Over the past 13 years, I have dedicated my career to developing mental health services and models within the academic setting as a school counselor, mental health therapist and now as an assistant professor in counselor education, where I engage in community action research to develop mental health models in schools from pre-K through 12th grade. From my research and experiences, I have observed that students’ ability to learn is significantly affected by their mental health.
Many of our nation’s students have been exposed to traumatic events and regular life stressors that act as barriers to their success. Exposure to violence and other traumatic experiences can have a lifelong effect on academic achievement. Within the school setting, this can be manifested in a number of ways, including trouble concentrating, low grades, a decline in test scores and students avoiding school or dropping out of school entirely.
Making an investment in prevention and intervention services can help to address students’ overall development and thus enhance their ability to succeed socially, emotionally and academically. The school setting is an ideal place to provide mental health support to students. However, it is extremely important for schools to align mental health support with academic achievement goals. This calls for greater collaboration among mental health professionals, teachers, administrators, parents, students, staff and other stakeholders in school settings.
Based on the work I have done in developing mental health models in schools, as well as guidance from the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model, I believe that the following five components are key to effectively supporting both the mental health needs and academic achievement of our students.
1) Create mental health programming based on data-driven decisions.
2) Collaborate to address the mental health needs of students.
3) Provide a tiered system of mental health support.
4) Evaluate mental health services to ensure they are addressing the academic achievement gaps.
5) Communicate the outcomes to key stakeholders.
Make data-driven decisions
Developing mental health models in schools is a preventive measure by which mental health professionals analyze data ahead of time and design programming based on need. This approach allows stakeholders to assess the needs and develop services that truly address the academic, social and emotional gaps. Schools have an obligation to create programming based on their students’ needs.
When developing mental health models in schools, it is imperative to analyze data from several sources. One key component involves looking at data that focus on academic achievement. Report cards, test scores and other instruments that measure academic achievement must be considered. The main priority when addressing mental health issues in schools is to identify barriers that are affecting students’ academic achievement.
Once the needs have been identified, the next step is to create measurable goals to address the gaps. This step involves a collaborative approach that should include school counselors, mental health therapists, parents, teachers, administrators and students. Measurable goals provide a means for stakeholders to evaluate programming and help to ensure that it is supporting academic achievement.
Collaborate to address student needs
In a 2010 article for the Journal of Interprofessional Care, Elizabeth Mellin and colleagues identified collaboration among colleagues as being imperative when developing mental health models in schools. School counselors, mental health therapists, school psychologists and school nurses are the professionals most often tasked with delivering mental health services to students in schools.
School counselors are an excellent resource to support mental health models in schools. Quite often, however, school counselors are still labeled as “guidance counselors” in educational settings and are not always considered when schools are developing mental health services and models. Administrators and other stakeholders must be informed that the practice of school counseling has evolved, with “guidance” being only one component of the services that school counselors provide. According to the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors, the school counselor’s role is to address all students’ “academic, career and social/emotional development needs.” School counselors must actively engage and advocate to inform stakeholders of their titles and responsibilities, which are based on their skill set and training. Their skill set and training include addressing many of the social and emotional barriers that affect the ability of students to succeed academically.
Mental health therapists are another valuable resource. When licensed as a clinical counselor or social worker, these professionals are able to diagnose mental health disorders and provide treatment to students. Another invaluable component of their skill set that often goes untapped is an ability to provide consultation to staff, teachers, parents and administrators. It is also important that mental health therapists collaborate with teachers, administrators, other staff members and families to demonstrate the correlation between mental health and academic achievement.
School psychologists are integral to the collaboration process when developing mental health models in schools. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, the school psychologist’s role includes providing assessments, providing interventions to address mental health concerns and working with teachers, staff, administrators and other stakeholders to create programming to address gaps. As noted by Joni Williams Splett and Melissa Maras in their 2011 Psychology in the Schools journal article, school psychologists who are trained as research practitioners offer a unique skill set that contributes to bridging the gap of research and actual practice of services to support academic achievement.
