Written By: Tiffany Creager
The integration of educational neuroscience, social emotional learning (SEL) and partnerships with community mental health agencies has brought a lot of hope, positive energy and promise to meeting the needs of the whole child in schools today. Still, we often find that despite our greatest efforts there continues to be something missing. In this blog, we will show you the 10 ways to build mental health systems and supports in your school.
Teachers and staff members pour their hearts into strategies at the classroom, small group and individual levels; however, until we see systemic change with full administrative (and legislative) support, we won’t have the type of sustainable and impactful results we know can come with strong mental health systems and supports.
You can’t create a shift in the lives of our students and staff without (you guessed it) creating a shift in the system! So, where do we start? As Maria Von Trapp might suggest, “let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” Who doesn’t love a good nod to the Sound of Music? But, I digress. For our purposes, the beginning is a solid multi-disciplinary team with a shared passion for the vision and a willingness to be the champions of the cause. Together we will explore the purpose of this team, 10 strategies to create and sustain the team and it’s work and a brief overview of next steps.
The multidisciplinary team will assess, oversee implementation of, and evaluate mental health systems and supports. This includes, but is not limited to: policy evaluation/development, data tracking, program and intervention development across the tiers, coordinating with community partners (developing MOUs that allow for relevant information shared), training, coaching and connecting with families.
The responsibilities of this team are great and the time of each member is valuable. Most importantly, the impact of a well organized, carefully selected, and fully supported team will be life changing for the students, staff and community. Keeping that in mind, here are 10 tips for creating and running an efficient, but meaningful, team focused on solidifying and improving mental health systems and supports for all students (and staff).
- A Seat for Everyone
It is imperative that your leadership team includes representatives of all school departments as well as community partners and even students and families as is appropriate. Take time to evaluate existing teams and look for opportunities to tap into those rather than reinventing the wheel.
School teams might include: Principal, additional administrators, teachers from each grade level, special education teachers, behavioral intervention specialist, office receptionist, school counselor(s), social worker(s), paraeducator, cafeteria representative, bus/transport representative, SRO, custodial representative, school psychologist, speech language pathologist, occupational therapist and community partners.
- Clarify Team Member Roles and Expectations
One of my favorite things about working in schools is the willingness of team members to adapt to meet the need at hand. It is a refreshing change from the “that’s not my job” settings of careers past. Still, for the sake of this team, it is important everyone has an understanding of each individual’s strengths, areas of expertise, and role in the process. Roles may be especially confusing when in the early stages of integrating new systems or programs. Beginning by helping each team member see how they fit in and why their presence is valuable, can save everyone from discord and tension in the future.
- Consistent Meeting Structure
This is a simple one, but needs to be included! We’ve all been to meetings that could have been emails or left not knowing the direction the team is taking! Prevent that frustration by meeting regularly at the same time and operating with the same general meeting flow. Ensure everyone leaves with clear instructions for tasks to be completed before next time and you’ll see happier team members and faster change. Just a small amount of pre-meeting planning can be a huge difference maker. For help with building an effective team meeting agenda, check this out!
- Build Trust and Remain Connected to the Passion of the Team Members
World changing work isn’t easy and certainly doesn’t come with a cookie cutter program, otherwise everyone would do it, right? It gets tough, requires difficult conversations and breakthroughs come when members are comfortable enough to vulnerably explore their core values and beliefs and the alignment of those beliefs with the team, school policies and procedures, and their individual practices. This can’t happen in a room where team members feel fearful. Trust can be created through leadership. For those leaders struggling to know where to begin, I recommend reading and sharing Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead. In addition to building a strong trustworthy atmosphere, it is helpful to integrate exercises that remind of or refuel the passion that began the project.
