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Give Schools the Tools They Need to Battle Mental Illness in Children

This week, May 3-9, is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and every day, about 20 percent of students entering classrooms across the nation are struggling with mental health challenges. We must give schools more tools to battle mental illness in children.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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While schools across Texas wrap up another round of STAAR testing, parents are growing increasingly concerned about the emotional impact high-stakes testing has on our children. They know that their kids can’t perform at their best when the worries take over. Parents are also concerned with the message these test experiences send to their children: You are only as good as your test score.

However, while we are having the STAAR testing debate, we are missing the opportunity for a larger public discussion on not only how children’s social and emotional health affects their success in school, but also what role schools have in addressing emotional and behavioral challenges. While struggles with attention or learning disorders may be apparent to teachers, many mental health issues are more challenging to recognize.

This week, May 3-9, is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and every day, about 20 percent of students entering classrooms across the nation are struggling with mental health challenges. Seventeen percent of high school students report they have seriously considered suicide in the past 12 months. Students who have experienced traumas, such as witnessing family violence or the traumatic loss of a loved one, may appear distracted, unfocused, withdrawn or moody.

These students are often labelled “problem students” before schools have a chance to understand what may be behind the learning struggles. 

The Texas Legislature has led the nation by recognizing the importance of the school system in identifying mental health needs of students. During the 2013 session, legislators provided funding for Texas teachers to receive training in Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour course that teaches individuals how to begin to recognize the signs of mental health challenges and assist.

After the first year of the initiative, 917 educators and 1,588 community members had been trained. This year, the Legislature is considering a bill (SB 133) to expand Mental Health First Aid training to school administrators, nurses and other school personnel. These school staff members may be the only critical adults who recognize emotional turmoil in students.

But recognizing emotional or behavioral needs of students is not enough. Two related models offer a vision for Texas schools to address emotional or behavioral barriers to learning through positive behavioral supports, while building on community partnerships when more assistance is needed.

School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports aids schools in implementing a continuum of supports that create an environment where all students feel connected to their school community and provide teachers with effective classroom interventions to address behavioral difficulties. This program has begun to take root in Texas Regional Education Service Centers, and more schools should take note.

However, schools do not have the capacity to address all children’s mental health needs, so models such as the Interconnected Systems Framework bring school staffers and community mental health providers together on a team to actively address the needs of all students in a coordinated, data-driven manner.

Bringing the Interconnected Systems Framework to all Texas schools should be our next step in ensuring anxiety, depression, trauma and other challenges are not keeping our kids from excelling in school.

Whereas most parents see the effect of stress during STAAR testing, parents of children with emotional challenges see it throughout the school year. Parents need our schools, where children spend the majority of their waking hours, to partner with them and their local communities to take this next step in supporting the emotional health of our students.

Molly Lopez is the director of the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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