For Schools & District Leaders

Models for incorporating SEL and mental health into school reopening plans

Key takeaway

  • The US Department of Education and several national organizations advocate for a multi-tiered system of mental health supports as students return to school.


Illustration: The US Department of Education recommends a multi-tiered system of support for mental health and social-emotional interventions as students return to school. Such a system provides universal supports for students and identifies those who will need a higher tier of support or intervention.


As schools prepare for the 2021-2022 school year and beyond, district leaders and community members alike must learn how to support students in healing from the pandemic while adjusting to yet another new normal.


The following models describe how to integrate a multi-tier system of supports for mental health into school reopening programs. They also provide guidance for integrating Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) throughout the school community.

US Department of Education

The US Department of Education’s “COVID-19 Handbook” offers a roadmap for schools to meet student needs as they reopen for in-person learning. The handbook offers guidance on creating healthy learning environments, addressing lost instructional time, and supporting staff well-being.

The offers a roadmap for schools to meet student needs as they reopen for in-person learning. The handbook offers guidance on creating healthy learning environments, addressing lost instructional time, and supporting staff well-being. The Department of Education recommends a multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) framework to meet student social-emotional needs through universal supports and multiple tiers of intervention. The US Department of Education does not prescribe specific screeners, assessments, or data collection methods. However, the Department does point to the positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) as a usable model, described below.

Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)

Returning to School During and After Crisis” from the Center on PBIS offers guidance on using a multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) framework to support students, families, and teachers amidst the transition back to in-person learning, outlining a process for using a cycle of 5 key practices to ensure student growth:

  • Connect: Use purposeful communication to build relationships with/among students and families
  • Screen: Establish a universal screening protocol to identify students in need of support
  • Support: Design safe environments and predictable routines while setting positive expectations for students
  • Teach: Integrate social-emotional learning throughout the school day, and provide regular student feedback
  • Monitor: Collect and review data on student engagement and social-emotional skills/needs

The Center on PBIS also provides an outline of resources to use in various stages of developing multiple tiers of student support. This includes suggestions for data collection and screening protocols.

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)

The COVID-19 School Adjustment Risk Matrix from the NASP offers a way to map specific tiers of mental health interventions to a student’s risk, based on their shelter/home environment during the pandemic and their pre-pandemic school experiences.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

The SEL Roadmap for Reopening School from CASEL outlines 4 social-emotional learning (SEL) Critical Practices to promote in the school community:

  • Take time to cultivate relationships, build partnerships, and plan for SEL
  • Design opportunities where adults can connect, heal, and build their capacity to support students
  • Create safe, supportive, and equitable learning environments that promote social-emotional development
  • Use data to share power, deepen relationships, and continuously improve school community supports

Each of these practices is divided into specific activities to engage students, educators, and families. Each practice is accompanied by a set of essential questions to prompt reflection and action, and is linked to a set of user-friendly tools to help operationalize the roadmap. The roadmap also offers steps to consider in building a sustainable integration of social-emotional learning in the school community.

School district examples

The following examples show how some school districts are incorporating a focus on community engagement, mental health, and social-emotional needs into their reopening plans.

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 (Illinois)

The Evanston/Skokie District 65 return plans include summer building tours and orientations, as well as social-emotional goal setting. The plans include a universal SEL screener: DESSA (Devereux Strength Assessment)l.

New York City Public Schools

The New York City plan includes a social-emotional wellbeing focus in school reopening. Social-emotional support plans include school counseling, trauma-informed educational practices, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) instruction, and a multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) framework for mental health services. The reopening plan also involves family forums to gather input, as well as a Summer Risingprogram to welcome students back and reconnect them with their school communities ahead of the academic year.

Sequoia Union High School District (California)

The Sequoia Union High School District plan for reopening in Spring 2021 included a focus on mental health and Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). The district partnered with a care coordination program to help match families with mental health and substance use treatment. It also included a SEL Task Force to design longer-term responses to reopening, as well as a Mental Health Action Team to provide immediate support to students and staff returning to in-person education.

Watertown Public Schools Bridge to Return (Massachusetts)

The Watertown Public Schools bridge plan has been incorporating a focus on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and mental health. They use Responsive Classroom to provide SEL opportunities for all students, morning check-ins and end-of-day circles, and professional development on SEL skill building and trauma-informed practices. Their approach uses a multi-tiered system to identify/support students and staff at higher risk for trauma related to COVID-19.

Health equity lens

As schools reopen, it is important to remember that communities have been impacted differently by the events of the past year and a half. Student experiences with loss, health issues, grief, and uncertainty will also vary within a district or even within a single school. These factors may also influence how ready and secure students feel being in school. Pre-existing social inequities may also contribute to different social-emotional needs and mental health supports required to transition back to in-person learning. Issues like inadequate food access, poverty, housing instability, family immigration concerns, and structural racism may require further student support to ensure optimal mental health outcomes.

Stronger than Before: Long-term Goals

From hiring new counselors and social workers to providing staff training to contribute to a multi-tiered system of mental health supports, school district leaders are making many key decisions for their school communities. In turn, school districts need financial support now more than ever to make sure these decisions can have a lasting positive impact. Schools in communities hard hit by the pandemic may need even more support to hire enough staff to adequately respond to their communities’ grief and trauma from the past year. Part of this support can come from knowledge sharing between districts. However, some of this support must also come from new sources of steady funding to fuel long-term . The pandemic has exacerbated existing social inequities around housing, food security, and healthcare access. These issues can lead to or worsen mental health issues and generate social-emotional needs in their own right. Schools, communities, and families need steady support to meet these needs as a means of creating an environment in which students can thrive socially and emotionally.


See all resources for school reopening models

A practical checklist for school leaders assessing student emotional health (in consultation with parents)

  • Are children being screened for emotional health issues?
  • Is a positive screen going to an appropriate counselor/social worker at the school or in the district? Are parents notified?
  • Is there an evaluation by the social worker?
  • If there is concern that is not addressable in the district, is the referral sent expeditiously to the community?
  • Does the community recommendation get forwarded back to the district social worker?
  • Does this in turn go back to the classroom teacher/teachers?  And in turn are parents notified?
  • Ensure that parents are part of all of these communications?

Read more on assessing mental health and wellbeing