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Competencies Needed by Educators and Other Adults Who Serve Youth With Mental Health Needs

By Sue McKenzie & Ted Feinberg, NCSP

The following competencies are not meant to be definitive. Instead, they are intended to stimulate discussion among all stakeholders concerned about how we can better prepare and support school-based and school-linked mental health programs and services.

  • Develop awareness and understanding of the continuum of mental health to mental illness and recognize early warning signs of mental health concerns.
  • Utilize effective communication skills that work for connecting with all youth, especially those who are troubled or troubling.
  • Serve as a member of a multidisciplinary team that supports and guides the professionals working with students and youth and offers needed services to youth and families.
  • Demonstrate awareness of personal and professional limits and knowledge of when to seek help for a troubled student.
  • Utilize language and skills to communicate mental health concerns about a child to parents and colleagues in a context of trust and empathy, in order to improve academic performance, behavior, and the child’s sense of belonging.
  • Demonstrate appreciation and awareness of diverse populations within the school or organization and the importance of cultural competence and community climate.
  • Implement evidence-based classroom and group management strategies and skills designed to differentiate curricula or activities for varied learning styles and social needs.
  • Identify our own biased ideas about mental health, mental illness, and personal mental health experiences and candidly recognize how these biased notions might affect students’ experiences in the classroom.
  • Identify and promote social and emotional developmental benchmarks and milestones that are within the normal range of child development and assess whether a student is meeting these benchmark goals.
  • Recognize the importance and impact of treatment interventions at various ages and maturity levels (taking into consideration the time it takes to see change).

Supporting Children’s Mental Health: Tips for Parents and Educators

Create a sense of belonging. Feeling connected and welcomed is essential to children’s positive adjustment, self-identification, and sense of trust in others and themselves. Building strong, positive relationships among students, school staff, and parents is important to promoting mental wellness.

Promote resilience. Adversity is a natural part of life and being resilient is important to overcoming challenges and promoting good mental health. Connectedness, competency, helping others, and successfully facing difficult situations can foster resilience.

Develop competencies. Children need to know that they can overcome challenges and accomplish goals through their actions. Achieving academic success and developing individual talents and interests helps children feel competent and more able to deal with stress positively. Social competency is also important. Having friends and staying connected to friends and loved ones can enhance mental wellness.

Ensure a positive, safe school environment. Feeling safe is critical to students’ learning and mental health. Promote positive behaviors such as respect, responsibility, and kindness. Prevent negative behaviors such as bullying and harassment. Provide easily understood rules of conduct and fair discipline practices and ensure an adult presence in common areas, such as hallways, cafeterias, locker rooms, and playgrounds. Teach children to work together to stand up to a bully, encourage them to reach out to lonely or excluded peers, celebrate acts of kindness, and reinforce the availability of adult support.

Teach and reinforce positive behaviors and decision making. Provide consistent expectations and support. Teaching children social skills, problem solving, and conflict resolution supports good mental health. “Catch” them being successful. Positive feedback validates and reinforces behaviors or accomplishments that are valued by others.

Encourage helping others. Children need to know that they can make a difference. Prosocial behaviors build self-esteem, foster connectedness, reinforce personal responsibility, and present opportunities for positive recognition. Helping others and getting involved reinforces being part of the community.

Encourage good physical health. Good physical health supports good mental health. Healthy eating habits, regular exercise, and adequate sleep protect kids against the stress of tough situations. Regular exercise also decreases negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, and depression.

Educate staff, parents, and students on symptoms of and help for mental health problems. Information helps break down the stigma surrounding mental health and enables adults and students to recognize when to seek help. School mental health professionals can provide useful information on symptoms of problems like depression or suicide risk. These can include a change in habits, withdrawal, decreased social and academic functioning, erratic or changed behavior, and increased physical complaints.

Ensure access to school-based mental health supports. School psychologists, counselors, and social workers can provide a continuum of mental health services for students ranging from universal mental wellness promotion and behavior supports to staff and parent training, identification and assessment, early interventions, individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, and referral for community services.

Provide a continuum of mental health services. School mental health services are part of a continuum of mental health care for children and youth. Build relationships with community mental health resources. Be able to provide names and numbers to parents.

Establish a crisis response team. Being prepared to respond to a crisis is important to safeguarding students’ physical and mental well-being. School crisis teams should include relevant administrators, security personnel, and mental health professionals who collaborate with community resources. In addition to safety, the team provides mental health prevention, intervention, and postvention services.