'Emotional literacy' is goal of designers of forthcoming mental health curriculum

On Board Online • April 2, 2018

By Eric D. Randall

"How will schools meet the forthcoming mental health education requirement?"

That was the topic of a panel of experts at NYSSBA's Mental Health Summit held on Long Island on March 15.

The short answer: We'll have a better idea once the State Education Department (SED) provides guidance on the requirement.

Legislation mandates the requirement to be in place by July 1, and schools will be expected to act to satisfy the new requirements starting in September.

The law states: "All schools shall ensure that their health education programs recognize the multiple dimensions of health by including mental health and the relation of physical and mental health so as to enhance student understanding, attitudes and behaviors that promote health, well-being and human dignity." The wording appears in Article 17 (Instruction in Certain Subjects), Section 804 (Health Education).

Expect general guidelines that give school districts flexibility, said Renee Rider, associate state education commissioner.

"You at the local level can develop whatever you want," Rider told about 150 attendees at the mental health summit, including school board members, school psychologists, superintendents and principals. She added that addressing mental health issues in grade K-12 instruction and programming is "not a brand new thing for a lot of schools."

The sooner school districts receive additional guidance, the better, said one attendee, Laura Seinfeld, superintendent of the Oyster Bay-East Norwich Central School District. She pointed out that districts need time to plan and implement appropriate professional development to fulfill any new requirement.

Five working groups at SED are involved in developing the guidance, according to Rider. NYSSBA is represented by Stephen Jambor, a retired school psychologist who is president of the Brewster school board.

The goal is "to give young people tools and resources for life," said John Richter, director of public policy for the Mental Health Association of New York State, which helped legislators draft the new requirement. He said the skills and perspectives that every student needs include (1) recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, (2) knowing how to get help, and (3) being untroubled by any sense of stigma or inhibition about seeking help.

"We are moving toward a more holistic view of health," said Donna Bradbury, associate commissioner of the state Office of Mental Health. "The goal is not to turn teachers into therapists."

"Emotional literacy" is an important developmental achievement that can be nurtured by adults, said John Kelly, a school psychologist in Commack and president of the National Association of School Psychologists.

He said he sees the new curricular requirement as huge step forward for the state.

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