Mental Health in Schools: Serving the Whole Child

By McGrath, Breeda | National Association of School Psychologists. Communique, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Mental Health in Schools: Serving the Whole Child


McGrath, Breeda, National Association of School Psychologists. Communique


My experience as a school psychologist over the past 12 years has involved fulfilling a broad range of roles in a number of different schools. Most of those environments were high schools, and the job description on my contract was generally consistent. Each year I completed between 60 and 70 evaluations or révaluations, and counseled a wide range of students with varying needs. I participated on school problem-solving teams, transformation teams, and small learning communities. During my internship year, I realized that school social workers hold an important insight into school success: the importance of understanding the systems within which a child functions. The quality of my evaluations, the integrity of my counseling technique, and the number of meetings I attended had limited impact unless they were part of a greater system that included the school climate, the home-school relationship, and the relationships I had with the child's teachers. I realized that in order to use progress monitoring, social skills programs, and behavioral intervention plans, I needed to be working on the larger context of the school, and social-emotional learning (SEL) programs that impacted the quality of the experience for all children at the school.

The focus on RTI and evidence-based interventions in school psychology is heavily concentrated at the moment on academic skills and progress and less on mental health or social-emotional development. The emphasis is understandable given the demands of NCLB and the wisdom of tackling more measurable, manageable, academic skills first. School problem-solving teams are finding, however, that children's academic successes and failures are inextricably linked to their social and emotional development. It is impossible to divorce the intellectual aspects of a child's life from their friendships and conflicts, their joys and sorrows. Furthermore, the concept of mental health does not have to be limited to a pass/fail dichotomy. We need to look at schooling and child development on the basis of a continuum or trajectory, whereby children master skills and develop competencies. Mentally healthy children are notjust those who don't evidence pathology. They are defined along multiple lines of achievement, with specific competencies and goals. While still in development, positive psychology offers us a context for developing prevention programs that articulate and address children's strengths without ignoring their weaknesses.

Social, emotional, and behavioral experiences are an important accompaniment to the cognitive and academic exercises we focus on in schools. Looking at this from an outcomes perspective, Osher et al. (2008) propose that the ecological conditions necessary to improve attendance, learning, achievement, graduation, andpostsecondary outcomes are safety, challenge, support, and social-emotional learning. In general, students who receive social-emotional support and prevention services tend to achieve better academically (Zins, Bloodworth, Weissberg, & Walberg, 2004) . Mentally healthy children do experience difficulty, but they are more resilient in the face of failure, and more apt to persist when challenged.

Take, for example, a third grader, Manus, who is learning about multiplication tables, writing in paragraphs, and the solar system. Like most third graders, he is also making new friends, trying new games, and experiencing changes in his family. If Manus has a fight on the playground with Consuela during recess, he is less likely to devote full attention to the lessons taught after recess than those beforehand. If his parents are divorcing, or adjusting to the arrival of a new baby, he is likely to be feeling the impact throughout his day. The emotional impact of his fight with Consuela is likely to cause a distraction from whatever the teacher is communicating, at least for the next hour. That is not to say that the academic agenda needs to be put aside to resolve Manus' fight, but the curriculum needs to incorporate lessons about relationships and emotional development. …

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