3 keys to assessing your district’s mental health needs

Does your school have a staff wellness committee or offer stress-management activities?
By: | March 19, 2021

The social isolation, depression, and anxiety brought on by the pandemic have created academic barriers for students in Ohio. The unpredictability of the learning environment because of changes back and forth from remote to face-to-face learning has also taken a toll.

To address these issues, state leaders have tapped Cricket Meehan and her colleagues from Miami University’s Center for School-Based Mental Health Programs to conduct needs assessments throughout the state regarding three key areas, then help implement prevention and intervention programs for students and staff.

The project, known as the Ohio School Wellness Initiative, has divided the state into eight regions and has identified key partners in those regions. The program uses funding from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. The goal is to keep the work going long after the $6 million grant ends in September 2022.

“What we’re focused on is the legacy of what we’re leaving behind,” said Meehan, the center’s director. “It’s a two-fold legacy of the tools, resources, and supports to do the three components well along with guidance for how to use them; then we’re also leaving behind these regional groups that are going to be technical assistance and consultation support teams for the schools that are implementing the three components.”

3 key components

Consider where your district stands when it comes to these three components the initiative is targeting and what you may need to do to strengthen the efforts of schools in your district:

1. Student assistance program: Schools in Ohio will be able to adopt and adapt a model the initiative is developing to fit their local setting. The model is designed to help identify which students need which mental health and behavioral services, Meehan said.

“There will be a team within the school building that recognizes the varying degrees of services that might be needed,” she said.

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It will use evidence-based approaches to strengthen prevention, early identification, and treatment of nonacademic barriers to learning, said Amity Noltemeyer, a team member and professor and chair of educational psychology.

“It may involve support that’s provided directly in the school or it might involve referral processes to other services in the community,” she said. “It may involve a problem-solving team, case management, and direct services to students.”

2. Tiered interventions: The state has recognized that, although their Tier 1 is strong, schools need to strengthen their Tier 2 and Tier 3 positive behavioral interventions and supports, Meehan said.

Tier 2 may involve a check-in/check-out intervention, where a student checks in and out with a trusted adult throughout the day, Noltemeyer said.

“It could involve small-group psychoeducational supports or social skills training,” she said. “Any type of intervention that might be more low-intensity or in a small group to address those needs.”

In Tier 3, students may receive more intensive, individualized supports, Noltemeyer said.

“They might also involve wraparound services for mental health and behavioral needs,” she said. “We’re going to partner with the Ohio PBIS Network and others in that PBIS sphere to figure out how to align or integrate Tier 2 and Tier 3 with the student assistance program model.”

The key is to help schools uncover student needs early, said Kristy Brann, team member and assistant professor of educational psychology.

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“One of our school partners describes it as seeing the smoke before there’s fire later on,” she said. “If you can systematically catch things early and do some skill-building intervention, then hopefully you can reduce the risk before the need perpetuates.”

3. Staff wellness: The initiative plans to compile and develop tools and resources for educators, Meehan said.

Staff need to be at their best so they’re able to help their students, she said. Among other issues, the team will look at whether a school has a wellness committee, offers stress-management activities, and has policies regarding staff mental health, Brann said.

“We’re hoping to conduct a specific staff survey in the future to see what the needs are,” she said. “It’s something that needs a lot of attention. Think about how much more stress teachers are feeling and how much more we’re requiring of teachers with fewer resources right now.”

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for LRP Publications.