School nurses can also play a central role in developing mental health models in schools. Quite often, school nurses have mental and physical health records provided by school personnel, parents and outside health care providers. Because of the time these professionals spend with students addressing other health concerns, they are frequently able to screen for mental health concerns. This relationship provides school nurses opportunities to develop rapport with students. It is during these interactions that school nurses can detect changes in a student’s physical or mental health. School nurses can also provide insight to their colleagues about the mental health concerns they have observed within the school setting.
Teachers and administrators are additional important contributors to the development of mental health models in schools and must be equipped to identify mental health concerns in the school setting. In an effort to ensure that all school stakeholders are collaborating and properly equipped, regular meetings are essential. The more collaboration that takes place among the mental health team, teachers, parents, students and administrators, the more likely it is that students will succeed.
Provide a tiered system of support
Kelly Vaillancourt and colleagues described the benefits of a tiered system of mental health support in their 2013 article for the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Nurses. A tiered system of support for delivering mental health services also provides different levels of care to support students to succeed academically. Keep in mind that schools must use evidence-based strategies. This ensures that the most effective, empirically supported practices available are being used to help students succeed.
Tier one is the universal level of support in which all students have access to mental health services in a school setting. Within tier one, trauma-informed classroom methods are introduced to teachers, administrators and staff. Tier one includes implementation of a social/emotional curriculum for all students that is preventive in nature and that supports academic achievement by addressing social and emotional barriers. It is also imperative to use a strengths-based approach that looks at the positive attributes of the students and builds upon those attributes to provide services for the students. To further support students, families should be made aware of the services and information being taught at school.
Tier two is where targeted interventions are identified for students who need additional mental health support to eliminate barriers that are affecting them academically. Selective interventions are provided to students who exhibit behaviors that are hindering them. Mental health and other services provided at the tier-two level consist of small groups, classroom behavior management strategies for teachers and staff, individual counseling and additional professional development for stakeholders related to social and emotional barriers to academic achievement. Collaboration among the team is extremely important.
The third tier is the most personalized, with intensive strategies provided based on the student’s needs. Typically, this is done through a comprehensive process in which key stakeholders gather to collaborate and strategize about the needs of the student. The team should consist of the mental health team members, the student, the student’s parents or guardians, teachers, administrators and outside agencies that work with the student and family. As highlighted by Kenneth Messina and colleagues’ 2015 article in The Family Journal, family buy-in is crucial at this level because of the importance of collaboration between home and school to support the student’s academic achievement and to identify the student’s strengths. Mental health and related services at this level include, but are not limited to, individual counseling provided by a mental health therapist, crisis intervention, outside counseling services, small group counseling, behavior plans and additional professional development for stakeholders.
Evaluate and communicate
In an effort to improve academic achievement, mental health services provided in the schools must be based on data-driven decisions and evaluated to ensure that progress is being made to address the needs. Vaillancourt and colleagues noted that an effective mental health model includes consistent monitoring of student and program outcomes. This includes reviewing outcome data and analyzing the data to measure gaps, successes and areas of limitation. Evaluation of services is a continuous process.
Once programming or services are provided, it is critical to analyze the data and review the goals that were established for the student. It is imperative to have an outside reviewer provide feedback on the data and assess the outcomes of programming. The outside reviewer could be a mental health professional, teacher, curriculum director, administrator, local college professional or another professional within the district who has experience analyzing data.
Once the data are analyzed, it is vital to communicate the results to the stakeholders. Communicating the results to stakeholders has been found to build rapport and transparency among the team. Communication also allows for stakeholders to understand the impact and correlation between mental health and academic achievement.
There is a need to develop effective mental health models in schools because of the mental health challenges that affect students academically, socially and emotionally. Students will continue to be faced with these challenges, but it is important that schools address the barriers that affect students’ academic achievement. Mental health professionals, teachers, parents, students, administrators and school staff play a vital and collaborative role in the development, implementation and evaluation of mental health services aimed at maximizing students’ academic success. Through the five strategies discussed in this article, I believe that school districts will realize the success of mental health models being implemented within schools to support academic achievement.
Dakota L. King-White is an assistant professor in counselor education at Cleveland State University in Ohio. She is a licensed school counselor and licensed professional counselor. Her areas of research include the development of mental health models in schools, children of incarcerated parents and 21st-century school counseling. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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