New York State School Boards Association

Best practices in assessment of school mental health programs

by Gayle Simidian

On Board Online • October 9, 2017

By Gayle Simidian
Research Analyst

Millions of American children live with depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, Tourette syndrome and other mental health issues, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The CDC listed the most common mental health diagnoses in a 2013 report:

  • ADHD (6.8 percent of all children ages 3 to 17).
  • Behavioral or conduct problems (3.5 percent).
  • Anxiety (3.0 percent).
  • Depression (2.1 percent).
  • Autism spectrum disorder (1.1 percent).

Among adolescents ages 12 to 17, diagnoses included "illicit drug use disorder in the past year" (4.7 percent) and "alcohol use disorder in the past year" (4.2 percent).

How good a job are schools doing in helping students with diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health problems that can lead to a myriad of problems, including school dropouts? According to a new report by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), a nonprofit social science research organization, schools need to regularly assess their mental health programs and services to ensure positive outcomes for students.

According to the report, school leaders should:

  • Compare local statistics on the incidence of mental disorders among youth to state figures, such as those tracked in the Behavioral Health Barometer Report issued by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  • Ask focus groups of school personnel, parents and students about their perceptions of students’ mental health issues. Ask if any subgroups (e.g., immigrant students) have unique needs. Assess in-place school mental health programs by using resources such as the Center for School Mental Health – School Health Assessment and Performance Evaluation System. The system evaluates the quality and sustainability (e.g., funding) of current programs.
  • Review relevant school data that already exists (e.g., absenteeism).
  • Design methods to gather data about specific populations (e.g., all students, at-risk youth and youth displaying problematic behavior.). Examine the “goodness of fit” between students’ needs (e.g., language/cultural barriers) and in-place social service providers.
  • Go over the assessment data with a stakeholder group including school staff and community members. Address gaps in needs such as access to programs and staff capacity issues.
  • Develop both short-term and long-term strategic plans for your school district's mental health program, including how to fund it.

One district that has improved its methods of assessing the effectiveness of counseling programs is the Cheektowaga Central School District in Erie County. Signs of student anxiety, depression, anger management and hyperactivity led the district to apply for a federal Elementary & Secondary School Counseling Grant. It received a grant of just under $1 million in 2014-15, covering a three-year period. The grant enabled the district to hire counselors for K-6 students.

The district partnered with a professor of clinical mental health counseling at Niagara University to conduct data analysis and aid with needs assessments including administering a general behavioral screening called the BASC-2 to students, teachers, administrative staff and parents.

According to Gretchen Sukdolak, director of pupil personnel services and special education, the data collection helped to inform materials the district used at K-6 grade levels. Such materials included the use of Coping Cat, an evidence-based cognitive-behavioral treatment for school-aged children that helps students identify and cope with anxiety.

To review the AIR report, go to .

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