Investing in students' social-emotional
 learning and mental health

This data story highlights new funding for social and emotional learning (SEL) and mental health in schools, trends in staffing to support student wellness, and resources to better understand and address health and safety issues in our schools to improve student success.

Supporting student wellness by the numbers

$25 million in SEL and mental health grants awarded to 111 districts between FY22 and FY23
80% of districts added FTE positions to support mental health since 2018
33% increase in staff to support mental health statewide since 2018

More funding available for SEL and mental health since the COVID-19 pandemic

Since 2020, Massachusetts schools have tapped into an infusion of state and federal funds to address the social, emotional, and mental health of students, staff, and families. These investments have evolved from temporary emergency measures to protect student health during the pandemic to longer-term and culturally responsive programs focused on promoting school and community wellness.
1. ESSER (Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief)
Three rounds of federal aid totaling $2.59 billion were distributed to Massachusetts public schools to reopen safely and recover learning losses while meeting students' social, emotional, and mental health needs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provided an additional $10,000 to each school district with ESSER II disbursements for mental health services and supports.
2. Student Opportunity Act (Massachusetts)
This 2019 Massachusetts education reform law committed more than $1 billion in new education spending by 2027. Among its provisions, the Student Opportunity Act (SOA) revises the funding formula to increase the foundation budget in five areas, including guidance and psychological services. It also requires districts to file three-year plans to help close gaps in learning and outcomes for student groups that have been historically underserved — such as students with disabilities, English learners, racial/ethnic minority students, and socioeconomically disadvantaged students.
In FY22, 37% of districts' SOA plans prioritized the implementation of SEL and mental health strategies and programs to close opportunity gaps. Those districts reported spending close to $52 million on related evidence-based strategies and programs, drawing from local appropriations (including Chapter 70, ESSER funding, other federal and state grants, and other sources) to support implementation.
Look up your district’s SOA plan (or charter school plan) to see an overview of the key evidence-based practices identified to close student opportunity gaps.
Screenshot of a district view on Student Opportunity Act Dashboard.
3. SEL and Mental Health Grants
These competitive and continuation grants combine federal ESSER and state dollars to help schools pilot universal mental health screening, develop multi-tiered systems of support, and partner with community-based services and providers. Between FY22 and FY23, 111 grantees received more than $25 million in funding. 
A new round of competitive grant funding will provide up to $5.2 million in FY24. Learn more and apply by Nov. 9.
Graphic names five competencies of SEL

What is SEL?

Social and emotional learning supports healthy development and relationships by building life skills such as self-awareness, goal setting, responsible decision-making, conflict resolution, and good study habits. A longitudinal study by the UChicago Consortium on School Research recently found that schools that focus on SEL in conjunction with academic achievement and behaviors see marked improvements in both short- and long-term student outcomes.

Equity Lens

Schools and districts applying for the SEL and Mental Health Grant are asked how their proposed programs prioritize racial equity and cultural responsiveness. This means programs should recognize and build upon the diverse identities, experiences, and perspectives that students bring to the classroom. This may include:
  • Leading professional development on culturally responsive practices
  • Ensuring that universal mental health screenings are available in multiple languages and appropriate for students' cultural backgrounds
  • Developing racially equitable systems for responding to student needs
  • Empowering family and community voices that have been historically underserved
Smiling educator high-fives an elementary school student seated at a work table with another student.

Most districts have increased staffing to support student wellness

In addition to investing in programs and services, most schools have added positions or hours to their support staff for student wellness. In school settings, specialized instructional support personnel (SISP) are the nonteaching staff who provide SEL and mental health services. These include psychologists, nurses, guidance counselors, adjustment counselors, and social workers.

Between 2018 and 2023, 81% of school districts in Massachusetts increased the full-time equivalent (FTE) of SISP.  Around 70% of districts added up to 10 FTE, and 11% of districts added 10 or more. One in five districts made no change or reduced SISP staff. 

Chart shows change in SISP staffing since 2018

Districts increased wellness-related support positions by 33%

Between the 2018 and 2023 school years, Massachusetts school districts added more than 2,000 new FTE specialized instructional support staff, a 32.9% increase. Within this category, school social workers and school adjustment counselors — positions that focus on the mental health needs of students — increased 92.1% and 74.2% respectively. Meanwhile, the number of guidance counselors — who may provide academic, social, emotional, career and college support more generally — increased 17.8%. The number of FTE nurses increased 24.1%. Meanwhile, across all districts, non-SISP staff increased by 7.9%.
Graph shows number of FTE of support staff positions by role per 1,000 students
Graph shows growth in FTE per 1,000 students by role since 2018.

