Teachers watch over students’ mental health

April 29, 2018 | By Joe Gamm

Jefferson City Public Schools is now screening most of its elementary students for mental health problems.

Experts believe adverse childhood experiences can deeply affect the physical, social and emotional development of young children and those experiences can have effects much later in children’s lives. Officials believe, with applications of interventions, the screenings will improve students’ performance and increase the chances they’ll be successful.

The school system does the screenings with parents’ permission. And the screenings are done without the students even having to know.

At the beginning of the 2016-17 school year, teachers in elementary schools filled out Social, Academic and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener forms. School administrators use SAEBRS to evaluate students on certain behavioral criteria. The teachers filled them out again at the end of the academic year and at the beginning of this school year.

SAEBRS gives a total score that indicates whether students are at-risk overall, said Bridget Frank, JCPS director of special services. It breaks down concerns into three different areas — social, behavioral and emotional.

The screeners generally take less than two minutes per student to fill out. They consist of ratings of things like “arguing” under social behavior, “preparedness for instruction” under academic behavior or “worry” under emotional behavior. There are six behaviors in each category. Teachers fill out a form that states they see the behavior never, sometimes, often or almost always.

Social concerns take in friendships, peer issues and things of that nature.

Academic concerns look at whether the student has learning-to-learn skills, Frank said. They also take into account whether children have trouble focusing or have limited attention.

“Just being prepared and organized for class,” she said. “Those soft skills that you need to be successful as a student.”

The third — emotional behavior — looks at worry, anxiety and other symptoms.

Once the data is collected, teachers sit down with an intervention team to look over the results. Overall, they can see if they have more concerns in one grade or another.

Or are there individual classrooms that need additional support? And administrators can look at intervention planning for individuals.

“We have our counselors and our behavioral interventionists that are doing some social skills instruction,” Frank said. “Here are the students that are at risk with social concerns. Can we set up some instruction groups for them?”

Intervention teams also can set up academic interventions for students who are struggling.

Parents have the option of letting their children opt out of the program. Most have agreed to participate. Some have asked for more information about the screeners. Once they saw the questions were not too specific, they agreed with the program.

Melissa Maras, a research consultant at the University of Missouri Assessment Resource Center, found teacher reports using the screenings could be inconsistent.

“Our research showed that when we look at the accuracy of these gradients, there’s a lot of other things creeping into the data outside the kids’ behavior,” Maras said. “We weren’t able to determine where that difference was coming from.”

The research looked at data from three different risk assessments from samples of elementary schools in three states. Possible explanations for the differences included some teachers might have had more students who needed additional help. In other cases young people who struggled at home would get to school and appear to be doing fine. Conversely, some would do fine at home and struggle at school.

Maras suggested using a more holistic approach — incorporating input from teachers, counselors, parents and other adults involved with a child — would create a clearer picture of the resources the child needs.

Up to 20 percent of the variance in universal risk assessments can be attributed to classroom factors, such as biases or personality differences, she said.

Maras suggested strengthening assessments by including students’ discipline referrals, attendance and academic performance.

Missouri is one of many states that rely heavily on schools to help students meet their mental health needs. Unfortunately, during the 2016-17 school year in Missouri, there was only one social worker for every 2,065 students. The ideal ratio is one for every 250.

Within JCPS, the administration can put in interventions and academic support for students. Interventions are sets of steps set up to help children in need.

“If we have a kid who we’re concerned about — if we see some red flags — or we see a parent who’s interested, we try to connect them to Pathways (Community Health),” Frank said.

Pathways, a member of the Compass Health Network, provides mental health services in schools to help students.

“We’re really trying to partner with Pathways and our outside mental health agencies to really get a kid connected to more wraparound services, particularly as they get older,” Frank said.

Jefferson City is fortunate. Students in rural areas are less likely to have access to a psychologist or social worker, Maras said.

“That puts more of a burden on school counselors,” she said. “If the school counselor can’t (provide mental health service), then somebody else has to.”

Older students, once they leave elementary school and no longer spend eight hours a day with a teacher, are more difficult to assess for mental health problems.

As students get older, questions about their mental health can be more difficult to ask, and JCPS relies more on parents to assess their children and helps them find resolutions.

“The questions can be very personal and bring up topics that parents may be uncomfortable discussing,” Frank said. “When you start asking those in-depth personal questions, you want to make sure that parents are involved and that there are resources to follow up with. The important thing is knowing that if they’re at-risk, we have support and interventions and services in place.”

As children go through adolescence, many change dramatically, Julie Gramlich said. Gramlich, Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish youth minister and founder of the Anne Marie Project — a coalition that provides resources to help young people find information and guidance on challenges they face — said administrators at the school decided last fall that they needed to do something to help teachers recognize differences between angst and real issues.

“Teachers want to be more successful in their jobs,” she said. “They have these students that they don’t know how to handle or what to do with — to make them successful. As an adult teacher, you think, ‘What am I doing wrong?'”

They might not be doing anything wrong. They might be in conflict with conditions of which they weren’t aware.

Data from a 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health show 46 percent of all U.S. children have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience. ACEs can include physical or emotional abuse, neglect, violence, witnessing a family member’s trauma, substance misuse in the household or having an incarcerated household member. Experts said the experiences can lead to negative emotional and physical conditions.

In Missouri, 27.2 percent of children had two or more ACEs, according to the survey. The national average was 21.7 percent. While 47.8 percent of children had at least one ACE. The national average was 46.3 percent.

Josh Varner, a counselor at Helias High School, said many more children than people realize have experienced ACEs. Through the Anne Marie Project and a grant from ACT Missouri, Varner instructs teachers, counselors and others on how youth think and why, and gives them tools to help students through situations instead of being punitive with them.

“If we could help people understand how these adverse childhood experiences were affecting kids and get these kids the help they needed to recover from the trauma, that would alleviate a lot of mental health problems, a lot of addiction issues, a lot of negative things we see in our communities,” Varner said. “I think that a lot of the time we treat the thing that’s coming out of the trauma instead of the trauma itself, and we’re spinning our tires.”

Varner said the higher the number of adverse experiences children had, the more likely they are to have negative outcomes later in life. Even conditions one might not associate with the experiences, like lung disease, can often be connected to negative childhood experiences.

Experts feel like behavior is a “foundational thing,” he said. The children have experienced certain traumas affecting them later.

So people see that a behavior has a basis instead of thinking, “Why is this kid trying to make me miserable? Why is this kid making my job hard?” Varner said.

His presentation helps shift teachers’ paradigm, which asks what’s wrong with the child, to one in which they ask what the child has gone through, he said.

Once the shift is made, adults can begin to build a supportive, long-lasting, good relationship with the student, Varner said. That helps lead to good outcomes.