Commentary: Developmental Psychopathology as a Unifying Context for Mental Health and Education Models, Research, and Practice in Schools

Article excerpt

A persuasive case is presented by Ringeisen, Henderson, and Hoagwood (2003) for the significance of school contexts in child development and the potential for improving child mental health and achievement through more sophisticated, integrative, multilevel, and multidisciplinary models of how schools and children change. This perspective reflects a transformation taking place in models of psychopathology in children and what to do about it, with implications for research, policy, treatment, and prevention efforts involving schools. The article underscores three fundamental tenets of developmental psychopathology with relevance to school-based practices and research: (a) children are living systems whose lives reflect complex interactions with other systems, including schools, which in turn are embedded in larger systems; (b) understanding positive adaptation and development is important for preventing and treating problems, particularly among children at risk for psychopathology; and (c) more complex approaches are required in order for interventions or research to accommodate the embedded multisystem realities of children's lives, and these approaches require collaborations at a much earlier and deeper level.

Schools as Dynamic Systems

Over the past three decades, developmental psychopathology has emerged and taken hold as an integrative framework for understanding behavioral and emotional problems in children and conceptualizing the processes by which such problems develop, change, and might be prevented (Cicchetti & Sroufe, 2000). Developmental systems theory has permeated this framework, emphasizing the dynamic nature of human development and the importance of many embedded and interacting systems at different levels of analysis for shaping the course of development (Ford & Lerner, 1992; Sameroff, 2000).

Bronfenbrenner's (1979) ecological model of embedded systems and their interactions has had a tremendous influence on models of etiology and intervention in developmental psychopathology. Figure 1 provides an illustration of the complex embedded nature of human individuals in interacting systems. Ringeisen et al. (2003) focus on the school context as a dynamic and complex system continually interacting and changing at many levels. Schools are contexts for children and for interventions, but schools also have contexts provided by larger systems such as school districts, communities, and national policies. These authors describe a three-level model of school dynamics that could influence the implementation and success of interventions or programs designed to improve mental health outcomes in children. In doing so, they illustrate one of the central implications of dynamic systems models for conceptualizing intervention and prevention. Insofar as change can arise (or be thwarted) in many different ways through multiple processes, it is important to consider the embedded contexts interacting with systems targeted for change. Researchers moving their interventions from controlled academic settings to ordinary school settings have learned from experience, as have school reformers, that it is unwise to ignore the fact that schools have distinct system characteristics and answer to larger systems. Further, it is wise to consider the inherent stability (i.e., resistance to change) of established social systems when one embarks on a change mission.


Particularly compelling in this article is the point that mental health practice models and education models may differ so much that system change is required to bring them together effectively in the school context. The successful implementation of school-based mental health programs, as well as the sustainability of any school-based changes toward this end, may depend critically on attention to the nature and processes characterizing the school as a dynamic system interacting with other systems.

Integrating Competence, Resilience, and Psychopathology in Theory and Practice

Also fundamental in the developmental psychopathology framework is the tenet that understanding positive pathways and processes is vitally important for theory, prevention, and treatment of psychopathology (Cicchetti & Hinshaw, 2002; Luthar & Cicchetti, 2000; Masten & Curtis, 2000). …