ALEXANDRIA, Va — Limited funding and school personnel are causing district administrators and other educators to use what resources they do have to respond effectively and rapidly to student mental health concerns, said panelists Monday during the Special Education Legislative Summit, hosted by the Council of Administrators of Special Education and Council for Exceptional Children.
One such practice is building a positive school climate with relationships that affirm students' unique identities and teach social and emotional skills, said Celeste Malone, president of the National Association of School Psychologists.
Malone, speaking to about 250 attendees, said entire school communities can participate in creating positive school climates. "It's not just solely mental health providers to do the initiatives around school climate, but educators, families and other school staff as well," Malone said.
While the recommended school psychologist to student ratio is 1:500, the current ratio is about 1:1,400, according to Kenneth Polishchuk, senior director for congressional and federal relations at the American Psychological Association.
"There's no way that need can be met with that small of a workforce," Polishchuk said.
Malone and Polishchuk outlined approaches school communities can take to support youth mental wellness as schools struggle to hire enough psychologists and counselors.
School psychologists nationwide have reported more students with significant mental, social, emotional and behavioral concerns — and at greater severity than in the past, Malone said. School psychologists have also seen more aggressive behaviors in older students.
"Many school psychologists noted that this past school year was the most difficult and challenging one of their careers" because of mental health struggles that escalated during the pandemic, Malone said.
That's why it's critical for school communities to expand mental health supports, Malone and Polishchuk said, with approaches like these:
Use a multi-tiered system of support. At the first tier, all students learn strategies to recognize and respond to mental well-being challenges, Malone said. Tiers 2 and 3 can respond to small group and individualized needs with the support of data collection and analysis.
"That allows us to use the limited resources that we have in a more effective manner so that we can make a broader impact on students," Malone said.
Build awareness among staff about student mental health concerns. Given shortages of community mental health professionals and the fact that children are in school most of the day, schools are the logical first point of access for mental health support.
"I think in many ways the pandemic has provided an opportunity for us to … really focus more on prevention, early intervention [and] early detection, and schools really have a critical role to play in these efforts," Polishchuk said.
Rethink exclusionary discipline. Using exclusionary discipline on students with mental health challenges sends a message that school is not an affirming or supportive place, Malone said. That can lead to ongoing mental health concerns, school avoidance and withdrawal, she said.
Instead, schools should become "more conditioned to offer support as opposed to punishment," she said.
Look for opportunities to expand the mental health workforce. Polishchuk said broadening student loan forgiveness and Pell Grants for those seeking graduate degrees could help prospective school psychologists enter the field, as well as help diversify the backgrounds and experiences of future school psychologists.
Correction: The Special Education Legislative Summit is a joint venture between the Council for Exceptional Children and Council of Administrators of Special Education. We have updated our article to reflect this.