As Arkansas prepares to welcome students and teachers back to school, their Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education (AWARE) program keeps student and educator well-being a top priority.


By Catherine Van Ness

As the country transitions to the recovery phase following the public health emergency of the past fifteen months, we have seen many Governors and state education agencies aiming to accelerate learning while addressing students’ social and emotional needs. Arkansas is no exception and the recent Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education (AWARE) forum, in Hot Springs on June 21, brought together state leaders, national experts, teachers and school counselors to build on their commitment to student and educator well-being.

Arkansas First Lady Susan Hutchinson offered poignant welcoming remarks to the many educators and state agency staff in the room. As a former teacher and Board member of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Benton County, the First Lady understands the challenging work of educators and child advocates. Mrs. Hutchinson emphasized the impact of hardship and trauma on many facets of children’s lives, including their engagement and performance at school.

She explained that adverse childhood experiences, from neglect to parental substance misuse, can relate to later challenges such as chronic health conditions and lower earning potential. According to data from 2017, Arkansas has a higher proportion of children who have two or more adverse childhood experiences (27.1 percent) than the national average (20.5 percent). This fact, along with the challenges that many families faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, makes student well-being a top priority for state leaders and educators.

Mrs. Hutchinson also highlighted Governor Asa Hutchinson’s pre-pandemic efforts to better support schools in serving students’ mental health needs. Arkansas’ School Counseling Improvement Act, passed in 2019 and signed by the Governor, was applauded by school counselors across the state for reducing their administrative burden and reserving 90 percent of their time for direct face-to-face time with students.

National Governors Association K-12 Education Program Director Seth Gerson and I shared the national landscape when it comes to school mental health efforts and social-emotional learning, during the AWARE forum. Three years ago, many Governors framed these topics as central to teaching students 21st century workforce skills, preventing school-based violence, and creating an equitable school environment that welcomed all students. Now as state leaders are planning for schools reopening and spending post-pandemic recovery funds, they are considering ways to support students’ mental health from dedicating extra funding to existing programs to building wrap-around supports into schools and partnering with summer and afterschool providers.

Dr. Sharon Hoover, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health, shared a presentation of best practices to promote social-emotional learning and well-being in schools. She discussed what multi-tiered systems of supports can look like in schools with strong community partnerships. Schools are considered an important entry point for youth mental health services because youth are six times more likely to complete treatment in school than in community settings.

Throughout Dr. Hoover’s presentation, each table discussed key guiding questions and contributed comments to inform the Arkansas Department of Education’s forthcoming strategic plan. This forum was the first of various convenings where the Department plans to gather input from educators, school-based mental health providers, and other stakeholders.

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key gave closing remarks to thank everyone in the school system for their dedication during the past year. A theme that arose during the forum was the importance of educators’ mental health and social-emotional awareness to best teach their students. He also echoed the First Lady’s assertion that student mental health and wellness is foundational to their academic and lifelong success.

NGA looks forward to its ongoing work with Governor Hutchinson’s office, as Chairman of NGA, and the Arkansas Department of Education as they create a strategic plan to address students’ whole child needs.  

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