Ybarra to consider 11 recommendations on improving mental health supports in schools

This story has been updated to include feedback from stakeholders who helped draft the recommendations. 

Superintendent Sherri Ybarra will consider 11 recommendations for improving mental health services in Idaho’s schools put forth by a committee of school, government and community stakeholders who met on the topic this spring.

The recommendations include beefing up statewide resources available to districts working on addressing mental health, adopting a common framework to talk about mental health and social-emotional learning, and finding ways to increase and support mental health professionals in schools.

With Ybarra’s support, SDE director for student safety and engagement Eric Studebaker plans to craft a working plan by October for how the department will address these priorities.

“While we may still be seeking to fully understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted student’s behavioral health, there is strong agreement from the field that these needs for our students and families are greater than any previous time,” Studebaker said in an email. “I do believe these recommendations will help us as we seek to support student success.”

Idaho’s need for youth mental health support is extensive, but student access to services varies district to district. The SDE conducted its first survey of mental health supports in local school districts last year, and found that only 60 percent use some kind of strategy to respond to students’ needs, and fewer than a third have a more structured program in place.

Eric Studebaker

After the survey, Studebaker gathered some 90 stakeholders to make recommendations for how Idaho should improve mental health in schools. The group initially proposed some 30 recommendations for the SDE to consider.

Studebaker consolidated the final list down to 11 recommendations, with suggestions for how the department could tackle those:

  • Developing a statewide data dashboard where districts can look at data around social-emotional outcomes and monitor the impact of interventions.
  • Improving access to behavioral health and wellness services provided outside of schools, perhaps by creating a statewide program where students can opt-in to services.
  • Creating a professional learning community where educators can share ideas and insights for improving student behavioral health.
  • Improving teacher and educator access to mental health resources.
  • Beefing up educator trainings around trauma informed practices, social-emotional learning, suicide prevention and more.
  • Adopting a national framework called CASEL to establish common language around social-emotional learning statewide.
  • Involving students in messaging about improving youth mental health.
  • Creating a new website or page with resources on social-emotional learning, to support districts and families.
  • Collecting more data around the ratio of school counselors, psychologists and social workers in Idaho schools, and finding ways to increase that workforce around the state.
  • Integrating the Idaho Association of School Resource officers into efforts to support student wellbeing.
  • Creating a K-12 professional development conference focused specifically on supporting mental health professionals in schools.

Laura Wallis, director of operations at the Idaho Parent Network for Children’s Mental Health, said she was impressed by the SDE’s process of soliciting stakeholder input, as well as the breadth of the recommendations themselves.

“All of the things on that list have been hiding in plain sight for all  these years, but there’s been no one who is in a position to say,  ‘Hey, we need to look at all of them,” she said. “You can’t fix mental health or social emotional learning by looking at just one thing. The fact that [Studebaker] was so willing to bring a bazillion stakeholders to the table tells me he gets it.”

Plans are already underway to address some of these recommendations. Idaho Public Television and Optum Idaho are working on professional development sessions around self-care and trauma informed classrooms, according to the SDE. The Idaho School Psychologist Association and School Social Work Association of Idaho are already making plans for a joint conference this October to unify mental health workers. And the recommendations suggest that Ybarra’s new student advisory council (which has yet to be selected), could take up the work of creating student-led messaging around mental health.

State education leaders pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic as a potential catalyst for improving Idaho’s scattered system of youth mental health supports in schools. Idaho does not require that schools provide mental health services for all students. Teaching “social-emotional learning,” which includes key skills such as recognizing and regulating emotional stress, is likewise optional.

The recommendations before Ybarra don’t include a mandate that districts adopt mental health supports, but, if implemented, they could significantly expand the resources available to districts that are interested in doing that work.

The federal government expects districts to prioritize student mental health and wellbeing with Covid relief funds granted under the American Rescue Plan. All districts will need to publish their plans for spending that money, including a description of how the spending will respond to student’s academic, social emotional and mental health needs.

“In (ARP ESSER requirements) every time you see the word ‘academics’ in the law, it’s followed by ‘social, emotional and mental health needs,'” SDE Federal Programs director Karen Seay told school administrators during an SDE roadshow earlier this year.

“A new president has a new focus, plus a year’s worth of the impact of COVID-19. The American Rescue Plan ESSER III significantly includes a focus on the social, emotional and mental health needs of our students and staff.”

Idaho Education News plans to examine districts’ ARP spending plans later this year. Stay tuned for updates on how districts are spending the money, and how they intend to address youth mental health.

Sami Edge

About Sami Edge

Reporter Sami Edge, a University of Oregon graduate, joined Idaho Education News in 2019. She is a 2019 Education Writers Association fellow reporting on Latino student outcomes in Idaho. She also is a 2019 American Press Institute fellow. She can be reached at [email protected].

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