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Three considerations for launching mental wellness programs in schools

By November 22, 2021 No Comments

As educators begin to assess what long-term social-emotional effects the recent school shutdowns might have for students and educators, you could say that the mind is on everyone’s mind. Many schools are considering starting or expanding their efforts now that federal aid is available for this purpose. While we all feel a sense of urgency to keep schools operating and safe, school teams should take the time to familiarize themselves with the options so they can find (or create) the right program for their local context.

Here are three considerations to help your team get started.

1) Build or buy?

You may be fortunate to find that a preexisting program so closely matches your school’s needs that you can efficiently acquire and implement it. Restorative justice, for example, is a well-known (yet not thoroughly understood, as McREL’s Bryan Goodwin recently wrote) program implemented in many school districts. There are other stand-alone programs available which also require training by the program developers.

Schools have unique cultures, though, so a home-grown solution might serve your district better. Early warning indicator systems, for example, are developed by districts using their student information systems as a tool for identification. Academic early warning systems flag students in danger of falling behind in school (e.g., poor attendance, academic credit deficiencies). The emotional-wellness version of the same concept would provide for extra support if a student, for example, is not engaging in classroom activities.

Either way, you’ll want to develop a Theory of Change before plunging in: What’s the problem you’ve identified, what are your targeted outcomes, and how will you reach those? The Theory of Change (or Theory of Action) becomes your high-level road map for what you do, how you do it, and how you determine its impact.

The evidence on school mental health impacts is still growing. We want to add to what is known about school mental health impacts by partnering with districts to co-design and co-evaluate their programs, ultimately benefiting other schools.

2) This is about teachers, too

Everyone knows that in the event of sudden cabin depressurization, you put your oxygen mask on first so you can then help your kids. This doesn’t mean you don’t love your kids; it’s because if you pass out from hypoxia, you can’t help them.

Similarly, teachers who are struggling with their own challenges and stressors may not recognize the emotional challenges their students experience. Increasingly, school-based mental wellness programs focus on both students and teachers. Recently, for example, district leaders have offered teachers “pause” days. Generally used for professional learning, pause days give teachers a paid day off to care for themselves and the extraordinary pressures of COVID. Other districts have extended holiday breaks to give both teachers and students a chance to relieve some of the stresses.

3) How will you measure success?

Just because mental health involves feelings doesn’t mean it isn’t subject to measurement. Indeed, as evaluators, our role in promoting school-based mental wellness is to collect and analyze data to help a school navigate toward what’s working and away from what isn’t.

At the beginning of a partnership, we audit the data currently collected, such as school climate surveys, which often offer information about students’ connections to school. Student attendance and discipline data are indicators many school districts use for mental wellness. School counselors track referrals to internal or external behavioral health providers. Referral numbers can tell us how frequently students need services. However, surveys, attendance and disciplinary rates, and referrals do not often tell the whole story about schools’ mental wellness. Our evaluation teams talk with students, parents/guardians, teachers, administrators, and school counselors to learn about the challenges to mental wellness in school communities and how school staff are addressing them.

As we collect this information and chat with our school partners, we provide the kinds of support that go beyond identifying data sources, collecting data, and generating reports. We coach them on how they can specifically define their work, their goals, objectives, implementation, and progress-monitoring strategies to strengthen their work. With a laser focus on systems analysis and design, we coach school staff on ways to be comfortable with rapid changes that oftentimes occur in school environments and sometimes derail the best-laid plans.

Our evaluation tools, in combination with mental health partners’ expertise, can help ensure that students, staff, and families receive high-quality programs and services so they can effectively engage in teaching and learning.

Lisa M. Jones, Ph.D., a managing researcher at McREL, is an experienced program evaluator, social science researcher, and university-level instructor who offers comprehensive evaluation and research design expertise. Dr. Jones’s most recent work focuses on cultural equity and mental wellness, trauma-informed schools, and Native American education programs and services. Dr. Jones is the 2022 Chair of the Pre-K–12 Topical Interest Group for the American Evaluation Association. Prior to joining McREL, Lisa was previously a program evaluator at St. Paul Public Schools (St. Paul, Minnesota) and Aurora Public Schools, an urban school district in Colorado.

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McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.