our pedagogical thinking and routines to include more impactful practice around brain health and development. We too often talk about trauma-informed practices, and now we need to add healing-centered engagement.

If we align 21st century reality with educational practices, then every adult at every school should know that dying by suicide is one of the five leading causes of death for teenagers. And with this information, educators and schools should be charged with building more intentional learning spaces where asking for “brain health” help is normalized and expectations around learning and character development are clearly outlined. Our students should leave our schools with more than a diploma – they should leave us with healthy habits of mind, prepared for adulthood, and knowing they were educated by adults who took the time to learn and implement best practices around social emotional learning.

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