A new policy brief: to help address the pandemic, federal leaders can promote integrated student support

As the country manages the health and economic burdens created by the pandemic, federal officials have an opportunity to help children and families.

A new publication, “Building Systems of Integrated Student Support: A Policy Brief for Federal Leaders,” explains how.

The need is substantial.

“From wealthy suburbs to poor inner cities and rural areas, businesses are struggling, and food lines are long,” the brief explains. And while the “funds flowing through the stimulus packages seem big on paper in Washington,” the funds can feel paltry once they arrive in communities, particularly “in the context of historic and pandemic-driven increases in child poverty, hunger, trauma, academic learning loss, and limited opportunities.”

Joan Wasser Gish, the brief’s author, sees an opportunity in the crisis. 

“This is a moment for bipartisan action to address the complex needs of children and families uncovered and exacerbated by the pandemic,” Wasser Gish says. She is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Center for Optimized Student Support at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. “Federal leaders make decisions that set the context for how states, communities, and schools can respond to the children and families they serve. This brief provides research-informed recommendations for action.” 

Children and families are particularly vulnerable. As the brief notes: 

“Research building on the theories of Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker finds that children growing up in poverty, or during COVID-19, have less access to the type of resources and experiences that promote learning, and are more likely to experience prolonged periods of toxic stress that can disrupt healthy brain development and readiness to gain academic and social-emotional skills. For many Black and Latino families, the compounding effects of systemic racism add to the stresses and deprivations of poverty and the pandemic.”

Wasser Gish adds: 

“The current challenges to healthy child development and learning are significant, but there is also so much reason for hope. Because of what we know about the power of positive relationships, the role of community- and school-resources, and what is possible for students when best practices are used to create a system of integrated student support.”

Integrated student support is the core of the model used by City Connects, which is based in the Center for Optimized Student Support. Throughout the pandemic, schools and districts that have relied on integrated student support programs to address some of the toughest needs that families face. 

“Integrated student support is a ‘whole child’ approach that addresses students’ strengths and needs across all developmental domains,” the brief says. “It leverages the resources available in schools and the surrounding community to connect the right set of resources, supports, and opportunities with the right student and family at the right time. When well-implemented, it boosts students’ academic and life outcomes and saves taxpayers money by efficiently directing existing services and towards the wellbeing of students.” 

It’s an approach that is rooted in science. 

“Neuroscientists can show dramatic differences in brain structure between children who grow up with the supports and basic resources that all children need, and those who do not. Researchers in developmental psychology and cognitive science have illuminated how various contexts and risk factors can impact how children develop and learn. This leads to a deepened appreciation of the importance of simultaneously supporting development across the social, emotional, cognitive, physical, and language domains.” 

And the use of data is crucial for both understanding what students need and how meeting these needs lead to better outcomes in attendance, grades, test scores, and high school graduation rates. 

As the policy brief explains, federal officials who understand the power of integrated student support can support healthy child development and expand its implementation, by taking a number of actions including:

• elevate the importance of meeting students’ needs through comprehensive support

• increase funding for student support programs and for academic enrichment programs

• incentivize schools to create individualized support plans for every child and family

• provide districts with funding to hire on-site student support coordinators, school counselors, and mental health providers

• advance bills to support community schools that provide integrated comprehensive student supports. Two recent bills are:

• the Full-Service Community School Expansion Act (S. 4865, 116th Congress), and

• the Communities Serving Schools Act (H.R. 8126, 116th Congress)

• invest in comprehensive services to benefit child and family wellbeing, such as programs that increase access to food and programs that address trauma

• expand the child care tax credit to reduce child poverty,

• expand and improve federal housing programs, and

• “Support the Biden-Harris Administration’s establishment of a White House Office on Children and Youth and a White House Conference on Children and Youth to elevate the needs of children, youth and their families and allow the federal government to reimagine our systems for students’ optimal education, health, well-being and development.” 

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, when the work of meeting human needs can seem overwhelming, integrated student support is a road map for improving the equity, opportunity, and learning that can keep children and families moving toward a brighter future. 

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