Picture this: You are an administrator at a mid-sized, suburban school district and have noticed an increase in problematic behavior among students. You are also hearing from teachers who say they feel ill-equipped to deal with these behaviors. What do you do?
This was the question we faced a few years ago in the Port Washington-Saukville School District in Wisconsin. We were seeing more instances of anxiety or aggressive behaviors among students — and we were seeing it start at a younger age. We know that academic success and mental health are connected, so we knew we had to address students’ non-academic needs. We began this work by asking four questions:
- What are we currently doing in each of our buildings to address student mental health needs?
- What else should we be doing to address those needs?
- How do we distinguish between normal adolescent development and mental health issues?
- How can we give staff the tools to help and support students with mental health challenges?
From these team-level discussions came a comprehensive mental health and social emotional learning initiative. It has been a game-changer. The two primary components of this initiative are data and community partnerships.
Our district’s mission is: “We educate all children to reach their greatest potential.” Getting there means students need to be in a good place socially and emotionally. We needed an assessment tool to help identify students’ social emotional learning needs and to see if our initiative is working. As part of our SEL initiative, all students in grades K-12 are screened for SEL competencies using the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA-mini and DESSA HSE-mini) from Aperture Education. The short online screener helps to identify students who may need additional SEL support. If the data indicates a student may need additional support, teachers can administer a more comprehensive version of the assessment to obtain deeper insight and develop targeted interventions for that student.
Our district also uses major/minor office discipline referral data, health room visits and a student-completed “Connections Survey.” This tool lets students self-report to school staff members and/or friends with whom they feel that they have a good relationship or connection.
The building-level Tier 2 PBIS Teams review this data at least once per month then make recommendations for interventions and additional services to the classroom teacher. The classroom teacher contacts the parents with a follow up from the building intervention coordinator to arrange a formal plan that is progress monitored.
Students that are identified as needing assistance get access to a variety of tiered interventions, including PBIS check-in, check-out; targeted small group interventions; mentor programs; school-based therapy, or wraparound services provided through community partnerships.
Districts wanting to incorporate SEL assessments into their initiatives should look for solutions that are strengths-based and they should incorporate those assessments into their regular routines, just like hearing and vision screeners.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated 13% of children ages 8-15 experience a severe mental illness at some point in their life. That number goes to 21.4% for youth ages 13-18. Mental health is a community-wide issue and when it comes to finding the right supports for these students, it is important to remember that schools are only one piece of the puzzle. School districts should make it a priority to approach community organizations and find ways to work together to help address students’ needs.
The Port Washington-Saukville School District has become a leader in the state for our comprehensive community-wide partnerships around social-emotional learning and mental health. We have a Community Mental Health Committee, chaired by our superintendent Dr. Michael Weber, with nearly 50 members and representation from almost 20 different agencies throughout the county. This committee is charged with reducing the stigma of mental illness, promoting legislative advocacy, and sharing and distributing information centered on mental health resources and events.
We also created strategic relationships with social services, mental health agencies and local non-profit groups to form a district-wide Mental Health Steering Committee, which I chair. The role of this group is to coordinate district mental health services into “an interconnected systems framework” that has the philosophy that “access is not enough,” meaning, that as a district, our work is to go beyond just getting our students connected with mental health services. Rather, we work with our partners as equal members of the team to continuously assess student needs and progress monitor the success of interventions, so timely adjustments can be made to the student’s plan.
Here are some additional suggestions for constructing a strong SEL program, based on our experience.
- Invest in personnel. The Port Washington-Saukville School District has made a conscious decision to hire a school psychologist for each of our five buildings. The expertise that a school psychologist can bring to the structure of a building-level mental health system is an invaluable resource. In addition, construct strong hiring processes to find caring and empathetic staff members who have positive attitudes and are the “best of the best.”
- Make time to meet and plan. In our district, the team of school psychologists meet with me during a dedicated time every Tuesday afternoon. In order to use our time effectively and efficiently, we have weekly themes. On the first Tuesday of each month, we meet with the District Mental Health Steering Committee and our collaborative partners. On the second Tuesday of the month we meet with the District Response to Intervention team and invite other staff members and principals as needed. The third Tuesday consists of fine-tuning the implementation of our PBIS framework and the fourth Tuesday is reserved for addressing special education needs.
- Get buy-in. The Port Washington-Saukville School District is very fortunate to have a positive and supportive culture in which to do our work. This is fostered through a wonderful relationship with our school board which has a strong, student-centered focus. This support was needed in order to move the plan forward. It is also important to create a culture that encourages administrators, teachers, and staff to innovate and engage on the topic, and to embed SEL and mental health supports into everything the district does rather than it being an add-on.
Students experience multiple outside stressors: family issues, trauma, and anxiety, among others. It is important for schools to help students develop the skills to handle these types of challenges. They can do this by creating or participating in robust, comprehensive community-wide programs that help to identify, address, and support mental health and social emotional competence.
Duane Woelfel is the director of special services for the Port Washington-Saukville School District in Wisconsin.
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