The New Jersey School Boards Association Report on Mental Health Services in Public Schools:
An Educator’s Top 3 Take-Aways
Written by: Melissa Walsh - Guest Blogger
Edited by: Jessica Lenhart and Denver Leigh
School districts have a lot to consider when it comes to addressing students’ mental health needs.
Anxiety, depression, bullying, anger issues, excessive worry, anti-social behavior, and many other emotional difficulties are showing up in classrooms across the nation. Suicide among young people is on the rise. https://www.latimes.com/science/la-sci-suicide-rates-rising-teens-young-adults-20190618-story.html. The New Jersey Department of Children and Families reported that 2,731 young people, ages 10 to 24, were treated in hospital emergency rooms for attempted suicide or self-inflicted injuries in 2013 through 2015.https://www.nj.gov/dcf/news/reportsnewsletters/dcfreportsnewsletters/New%20Jersey%20Youth%20Suicide%20Report%202017.pdf
Clearly, in order for a student to reach their full potential, schools must consider academic needs as well as social-emotional needs and mental health. For many districts, the task of addressing mental health can seem insurmountable, leaving administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors wondering: “where do we begin?” The New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA) sought to help districts answer that very question by convening a Task Force on Mental Health Services. The Task Force published a detailed report in September 2019 entitled, Building a Foundation for Hope.
As a special education teacher with a personal interest in bolstering the Social Emotional Learning of the students in my own life, I was thrilled to see the NJSBA bring focus to these crucial issues. The in-depth report is comprehensive in scope and contains more than 70 valuable recommendations.
After a careful review of the 103-page report, here are my top 3 takeaways:
1. Involve the Entire Community
School districts can’t address the mental health issues of their community in isolation. An effective response to building community health requires a comprehensive, community-wide approach. Boards of education must work collaboratively with local municipal governments to create Community Response Teams (CRT). CRTs can include elected officials, parents, senior citizens, spiritual leaders, police officers, students, and business leaders. CRTs should have clearly defined responsibilities. The NJSBA recommends that CRTs meet monthly to identify and address the challenges that youth face. Plans should be created to implement safe spaces for youth to gather. CRTs should have a detailed plan in place for how everyone will respond when the community experiences a tragedy. When the community at large partners with the school district, everyone is better equipped to determine the mental health challenges of the community and create a plan to respond.
The NJSBA strongly encourages school districts to implement parent academies that teach about the unique stages of development of each grade level. This helps to foster an understanding of what their children are experiencing at each developmental stage. Parent academies should be held regularly throughout the school year and should be valuable experiences for those in attendance. Schools should give thoughtful consideration to truly engaging all parent populations for these programs to maximize their effectiveness.
2. Implement Social-Emotional Learning Programs
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is much more than just a popular buzzword. In our new climate of increasing stress and anxiety, SEL is becoming a necessary approach to teaching children and adults how to understand and manage their emotions. When an individual is able to regulate their emotions, they are better able to set and achieve positive academic and personal goals through responsible decision-making.
SEL programs must be ongoing, multi-disciplinary in approach, and focused on connection. When students feel connected to other people in the community, they are less likely to suffer from isolation and depression. School districts that are implementing SEL programs with fidelity are reporting positive results. https://casel.org/impact/
Some SEL programs that received accolades from the NJSBA include:
● The Wingman Program-This program works to end the epidemic of social isolation and exclusion. Students are taught the skills they need to have the courage to reach out to others. This fosters a climate of inclusion within the school.
● It Starts With Hello-This annual week-long program focuses on ensuring that every child within a school has at least one, positive friendly contact each day. Lessons focused on empathy and positivity are introduced during the designated week, but they are revisited and emphasized throughout the rest of the school year.
● Girls On the Run-This program is designed to help girls get in shape while inspiring them to reach their “limitless potential” in life.
In addition to these programs, the NJSBA strongly suggests that schools find out what nearby districts are doing and what resources may be available from the county government. For example, a neighboring district may be successfully implementing a mindfulness room or the use of therapy dogs. Schools can provide valuable support and cost-share resources as they work to build their own programs.
In order to maximize its effectiveness, SEL should be implemented as part of an integrated plan within the school system. The NJSBA suggests developing protocols that are designed to help the children most at risk in a timely and effective manner. Schools should analyze their student supports and discipline procedures and policies to determine if they are responding to underlying reasons for behavior. Teachers need to know their roles and responsibilities in addressing student anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, substance abuse, etc. For example, a student who is experiencing signs of distress should be referred to the Intervention and Referral Services team (I&RS) to determine what interventions can be implemented to best assist that student. Having SEL integrated into all facets of the school system will provide a more comprehensive and sustainable approach to responding to the mental health needs of the entire community.
3. Ongoing Professional Development
Everyone within a school system is responsible for the social and emotional well-being of the students. This includes administration, teachers, cafeteria workers, instructional assistants, and transportation staff. Administration has a responsibility to communicate the role each person has in fostering a connection with all of the students in the school. On-going professional development should be given on any social-emotional programs that are being implemented. Additionally, anyone working with students should be made aware of the signs of a child in crisis and should know what steps can and should be taken once they’ve identified an issue.
The NJSBA recommends the program, Youth Mental Health First Aid, because it helps school staff learn what warning signs look and sound like. This training program equips staff with common language they can use during difficult conversations with students.
No community is immune to mental health issues. It is imperative that schools are working to prevent, intervene, and support students. The NJSBA’s report is an excellent starting point for schools that are looking for recommendations on how to best implement programs within their own districts. Building a Foundation For Hope is a wonderful resource that provides the basic roadmap for districts to begin to take action.
Melissa Walsh is a special education teacher who supports her District’s Child Study and Intervention and Referral Services teams. Before teaching, Melissa’s experience working in public health helped her realize the true importance of school, family, and community partnerships and the role that these relationships play in closing the achievement gap among children. After personally experiencing the trauma of a young family member, Melissa developed her current passion for researching how trauma and mental health impact student success. She now frequently provides colleagues with professional development in the area of trauma and incorporating Social Emotional Learning in public schools. Melissa earned her Master's in Special Education from Rider University but feels the best training happens daily when she steps into the classroom. Melissa is married to a talented Chemistry teacher and together they have two beautiful daughters.