Research Insights: Using Data to Measure Student Well-Being
Suniya S. Luthar,
and Nina L. Kumar
What’s the most pressing issue for schools these days? It’s not talking about technology, one-to-one integration, or a hy-flex model of education, according to Quinton Walker, upper school division head at the University School of Nashville (TN). If schools aren’t thinking about mental health for faculty and students, and about wellness across the board, then they’re missing an opportunity. It’s the primary thing schools should be thinking about given the co-pandemics of COVID-19 and the conscious-building moment we’re experiencing with regard to race.
Schools measure so much about students—their academic performance, their growth over time, how many courses they take—so why wouldn’t they carefully measure how they’re doing in terms of student health and well-being? But asking, “How are our students doing?” seems so nebulous and is skewed toward anecdotal responses. Measurement and data science are metrics that matter.
By capturing student health and well-being data over time, schools can find out what works well and pinpoint things that need to be revisited. Then schools can prioritize programmatic adjustments and strategic conversations around these important topics. For the past three years, USN, under Walker’s leadership and in partnership with Authentic Connections has been surveying its students and analyzing data as a way to make more concrete connections to student health and well-being and better evaluate how students are doing.
The Research and the Findings
Authentic Connections conducts The High Achieving Schools Survey (HASS) to help school leaders make informed decisions around student health and well-being. In 2019, as part of an independent school pilot study, nearly 4,000 students from NAIS schools completed the survey through an online link. Using information about students’ substance abuse, mental health, state of relationships, and perception of their school community, the survey compared the independent schools, including USN, to national averages. Since the initial survey in April 2019, Authentic Connections has surveyed USN students three more times, most recently in February 2021.
Soon after the pandemic forced school closures in March 2020, Authentic Connections offered a briefer assessment, the Student Resilience Scale (SRS), to all schools at no charge. The SRS assessed the symptoms most likely to be affected during distance learning—depression and anxiety—and the modifiable aspects of learning and of relationships that were most strongly linked with distress. Given the unprecedented nature of the challenges, the SRS also included three open-ended questions, asking what was going well at school, what most needed improvement, and what was of most concern. Descriptive responses from students were invaluable in informing schools about issues that were top of mind in their own community. From the start of the pandemic through spring 2021, more than 80 schools across the country have completed SRS assessments; questions on this brief measure are now included in the updated, longer version of HASS.
USN was among the first schools to do the SRS during the pandemic, in spring 2020. Results at the time showed that its students were doing better than their counterparts at similar schools in the South. USN students also showed improvements in rates of serious depression and anxiety when compared to their prior 2019 assessments. (See graphs below.)
The SRS provided a snapshot of total wellness for the school community as well as processes that matter most for well-being in the community. For example, among those USN students who displayed high levels of anxiety, high academic workload seemed to contribute significantly to that anxiety. Then, school leaders explored what they could do by grade level and department to examine their work assignment patterns. The quantitative data provided direction and removed some of the guesswork or gut-level leadership, which is necessary but not always sufficient to make changes that are beneficial.
On the qualitative side, USN students reported an appreciation for the opportunity to share their experiences in these surveys. Comments like, “I really felt supported by this teacher in this moment” to “Why are y’all running me so hard? I can’t possibly do this work right now,” resonated with USN faculty.
Sometimes survey findings are difficult for schools to hear, such as when depression scores are high in a particular grade or students report difficult relationships with teachers. USN sees these moments as opportunities for targeted initiatives for positive change. When Walker sees programmatic improvements in the data, he calls them “milestone moments.”
More Milestone Moments
Survey findings have also informed logistics at USN—from schedules to prioritizing community time and exam periods—as well as programmatic elements. Assessments during fall 2020 have helped school leaders queue up hot topics for advisory conversation or the right menu of parent and family programming ideas. For example, USN has incorporated equity and inclusion programming into its advisory framework each week, ensuring continuity in the conversation. Amid the pandemic, the school also created schedules that included a daily advisory—an important decision to sustain connection between students and adults and a thread that surfaced across all three SRS assessments during the pandemic (spring 2020, fall 2020, spring 2021).
In particular, students reported that faculty, while being attentive to the mental and emotional health needs of the student body, were a bit challenged in adapting the level of academic work. As a result, the faculty focused on how they could better coordinate workflow, grade by grade. It used to be a more passive approach, but now USN has built the system to include check-ins from deans and department chairs to make sure they haven’t inadvertently overtaxed students at certain points in time. USN is better coordinating the rhythm of the school year and how to best take care of the total student.
The data also have been useful in better understanding the need for targeted parent programming. As Authentic Connections’ survey data have shown in all schools, feelings of stress in the parent-child relationship were strongly related to students’ mental health problems. At USN, just under 18% of students reported that parents make them feel ashamed or embarrassed when they discuss their problems. To address this, USN had a special session on the psychology of the pandemic and challenges parents were experiencing, giving them an opportunity to support each other in parenting during the pandemic.
Survey findings have also prompted USN to look at more campuswide training around school climate, to reduce perceived unkindness from peers and adults, and to maximize supportiveness in the community. The school is in exploratory conversations with the organization Culture of Respect to potentially bring its Green Dot Training to the school to train students to speak up when they see bullying, harassment, or unkind behavior from other students.
New school clubs have also surfaced in response to some of the data. The Student Mental Health Coalition launched in 2020 as a student-led initiative to educate peers about mental health trends, resources, and opportunities. Another group is the Kindness Club, which comes together to think about how USN as a school community can support each other. There’s a Calm Club, which students use to speak about and create spaces for mindfulness on campus.
After each Authentic Connections survey, Walker has shared the findings with the school community via school communications channels, with virtual lunch-and-learns, and in presentations to faculty, parents, and students. In fact, the editors of the student newspaper Peabody Press scheduled time with him to walk through the data slide by slide, and they reported their impressions in the newspaper. And before the pandemic, USN hosted lunch-and-learns in which 35 students walked through the dashboards together. Sharing data is an expression of trust, vulnerability, and care. It also holds schools accountable. The kids say, “Hey, you have this data. You need to do something about it.”
Remote Learning and Relationships
During school closures, University School of Nashville (USN) students fared significantly better than other schools in the South when it came to important aspects of learning and relationships: ability to learn and focus on schoolwork during distance learning, sharing personal concerns with school adults, and feeling that their concerns were being heard by school authorities.
Rates of Depression and Anxiety
The percentage of University School of Nashville (USN) students reporting clinically significant depression and anxiety during spring 2020 was much lower than the school’s rates in 2019 as well as four comparison schools assessed in 2020.
Suniya S. Luthar
Suniya S. Luthar is cofounder and chief research officer at Authentic Connections and professor emerita at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
Quinton Walker is head of upper school at University School of Nashville in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nina L. Kumar
Nina L. Kumar is cofounder and chief executive officer of Authentic Connections.