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Elementary School Teachers Can Improve Students' Mental Health, Study Finds

As the nation grapples with how best to assist students with mental health challenges, a new study sheds light on something that may help.

Researchers at Florida International University's Mental Health Interventions and Technology, or MINT, Program have found that services provided by teachers and school staff can significantly reduce mental health problems in elementary-age students.

"Many families face barriers to traditional mental health services in a clinic setting—these barriers can include issues related to cost, transportation, or stigma," wrote Amanda Sanchez, the study's lead author, in an email to Education Week. "Delivering mental health services in schools can overcome many of these barriers by providing services to children where they are, within their own community."

Elementary-class-Hand-Raised-article-Getty.jpgThe study, which was published last month in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, notes that less than half of students with a mental health problem receive treatment. And, among those who do get help, more than half receive it in a school setting.

School-Based Program Effectiveness

The researchers wanted to know the effectiveness of these programs at treating typical mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and attention problems. They examined 43 studies that evaluated nearly 50,000 students who had received school-based mental health services.

These services were delivered either by taking students out of class for individualized treatment, having teachers deliver special lessons from a social and emotional learning curriculum with a mental health focus, or by having teachers blend mental health services into their regular lessons. For example, a teacher may reward students for appropriate behavior during instructional time.

The researchers found that mental health interventions that were integrated into the regular curriculum were the most effective. These programs typically targeted behavior problems such as aggressiveness and failing to follow directions.

Sanchez suggested that these integrated programs may work best because they allow teachers to function in their natural roles.

"Teachers are often overburdened as it is, and it may be that having them learn and teach a separate, additional curriculum overextends their role," wrote Sanchez.

The study found that teachers were already doing most of the heavy lifting when it came to providing mental health services. School counselors and mental health workers only provided 2 percent of these services in the programs the researchers analyzed.

Next Steps

The study suggests that child psychiatrists should increase referrals for school-based mental health care to elementary-age students. Sanchez writes that it's important for children to receive treatment as soon as symptoms appear.  

"Mental health problems arise at a young age and when left untreated they can really 'snowball' with time, leading to more difficulties later in life," wrote Sanchez.

The researchers also found that treatments provided several times per week were more than twice as effective as those provided once a week or less.

The study notes that schools without significant resources may particularly struggle when it comes to providing students with these services, and children at these schools may need the help the most, since students from low-income families are less likely to receive mental health care.

Image by Getty

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