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How to Improve Your K–12 Student Well-Being Strategy in 2024

Improve your school district’s approach to student well-being and improving student mental health with these program evaluation tips.

Student well-being has a significant impact on students’ ability to learn, and studies point to a steady decline in student mental health. A Centers for Disease Control study on adolescent mental health found that nearly all indicators of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors increased from 2011 to 2021.

In response, many K–12 districts have implemented, or plan to implement, programs and initiatives designed to support student well-being. Yet many grapple with identifying the best approach and understanding how well the initiatives they have in place are working. School and district leaders can make progress by using survey research to understand the full extent of well-being concerns, and using data to formulate and monitor well-being initiatives, all the while ensuring equitable behavioral management.

Understanding the State of Student Well-Being in Your District

Education leaders cannot make decisions to promote student well-being without understanding the full extent and nature of each school’s well-being needs and concerns. Yet students aren’t always forthcoming with their concerns. Language barriers, hidden disabilities, unchecked cultural bias, and varying levels of social-emotional proficiencies present challenges in vocalizing their well-being concerns.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) helps students reflect and gain the vocabulary needed to share the state of their well-being and their needs. Surveying students, families, and staff within schools that value SEL principles can bring to light historically overlooked student mental health concerns and provide insights on how to strengthen school climate.

Every district is different and no single set of SEL approaches will be optimal in honoring your specific well-being concerns. Consider the following takeaways when aiming to use SEL to accommodate your district’s unique state of well-being:

  • Provide ample SEL resources and professional development opportunities to staff and educators so that they may raise student awareness of core tools and abilities such as self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness.
  • Conduct regular school climate surveys with students, families, and staff that explore prime influences of student well-being such as ability to meet their basic needs, learning accommodations, bullying, and ability to express oneself.
  • Provide accessibility measures for all surveys such as translations, inclusive language, and sufficient time to complete surveys and involve necessary support persons.
Understanding trends in social-emotional learning not only promotes academic success but can also save lives. Learn more about how to Demonstrate the Value of K-12 Social Emotional Learning by Measuring It.

Rethinking K–12 Behavioral Management Practices

We know that school attendance is crucial to attaining academic success. The inverse remains true and extends to all absences. Traditional exclusionary disciplinary approaches that remove students from the learning environment, such as out of-school suspension (OSS), fail to remediate the behavior that led to the suspension and often cause students to fall behind their peers academically. Suspensions also heavily influence K–12 student well-being by increasing social-emotional attrition. This can even lead to dropouts by compromising trust in school leadership and lowering self-confidence.

Advocates and researchers alike agree that students at the intersections of disability, gender, and historically marginalized race are far more likely to experience exclusionary practices of discipline, with 1 in 4 Black boys with a disability (such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder) experiencing suspension or expulsion. Notably, researchers also cite institutional bias as the reason for this disparity, rather than higher occurrences of serious infractions. In some cases, many infractions could be described as minor with instances of white students receiving lesser forms of discipline for the same behavior.

Analyze your schools’ disciplinary data to identify any disparities or institutional bias. Consider adopting a framework that prioritizes inclusive behavioral management strategies such as school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports (SWPBIS) or restorative justice.

Help protect academic opportunity for all students regardless of ability, background, or identity with these considerations for building a fair and just behavioral management framework:

  • Collect, use, and report disaggregated discipline data, making sure to identify disproportionate patterns for any student groups, especially based on race/ethnicity.
  • Define and teach a small set of positive school-wide behavior expectations to all students, rather than upon disciplinary measures.
  • Consider using inclusive disciplinary approaches that keep students in school and implement restorative practices for students to learn how to rectify mistakes.
Equitable behavioral management is just one way to help repair school climate. Learn more about the synergy of a well-balanced K–12 climate in our blog, 4 Ways to Build a Positive K-12 Climate.

Using Program Evaluation Strategies to Improve K–12 Student Well-Being

With limited resources, many districts cannot afford to spend funds on programs that do not demonstrate positive outcomes. Unfortunately, this discretion also extends to student well-being programs. In districts with well-being programming, how do leaders know if it is working or is worth the cost?

The only way to know if a program is worth the time, money, or staffing is to engage in a robust program evaluation process. This practice uses evidence to make decisions on how to expand or contract, initiate mid-course corrections (thus saving resources), and ensure accountability.

Use these research-informed takeaways to plan for success with any student well-being program:

  • Once a prime well-being concern has been identified, build a logic model to clarify the design, objectives, and purpose of your school’s proposed solution.
    • A logic model is a visual representation of how a given program should work in theory and practice.
  • Develop your evaluation framework before setting the plan in motion. Doing this work upfront ensures you have a solid plan in place for measuring and monitoring changes as the program begins.
  • Determine what data you will be collecting throughout the evaluation process. Quality indictors should be specific, measurable, observable, and written with neutral language.
Create a staff culture that values data-informed decision-making with our K-12 Data Literacy Checklist.

Improving K–12 student well-being requires evaluation from multiple fronts. During times of social-emotional strife, district leaders must not only create a culture of awareness but a culture of repair, to support student mental health. By considering which concerns put your specific student bodies at risk, how disproportionate means of discipline negatively impact students, as well as the traits of successful interventions, leaders may find success in helping to alleviate distress. Healthier school climates are possible with the help of planning, accountability, cooperation, and research.

Learn more about how to evaluate student well-being initiatives and positively impact academic success with our Student Well-Being Program Evaluation Checklist.


Learn more about how to improve your districts K-12 student well-being strategy.

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