Student Well-Being Opinion

Addressing Mental Health Concerns: A Key to School Improvement

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 19, 2015 6 min read
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This guest post is authored by Dr. Howard S Adelman and Dr. Linda Taylor. They have worked together for 40 years focusing on improving how schools and communities address a wide range of mental health, psychosocial, and educational problems experienced by children and adolescents.

Anyone who has spent time in schools can itemize the multifaceted mental health and psychosocial concerns that require attention so that schools and students can succeed. As a result, many stakeholders are interested in enhancing how schools address such concerns. The question is: How should society’s schools address the many factors interfering with teaching and learning?

Education is the mission of schools, and school policymakers are quick to point this out, especially when asked to expand their focus on mental health problems. It is not that they disagree with the idea that healthier students learn and perform better. It is simply that prevailing school accountability pressures increasingly have concentrated on instructional practices - to the detriment of all matters not seen as directly related to raising achievement test scores.

Those concerned with enhancing the focus on mental health in schools must accept the reality that schools are not in the mental health business. Then, they must develop a broad understanding of what is involved in achieving the mission of schools. After that, they must be ready to clarify how any specific agenda item for mental health in schools helps accomplish that mission. Of particular importance is articulation of how proposed approaches help address the scope of the problems experienced by many schools (e.g., dropouts; the achievement gap; racial, ethnic, disability, and socio-economic factors that interfere with equity of opportunity to succeed at school).

Embedding Mental Health in the School Improvement Agenda
It is evident that schools can’t assume responsible for meeting every need of their students. But, as a Carnegie Task Force on education stressed “when the need directly affects learning, the school must meet the challenge.” And, clearly, efforts to meet the challenge are going on in schools. Equally evident, there is a great deal to be done to improve what is taking place.

The current norm related to such efforts is for a vast sea of advocates to compete for the same dwindling resources. This includes advocates representing different professional practitioner groups. Naturally, all such advocates want to advance their agenda. And, to do so, the temptation usually is to keep the agenda focused on rather specific and narrow problems (e.g., bullying, substance abuse, obesity, specific diagnosed pathology). Politically, this makes some sense. But in the long‑run, it may be counterproductive in that it fosters piecemeal and fragmented policies and practices. Diverse school and community resources are attempting to address complex, multifaceted, and overlapping psychosocial and mental health concerns in highly fragmented and marginalized ways. This has led to redundancy, inappropriate competition, and inadequate results.

In 2001, the Policy Leadership Cadre for Mental Health in Schools stressed that, at this stage in the field’s development, advancing mental health in schools is about much more than expanding services and creating “full service” schools. The Cadre’s analysis emphasized that the aim is to become part of a unified, comprehensive, and equitable systemic approach that strengthens students, families, schools, and neighborhoods and does so in ways that maximizes learning, caring, and well-being.

Transforming Student and Learning Supports
From this perspective, the need is for policy decision makers and school improvement leaders to draw on well-conceived, broad frameworks and the best available information and scholarship to transform how schools address barriers to learning and teaching, enhance healthy development, and re-engage disconnected students. Such a transformation will require weaving together school owned resources and community and family resources to develop a unified, comprehensive, and equitable system of supports. And, given the complications stemming from the scale of public education in the U.S.A. (i.e., over 90,000 public schools in about 15,000 districts), transformation requires a focus on replication, “scale‑up,” and sustainability (see the 2015 National Initiative for Transforming Student and Learning Supports).

At this critical juncture in the history of public education, here are some points for policy makers to consider:

  1. An improved system of student and learning supports is an essential step in increasing attendance and graduation rates, teacher retention, student progress, reducing achievement gaps, and more.
  2. Transforming student and learning supports is fundamental to enabling equity of opportunity, promoting whole child development, and enhancing school climate; equity of opportunity is fundamental to enabling civil rights (see Adelman & Taylor, 2015 ).
  3. To date, all school improvement policy discussions and planning have marginalized efforts to fundamentally change how schools address barriers to learning and teaching and re-engage disconnected students. The result is an unsystematic, piecemeal, and fragmented set of relatively ineffective student and learning supports.
  4. As states and districts pursue higher curriculum standards and as Congress focuses on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), it is imperative to end such marginalization in order to enhance equity of opportunity for all students to succeed at school and beyond and to ensure teachers have essential supports when they encounter learning, behavior, and emotional problems. (Teachers cannot do it alone!)
  5. Ending the marginalization of student and learning supports (including the focus on mental health in schools) requires moving school improvement policy from a two to a three component framework. The current emphasis is mainly on instructional and management concerns; the third component that needs to be developed is a unified, comprehensive, and equitable system to enable schools to address the complex array of factors interfering with student performance and achievement.
  6. Available research underscores the need for such a shift in school improvement policy and practices. Research also provides frameworks for rethinking student and learning supports and moving in new directions.
  7. The specific aims are to transform student and learning supports in ways that (a) unify the many discrete practices and (b) guide development of a comprehensive learning supports component at school, district, and state levels.
  8. Trailblazing work along these lines is underway across the country. For example, the state education agency in Alabama has adopted a three component approach to school improvement and is well underway in guiding 40 of its districts in developing a unified, comprehensive, and equitable system of learning supports (See Transforming Student and Learning Supports).

Clearly, transforming any facet of schooling is not an easy task. And transforming the way schools address barriers to learning and teaching and re-engage disconnected students will be an insurmountable task until school reformers accept the reality that such activity is essential and does not represent an agenda separate from a school’s instructional mission.

Howard S. Adelman, Ph.D. is professor of psychology and co-director (along with Linda Taylor) of the School Mental Health Project and its national Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA.

Linda Taylor, Ph.D. is co-director of the School Mental Health Project and its national Center for Mental Health in Schools at UCLA.

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