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USF Grant Funding Mental Health 'First Aid' Training For Teachers

Jul 29, 2019

University of South Florida psychologists are using a new $375,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to teach Pasco County teachers how to better identify mental health risk in their students.

According to the National Alliance On Mental Illness, about 20% of children have severe mental and behavioral health problems, but only about one out of five are identified and get help.

Nathaniel von der Embse, assistant professor of school psychology at USF, along with doctoral students from the school, will be training about 600 teachers at nine Pasco schools in the next three years.

The training started Monday at Bayonet Point Middle School in New Port Richey with about 20 teachers and administrators.

Not only are they learning about how to better identify behaviors that could indicate mental health struggles, but they’re learning how to use an assessment tool von der Embse helped develop along with Steve Kilgus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We're not diagnosing kids,” von der Embse said. “This is about taking the temperature before surgery is needed. So just like we do hearing screenings, vision screenings, and all kinds of general health screenings for kids in our classrooms, this is a very quick, social, emotional behavioral health screening that gives you a snapshot of what might be going on.”

This Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener (SAEBRS) is used in 32 states and has been completed more than three million times. It asks teachers to rate students on a "never" to "almost always" scale on questions about social, academic and emotional behaviors.

Lori Cline, a sixth grade reading teacher at Bayonet Point Middle School in New Port Richey, said teachers have been “crying for” this type of training for a long time.

"I think that it's finally addressing the elephant in the room that we have not been able to really support our students academically without addressing the whole child,” Cline said.

During the training, von der Embse said this "check up from the neck up" adds little to the plate of over-extended teachers.

"The tool takes about 45 to 60 seconds to complete,” von der Embrse said. “So with a typical classroom of 25 or 30 kids in under 30 minutes, you can have a pretty good idea as to the overall mental behavioral health temperature, so to speak, of your classroom."

The answers are scored automatically, giving teachers an idea of whether a student could be at risk. Assessments done three times a year generate graphs that show trends amongst both individual students and classrooms. District specialists can access data for the whole county, and help make determinations about resource allocations.

Shelley Carrino, the principal at Bayonet Point Middle School, said with some students, the mental health needs are more obvious. Some act aggressively, routinely show up late for school, miss assignments, and act out in class.

She said this training will help better equip teachers to handle those children, to help them feel safe and get them access to resources like school counseling, the food pantry, the clothes closet, and more, so they can succeed academically.  

“Some kids just haven't had that ability to feel safe, and really know how to work with those feelings with so much going on at home, if they don't have food, if they don't have electricity,” Carrino said, “if they're wearing the same clothes school every day, if they're in and out of different homes. We have students that live at a hotel on (US) 19.”

The assessment, she says, could go even further in identifying kids that have less obvious behavior. They might not act out in class, but they could be withdrawn, not engaging in peer collaboration, or dealing with anxiety that exhibits itself in fidgety movements or perfectionism.

During the past state legislative session, student mental health was a priority. A mandate approved by the state Board of Education will require public schools to teach students at least five hours of mental health instruction beginning in 6th grade. 

Students will take courses to help them to identify the signs and symptoms of mental illness, find resources if they are battling with depression or other issues, and teach them how to help peers who are struggling with a mental health disorder.

About 37% of students with a mental health condition age 14­–21 and older who are served by special education drop out—the highest dropout rate of any disability group, according to NAMI.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., and the second leading cause of death for people aged 10–34.

To help teachers use the new assessment tool, and to provide ongoing training, USF psychology doctoral students will spend at least one day at  a week at each participating schools  guide teachers and school counsellors through identifying and helping at risk students.