Here’s How Schools Can Support Students’ Mental Health

by MEG ANDERSON

About one in five children in the United States shows signs of a mental health disorder — anything from ADHD to eating disorders to suicide.

And yet, as we’ve been reporting this month, many schools aren’t prepared to work with these students. Often, there’s been too little training in recognizing the problems, the staff who are trained are overworked, and there just isn’t enough money.

When there are enough people to handle the job, how should all the different roles fit together?

Many experts point to one model. It’s got a bureaucratic name — the “multi-tiered system of supports” — but when you picture it, just imagine an upside-down pyramid, or maybe a funnel. It starts with support for everyone and moves on to more and more specialized help.

The Village

Here, everyone in the school has a part to play. The collective mission is broad: Create a school environment of general well-being, and a climate where mental health isn’t stigmatized.

It takes a lot of planning — with big decisions often coming from the top. Just ask Amanda Aiken.

She is now the Senior Director of Schools at New Orleans College Prep, a charter school network. But before that she was a principal at one of their schools, Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep.

In that role, she made a point to stand outside her New Orleans school every morning. When the buses drove in, she was at each door. Other staff were stationed at the front and back entrances.

Every student, from preschool to eighth grade, shook at least two hands before they even get inside the building.

Every student, every day?

Sometimes, Aiken conceded, it was a hug rather than a handshake.

“They hear a lot of good-mornings and a lot of how-are-you-doings,” says Aiken. “I require that human touch.”

Now her successor carries on that tradition.

But Aiken wasn’t just being nice. It was strategic.

Many students at Crocker, part of a charter school network, have a higher risk for mental health problems. Most students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and Aiken estimates as many as 70 percent have experienced some form of trauma in the last two years: violence in their neighborhoods, family troubles, the daily stress of living in poverty.

“We need to make sure what we’re doing is not retraumatizing,” she says. “I see the principal as the leader in setting the tone and the culture of how school will support students and families.”

That starts in the morning, but extends far beyond. Crocker is a “trauma-informed” school, which means all staff are trained on how to work with, and identify, students who have gone through trauma.

It also means they have a focus on structure, so students know what to expect. They also have a social-emotional curriculum, yoga after school and a focus on keeping suspension rates low through restorative justice.

“They aren’t going to be prepared for college if they’re suffering,” Aiken says.

As principal, she tried to prevent crises, rather than addressing them as they come up.

“If you have everyone trained and take an ‘it takes a village’ approach, you can do a lot of preventative measures to reduce the risk significantly,” says Aiken.

But, she adds, a healthy school environment isn’t enough.

“Teachers are trained to teach. We have all taken a child psychology class, but we’re not trained to work with kids with mental health needs,” she says.

That’s where other professionals come in.