Explore trends in SISP staffing in your school district

Select a district from the drop-down menu below to view the number of FTE staff serving in specialized instructional support roles. Begin typing the district name for a short list of options. When comparing districts, it is more meaningful to compare overall number of staff rather than specific titles, which may be used differently from district to district.

SISP staffing levels vary most in districts with higher percentages of low-income students

This scatter plot shows that districts with the highest SISP staffing ratios in FY23 are those with at least 30% of students from low-income families, but there is considerable variation in staffing levels among districts with more student poverty.
Scatterplot shows FTE of specialized instructional support staff compared to the percent of low-income students in each district.

A case for universal mental health screening

63% more students eligible for services; 24% decrease in students with anxiety/depression
From the onset of symptoms of a mental health concern, it can take years until a student receives care. Methuen Public Schools has found a way to accelerate that timeline. With introduction of its universal mental health screening program, the district reported a 63% increase in the number of students who qualify for services. One hundred percent of those students receive a follow-up within seven days, and students at risk of self-harm receive care the very same day.
With an increase in prevention and intervention activities, Methuen reported a nearly 25% decrease in rates of moderate and severe anxiety and depression among grade 5-12 students from 2020-21 to 2022-23. View the district improvement report.
Aggregated data from universal mental health screening can serve as a needs assessment for schools and districts, informing SEL curriculum, prevention programs, and gaps in funding and resources. Meanwhile, progress monitoring of students receiving services shows the effectiveness of therapeutic programs and when it’s time to adjust or fade services.
Search for free screening and assessment measures on the School Health Assessment and Performance Evaluation (SHAPE) System.

Investing in our youngest students

In September 2023, the Healey-Driscoll Administration awarded $4.1 million in Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Grants to organizations that support the social-emotional development and behavioral health of children in early education and care programs across Massachusetts. This funding will support the healthy development of our youngest students, reduce the suspension and expulsion rate in early education and care settings, and promote school success and community health.

Making mental health a statewide priority

A new, sweeping state law ensures mental health remains an educational and fiscal priority in Massachusetts for years to come. An Act Addressing Barriers to Care for Mental Health, passed in 2022, addresses student mental and behavioral health in the education system by: 
  • Establishing a statewide program through the University of Massachusetts to help school districts implement equitable, culturally responsive, and developmentally appropriate behavioral health services and supports
  • Creating a student advisory committee to develop and implement school-based programs that promote behavioral health and wellness
  • Limiting suspensions and expulsions in favor of alternative remedies such as mediation, conflict resolution, restorative justice, and collaborative problem-solving
  • Requiring school committees to adopt an emergency response plan for medical and behavioral health crises
  • Setting expectations for interagency collaboration to deliver mental health services and resources

Additional Resources

Student Surveys
These data and reports offer an overview of students’ perceptions and behaviors when it comes to their health and safety. 
Data Notes
The specialized instructional support personnel (SISP) staffing data presented here is a subset of the Staffing: Race/Ethnicity and Gender dataset. Groups of SISP staff have been defined as follows:
  • Adjustment Counselors: "School Adjustment Counselor — Non-Special Education" or "School Adjustment Counselor — Special Education"
  • Guidance Counselors: "Guidance Counselor"
  • Nurses: "School Nurse Leader" or "School Nurse — Non-Special Education" or "School Nurse — Special Education"
  • Psychologists: "School Psychologist — Non-Special Education" or "School Psychologist — Special Education" or "Psychiatrist"
  • Social Workers: "School Social Worker — Non-Special Education" or "School Social Worker — Special Education"
The enrollment and low-income data used for calculations throughout this data story can be found in the Enrollment: Grade, Race/Ethnicity, Gender, and Selected Populations dataset.
Student Opportunity Act funding for socio-emotional learning and mental health can be found on slide 10 of the FY23 SOA Progress Report Overview and Guidance slide deck, hosted on the Student Opportunity Act District Resources website.
By Danielle Kane, October 17, 2023