- Think Outside of the Conference Room
Once you have a system in place, this team will be in the position to address needs of students and staff in transitioning to the agreed upon SEL or mental health programs. As members who have signed on to be the champions of the cause, you’re in the perfect position to spread the passion! This is best done beyond the walls of the conference room. In Hand in Hand: A Manual for Creating Trauma-Informed Leadership Committees, the authors recommend a meeting model that integrates protected coaching time into the meeting schedule. This may mean 1:1 coaching in the classroom for students of concern or teachers/staff requesting support with follow up feedback provided. Depending on need this may occur monthly or biweekly.
- Professional Development Opportunities within Team Meeting Schedule
In supporting the idea of maintaining the passion, exploring one’s values and practices and examining best practices for implementation, it is imperative to protect time for research, development and growth. This can be done in a number of ways and should be unique to the needs of the members and the school. Some ideas include: book clubs, guest speakers or presentations from team members, staff, students, community members, or experts in the field. If leaders are relying on Dare to Lead for inspiration in team building, this would be a great book share as the entire team is created to lead a movement! In addition to the book, workbooks and free study guides are available here. While digging into Brene Brown’s work, which, in my opinion, is just an absolute must, check out her resources created specifically for teachers! (and then call me so we can chat because I am ALWAYS up for discussing Dr. Brown’s work!) Additional recommendations for valuable team book studies are: Lost at School by Dr. Ross Greene, Lost and Found by Dr. Ross Greene, Help for Billy by Heather Forbes, LCSW,and Unwritten, The Story of a Living System by Dr. Lori Desautels and Michael McKnight. If you’re looking for more, don’t hesitate to reach out, I could have gone on and on!
Work smarter, not harder they say. We all know that working in schools, with students, or in human services in any capacity is not easy. If there is any way to make it simpler AND more efficient, sign me up! As mentioned in the introduction, educational neuroscience, social emotional learning and partnerships supporting mental health have given us great tools! It begins to get problematic when we attempt to utilize those as silos. The strategies and programs designed to support the mental health of staff and students can (and should) be aligned and integrated into foundational policies and procedures. As you develop a team, tap into your already existing Multi-tiered Systems and Supports team, your SEL team, or your school climate team. Consider integration and streamlining to boost the chances of sustainability! Here is a great FREE work book by Safe Schools Healthy Students to get you started.
Additionally, it is helpful to use and share data while assessing strengths and needs for the district, schools, classrooms and individuals. This team is in a position to recommend the most practical and helpful assessments for monitoring success. Finally, in terms of data sharing, it is important to have a conversation with community partners about what can and can not be shared and how to maintain positive relationships, forward movement and continual growth while navigating those guidelines.
- Communicate Clearly
So often, the work of the team falls flat when not shared effectively with the stakeholders including: staff, students, families and community partners. Create a system of communication to pass on clear, relevant information and expectations to staff, students and families. Remember that passion fuels positive change. Sharing bullet points in an email may not be as impactful as having open honest discussions that allow for questions and feedback. Building in coaching time as mentioned above will also help create buy in and excitement for new ideas and perhaps, most importantly, allows everyone to discuss and navigate unintended obstacles that will inevitably arise!
- Remain Flexible
Maintain structure, focus and a plan; but allow room to pivot as circumstances require. When a small group of individuals is collaborating to create change for hundreds or thousands, there are certainly going to be obstacles. Some obstacles might be overcome by education, collaboration and conversation; however, some might require a shift in the overall plan. As a group who has committed to a mission and vision that serves the whole, it is important to remember the big picture and not get so hung up on details that the overall goal is missed. Regular conversation, assessment and collaboration in a safe place where creativity is valued can keep the team moving forward despite the hiccups and obstacles that may seem like derailments from time to time. Remain open!
Include celebration in the plans – for the team, for staff, students, and the community. Change is hard. The road won’t be smooth. The process isn’t quick nor is it easy. Stay the course, celebrate the wins – big and small and change the world. I know you can. I know you already are. As administrators, you can support your staff with some of these ideas.
With the dream team in place, it’s time to get to work! Utilizing the tips above for meeting structure, begin with assessment and create a strategic plan to guide the efforts moving forward. Take it slow, take care of yourself, take care of your students, take care of your team and shape the world! You’ve got this.
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