How Teachers Can Improve Youth Mental Health and Well-Being
Teachers and school administration are well positioned to identify students that exhibit early warning signs of an emerging mental health condition. Educators make a significant and lasting difference in the lives of these children.
Empathy, active listening, and kindness are all important for maintaining a mentally healthy school environment. Investing in students by acknowledging their strengths and catching them doing things right, builds resiliency both in each student and in the classroom as a community.
Mental Health Prevention Programs in Schools
There is no question that many teachers are overburdened and burned out. The top reason teachers are leaving the profession is reported to be physically and emotionally challenging working conditions. In our community, the number one concern that teachers, principals and school districts express to us is the need for mental health services for their students.
As stated in a recent study in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, school-based mental health programs are showing up in more and more schools, as is the evidence that they are effective in both the long and short-term. The range of services offered in school-based mental health programs start with prevention and early intervention. Some of the benefits of building preventative measures into the school day include classrooms with fewer disruptions and more focused learning.
Typically, these programs are geared towards all students, but some focus on students at-risk for mental health problems. Classroom teachers are trained to lead the programs that cover various short-term, topic-driven modules that are spaced out over the school year. Where possible, the training is incorporated into the school curriculum with daily support and activities. There may be specific modules that are led by mental health professionals.
The partnership between mental health professionals and school districts increases the opportunity to identify an issue before it becomes a full-blown crisis. Early intervention is critical to a successful outcome and a win for both teachers and students.
Western Youth Services (WYS) provides a hybrid of our federally recognized school-based mental health services program, and evidence-based and evidence-informed outreach and prevention services.
All WYS services are provided through a trauma-informed lens in which we are mindful of the impact that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have on mental and physical health outcomes. In a small study WYS conducted with one of our school district partners, nearly all of the students receiving traditional mental health services experienced more than 4 ACEs earlier in their childhood, thus significantly increasing their risk for poor academic performance and poor mental and physical health outcomes.
By becoming aware of the impact of ACEs, we are able to begin to build resiliency in children to change the trajectory of their life path to one of healing, growing, and thriving. We do this through shifting our perspective from, “What’s wrong with the child?” to “What happened to the child?” thus reducing blame, shame and punishment, and increasing understanding, nurturing, and healing. This approach helps guide our support services to target ways to build resiliency in our children, and is key to determining which evidence-based practices we use in treatment.
Prevention of ACEs is critical, and also, acknowledging those who have endured them and need treatment is equally so. That’s why preventative treatment has the greatest impact. Since we know trauma is a precursor to a myriad of mental, behavioral, and physical health diagnoses, we assess for ACEs at intake. When students have endured ACEs and have mental health conditions, we treat with evidence-based, trauma-informed modalities. When children have ACEs and have mild symptoms, we intervene early to build resiliency to prevent mental health crises from happening. Our prevention services have a tremendous positive impact on students and teachers alike. When we can identify the range of signs of emotional distress and intervene early, before a crisis, we change the trajectory of a student’s life.
“The counselors help us make this school a better place.” – Student
“Our students’ needs are vast, and it is not possible for a teacher in a classroom setting to address all these needs. If we truly care about the whole child, then the behavior support team is a necessity.” – Teacher
“Having a school counselor is like having a mom or dad at school to help you.” – Student
WYS school-based mental health programs provide the full range of mental health services in a coordinated, collaborative and integrated manner. Our schools have access to a multi-tiered academic/mental health support system. WYS school-based mental health services are scalable and replicable based on individual school or district needs.
This hybrid approach combines the best practices of the on-site (in every school) and the massive education and awareness promotion, as well as, case management/individual support of community-based resources. The major tenets of our framework include:
- Multiple tiers of intervention make it possible for anyone (ALL students) to be supported/served
- Centralized referral, intake, and triage system assesses the level of need, then informs the appropriate level of service
- Evidence-based practices (EBPs) and/or promising practices are required on all tiers
- Services and programming are approached from a trauma-informed (ACEs) lens, informing which evidence-based practices (EBPs) and/or promising practices to use
- Data from multiple sources are used to inform decisions about programming as well as interventions and treatment
- Collaboration is key and coordination of services is critical to success
- Services are tailored to each school district’s specific needs when possible and feasible
In partnership with each school district, WYS develops and implements a culture of collaboration that shifts the paradigm of the conventional on-campus approach to mental health interventions (one-on-one counseling when the student is in crisis and/or in need of intensive services) toward strategies that redefine mental health interventions to include steps that teachers and school personnel can do to build resilience and prevent mental health crises from happening. Our unique form of collaboration helps give kids what they need to be safe, content and empowered to make responsible choices in school and in life.
At WYS we believe, “it takes a village” to help youth grow up to be responsible adults. When we needed to develop a collaborative plan to help students in an elementary school-based mental health program transition to the high school district, it was called, “The Village Plan”. The mental health needs in high school students are much more complex than in the earlier grades. Which is why we start as young as possible but there are still many ways to support teens and their schools.
Have you heard of the film “Paper Tigers – One High School’s Unlikely Success Story“?
This is a powerful film that tells the story of a school principal of an alternative high school in Walla Walla, Washington who radically changed its approach to disciplining its students. It has since become a promising model for how to break the cycles of poverty, violence, and disease that affect families.
“Stressed brains can’t learn.” That was the nugget of neuroscience that Jim Sporleder, principal of a high school riddled with violence, drugs and truancy, took away from an educational conference in 2010. Three years later, the number of fights at Lincoln Alternative High School had gone down by 75%, and the graduation rate had increased five-fold. Paper Tigers is the story of how one school made dramatic progress.
Following six students over the course of a school year, we see Lincoln’s staff try a new approach to discipline: one based on understanding and treatment, rather than judgment and suspension.
Using a combination of vérité and revealing diarycam footage, Paper Tigers is a testament to what the latest developmental science is showing: that just one caring adult can help break the cycle of adversity in a young person’s life.
From the Paper Tigers website
At WYS we have been partnering with school districts since the 1970s. We gathered some of the strategies and techniques that teachers can easily roll into their daily curriculum, and put them into an article entitled, Teachers are Mental Health Champions. They are easy to incorporate into the classroom, your families, your place of work, or anywhere else you gather with people. Adjust as needed, and please share with others, too. We encourage everyone to be a Mental Health Champion.