Building Inclusive School Districts: A Mental Health Approach to Addressing Issues of Disproportionality

By Gerard Barone, LCSW and Dan Lemond, MA, LPC, ACS

Prior to being turned upside down by a global pandemic, school districts were already facing a myriad of mental health challenges. It has been well documented that the rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidality have been steadily rising in school-aged children in recent years. Many contributing factors have been identified, including social media and the intense pressures associated with living in a digital world, as well as the increasing number of youngsters who are living in chronic traumatic conditions, such as exposure to poverty and racism. These traumatic conditions give rise to behavioral and emotional/psychiatric issues that affect both health and academic achievement.

One potential positive outcome of the COVID-19 crisis is that it has shined a spotlight on both the health and educational disparities that minority communities have long faced in the United States. Many districts around the country were already beginning to address the “disproportionality” with which minority youth, especially Black and Hispanic students, are classified as disabled and/or are referred for disciplinary action, including suspension and expulsion. The need for remote instruction has also highlighted the paucity of resources (e.g., workspace, internet and computer access) that minority families deal with in trying to educate their children.

Students affected by disproportionality tend to be more isolated from the general school population, spend more time in restrictive environments, and are less likely to participate in the core curriculum, thus limiting future educational and employment opportunities. According to researchers, multiple factors contribute to disproportionality, including biases based on culture, language and poverty; variability in assessment practices; teacher expectations and misconceptions; and the lack of a data-driven culture in any given school or district.

Effective School Solutions offers the following theory of action to meet the complex challenges associated with remediating disproportionality, utilizing a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) mental health approach:

Component # 1: A Trauma-Informed Professional Learning and Coaching for Teachers

The focus of this component is to build capacity among teachers, providing them with the knowledge and necessary skills to work with students of diverse backgrounds via a trauma-informed model of care. The goal of these professional training activities is to change teachers’ understanding of what drives certain behaviors (e.g. trauma-based coping strategies), as well as how they respond to youngsters when confronted with these challenging behaviors. Some of the data points considered in assessing outcomes are the number and types of disciplinary events for each teacher, both before and after training/coaching interventions.

“Building capacity” is a popular theme for districts these days, as most are looking to avoid unnecessary student trips to the “office” or to school-based counselors, and are hoping to avoid the unnecessary classification of students. The ability to address more of a student’s needs in the classroom can preserve specialized services for those students with the greatest need, and can improve a school’s ability to foster an inclusive environment for all.

Side-by-side coaching offers teachers feedback and strategies in “real time”, assuring fidelity to the trauma-informed model being taught. In addition, “Technical Support Sessions” can be offered to the school’s Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s), as well as its Intervention and Referral Services (I&RS) teams, as a means of extending and imbedding content to a larger audience. These additional consultation sessions will add another layer of cultural sensitivity to the overall assessment and referral process.

The core content area that figures prominently in a successful Professional Learning Approach to disproportionality is a trauma-informed practice model. The model should be broad-based, including trauma caused by poverty, violence, and racism, as well as the other frequently documented sources of trauma that students have experienced. Professional Learning on trauma practices for teachers should include the Four R’s: Realizing the prevalence of trauma, Recognizing how trauma affects students, Responding to trauma effectively, and Resisting re-traumatization by reducing triggers. Coaching Sessions focus on Classroom Environment and Materials, as well as Student Engagement and enhancing teachers’ ability to de-escalate students who are in states of arousal.

Component # 2: Skill Development for Students

The second component of this model provides a “Push In” approach for students, helping them acquire and apply the knowledge and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, to set and achieve goals, and to show empathy, while establishing and maintaining positive relationships. The goal here is to build emotional skill capacity among students in an effort to increase overall resiliency throughout the school/district.

Content specialists go into the classroom, working directly with students to develop mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, interpersonal effectiveness, and other skills, and to provide mental health education on a wide array of topics. Inherent in this component is a process of teaching content or skills, and then checking back with students as to what they have learned and applied in their day-to-day lives. SEL content comes from a variety of evidence-based sources. Some key objectives of these push-in classes are to help students identify and accept their feelings, to understand trauma-based and other reactions, and to develop both self-regulation and social skills in order to more effectively get their needs met.

Together with school leadership, content specialists select several classes that they will attend each week to work with students. Outcome measurement includes data points like those used for teacher training, for example, the number of disciplinary issues pre and post the “push-ins”, for the entire classroom and/or for specific students. Improved social-emotional skills are, of course, essential for helping students manage their behavior throughout the school day, thus impacting grades, attendance, and school engagement as well.

Component # 3: Assessment and Alternative to Suspension Services

The third component of this program model is the development of counseling services that prominently feature rapid assessment as a way to offset suspensions and gratuitous referrals to hospital or mental health center emergency rooms. One aspect of disproportionality is that certain students are more likely to be identified as needing “clearance” before they can return to school, and who then face multiple barriers in trying to access the needed assessments.

Within the proposed model, on site Assessment Screeners will meet with students shortly after a disciplinary or high-risk incident to determine if a student needs to be sent for further evaluation for clearance. Once screening is completed and it is determined that the student does not need a higher level of care, Assessment Screeners can mobilize the Alternative to Suspension services. Alternative to Suspension services provides a brief intervention model to care for students struggling with a variety of challenges including substance abuse issues, anger management, or bereavement.

The Alternative to Suspension program dovetails nicely with the restorative practice model of discipline that some schools are implementing. Using 6 to 8-week counseling modules, the goal of the counseling component is to provide students with the knowledge and skills to avoid repeat incidents and/or suspensions.

Component # 4: Counseling for Students in Need of Ongoing Support

The final component, consistent with a Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) model, is the development of short-term counseling services for students needing a moderate level of support. These services offer a safety net to help the student avoid the need for future crisis clearance, suspension, classification, expulsion, or out of district placement. Offering students a solution-based therapy approach can help them develop resilience and begin the process of healing from trauma experiences. The principle underlying this service tier is the belief that improving the well-being of individual students and families, while correspondingly improving the culture of school systems, will allow for healthier school environments, and for students who are both academically and socially engaged.

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained the resources of school districts in unprecedented ways, both financially and from a human resources perspective. Effective School Solutions has found, however, that districts are even more committed to enhancing mental health services for their students, and to tackling issues of disproportionality. Districts also are acutely aware that training, coaching, and data collection activities must be designed in such a way that they can readily be moved into a virtual environment, as with so many educational and clinical services these days.

Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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