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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 35, #7
May 2007

Advocacy in Action

Congressional Briefing: School-Based Mental Health Services and School-Wide Interventions

By Stacy K. Skalski, NASP Director of Public Policy

On March 15, 2007 NASP leaders participated in a joint congressional briefing at the U.S. Capitol on school-based mental health services and school-wide interventions. This briefing was part of a series sponsored by Congressman Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, and Senator Kennedy, Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee that focuses on the nexus of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA).

Congressional NEXUS Briefings on NCLB and IDEA

As part of the process for the reauthorization of NCLB, the House and the Senate Education Committees have been holding a series of briefings for congressional staff on issues at the “nexus” or intersection of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). These briefings are addressing eight different topics at this intersection. In addition to school mental health services and schoolwide interventions, other topics include issues like Medicaid reimbursement for schools, least restrictive environment (LRE), accountability, assessment, and annual yearly progress (AYP). These are bicameral (jointly held and sponsored by the House and the Senate), bipartisan briefings on IDEA implementation and how provisions in NCLB interact with IDEA and impact the education of students with disabilities.

At the March 15th briefing, two NASP leaders participated on a panel sharing their knowledge and experiences as school mental health providers. Dr. John Desrochers, NASP 2007 School Psychologist of the Year, presented on his work in the New Canaan (CT) Public Schools. Dr. Desrochers’ message emphasized how emotional and behavioral problems in school create barriers to learning. “Behavioral and mental health issues are the 600-pound gorilla in the middle of our classrooms. They exert tremendous influence on our teachers’ ability to teach and our students’ ability to learn, yet our laws pay relatively little attention to them,” Desrochers said. Driving home this point, Desrochers presented a view of how, through the provision of school mental health services and positive behavior supports, he worked to help struggling students become more focused and engaged in class. He also presented several suggestions for how the reauthorization of NCLB offered opportunities for connecting NCLB and IDEA. Dr. Desrochers emphasized this nexus by saying, “We need a specific focus on school mental health in NCLB, minimally requiring that school improvement plans include an assessment of availability and accessibility of mental health supports, including the adequacy of staffing of school psychologists, social workers, and counselors. We also need something like IDEA’s allowance for 15% of funds to be spent on ‘early intervening services’ such as the development of learning support teams and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Beyond that, I would love to see an accountability measure of each school’s efforts to reduce barriers to learning through provision of school mental health services.”

Dr. Rivka Olley, Maryland School Psychologist Association President and school psychologist from the Baltimore County Public Schools, also participated on the panel. Dr. Olley emphasized how students struggling in school aren’t always students with disabilities. She shared her personal experiences and how she struggled in school as a young girl. “I grew up as an Army brat, attending 13 schools in 12 years, three in one year. As an army kid, I learned what it is like to always be out of sync with a new school’s curriculum and to have no permanent friends because you are always the new kid on the block.” Dr. Olley also talked about the school-wide behavior program her schools use that incorporates the principles of PBIS, culturally competent practice, and the need for effective collaboration and coordination of school and community services.

Other panelists included Anne Marie Altmeyer, School Social Worker and PBS coach in the Fairfax County Public Schools, VA. The panel discussion was moderated by Theda Zawaiza, PhD, Senior Disability Policy Advisor for the House Committee on Education and Labor.

Promoting our Message

NASP’s efforts to communicate with other professionals, the community, and public policy leaders about the importance of school mental health services, and specifically the role of school psychologists in delivering those services, have been ongoing for many years. Towards these efforts, the NASP Public Policy and Communications staff, the Government and Professional Relations (GPR) Committee, the Mental Health Task Force, and the Communications Committee have all been working collaboratively to narrow the focus of our message to a few key points. The essential messages that NASP is working to convey and that were clearly communicated by our panelists participating in the March 15th briefing are:

  • Mentally healthy children are more successful in school and life.
  • Schools are an ideal place to provide mental health services to children and youth.
  • School mental health services focus on the child within the school setting and on collaboration with families.
  • School psychologists provide a continuum of mental health services such as consultation, screening, assessment, intervention, and evaluation.
  • School psychologists, like school counselors and social workers, help link student needs and school services with community services to provide a full continuum of mental health care.

The NASP staff and the GPR Committee have strategically embarked on a process for communicating this message. In March 2006 the first ever Senate briefing addressing the role of school-employed mental health providers in reducing barriers to learning was held. That briefing was cosponsored by NASP, the American Counseling Association, the American School Counseling Association, and the School Social Work Association of America. The Senate briefing served as an introduction for many congressional staff and other professional organizations to the importance of recognizing and responding to student behavior and mental health needs. That briefing was followed by a flurry of letters and office visits to elected officials and the handing out of hundreds of NASP materials and resources on the topic of school mental health. Additionally, NASP staff have worked to strengthen our relationships with other professional organizations by emphasizing our common mission and purpose — student success.

These efforts and activities seem to be paying off. One of the most significant things about the briefing held on March 15th was that the topic was selected by the House and Senate education committees and the invitation to participate came from them. This is a terrific sign that Congress is becoming familiar with the need for these services and is willing to start exploring how these services might help students overcome the barriers to learning.

In order to help NASP members understand and promote these ideas, a variety of materials and resources have been developed that can help school psychologists on the local or national level advocate for school psychological services. On the NASP website NASP members interested in participating in advocacy activities can find advocacy tips, talking points for meetings with elected officials, fact sheets on the effectiveness of school psychological services, models for the delivery of these services, review statutes, and find out how to contact their elected officials. Additionally, the written remarks of state and national NASP leaders who have participated in briefings and hearings are available for NASP members to review. NASP members can send letters to elected officials asking for their support or opposition of proposed bills. State associations can request that GPR Committee staff visit their state and conduct public policy trainings, and every two years, NASP members can participate in the NASP Public Policy Institute (PPI) in Washington, DC to learn the fundamentals of advocacy and public policy development. Participating in this Capitol Hill briefing, attending the PPI in July 2007, or engaging in any of the other above mentioned activities are all ways that NASP members demonstrate “Advocacy in Action.”

Advocacy in Action is a regular column dedicated to providing state associations and their school psychologist members with ideas on how they can become involved in Legislative Advocacy efforts. If you have a good idea you would like to share for this column, email Stacy Skalski, Public Policy Director at sskalski@naspweb.org.