Editor’s note: The recent arrest of a Barrington High School student for carrying a gun to school in his backpack along with prescription medications commonly prescribed for anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder focused attention on the mental health needs of youths. University of Illinois social work professor Kate M. Wegmann is a co-author of a recent paper that examined the impact of a school-based mental health intervention. Wegmann discussed the program with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest.
How prevalent are mental health problems among young children? And what was unique about the School-Based Support Program that the research team implemented in the study?
About 20 percent of preschoolers exhibit moderate to clinically significant behavioral difficulties, and about one in five children between the ages of 8 and 15 exhibit clinically diagnosable mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, conduct disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The School-Based Support Program put a care team in six high-need elementary schools in North Carolina. A partnership between the schools and the local health management agency, the program placed an additional social worker in each school whose only responsibility was working with students who had mental health issues. Each school had a school psychologist and a parent liaison who facilitated discussions between children’s families and school staff to create support plans for each child.
We collected grades from the children who participated in the program, their number of absences and discipline referrals, the types of services they received through the SBS program and how frequently those services occurred so that we could get a sense of the support services they received and how those affected their behavior, attendance and grades.
What impact did the interventions have on children’s behavior?
Children typically were referred into the program because of behavioral issues related to their mental health needs, which affected their ability to concentrate, to stay engaged and to behave appropriately in the classroom.
When you look at the trajectory of children’s behavior, it tends to go down over the course of the school year. Kids are on their best behavior at the beginning of the school year, but by the end of the year, they’re getting tired of being in school, it’s exam time and they’re acting out.
The kids in the program, who would ostensibly be the most high-needs population, showed only a very slight decline behaviorally over the course of the year, and it was not statistically significant. They were able to maintain a steady level of behavior throughout the school year.
How did the services the children received affect their academic outcomes?
The children’s reading and math scores increased over the course of the year, which is something that you typically would not expect to see in this population.
Math scores for children in the SBS program increased by 4.5 percent over the course of the school year. The same percentage increase occurred among children who had exceptional children’s status, a designation for children who have different educational needs, such as learning disabilities.
Participants’ reading scores also increased by 3.5 percent and their writing scores by 3.75 percent.
For this population, that’s pretty unique. This shows that the support children in the program received helped them perform at a level across the school year that may not have been possible without these services.
What are the challenges for school social workers in identifying and providing services to schoolchildren?
Due to funding constraints, a school social worker may serve numerous buildings or schools, and he or she may have to travel between all those sites in addition to trying to take care of their duties at each place.
That’s one challenge that we see a lot with school social work that prevents social workers from doing as much as many of them would like to do with child mental health.
A second issue that we saw was the way in which the duties of school social workers were defined. In North Carolina, it was common for school social workers to be responsible for enforcing attendance and addressing truancy. Due to the current climate of high-stakes testing, some social workers were drafted into coordinating and proctoring state exams.
As schools’ resources have diminished, school social workers have been drafted into these other responsibilities that are really important to helping the school run, but don’t necessarily take advantage of the specialized skills and training that school social workers bring.