Mental health in schools is a domain where the capture of progress monitoring data has traditionally lagged, with qualitative descriptions of student progress being more common than quantitative measures. Measuring the seemingly “immeasurable” has often seemed too daunting a task. As a result, the impact of school-based mental health initiatives is often “invisible” to most end users, including policymakers.
School districts must show the impact as they implement school-based mental health programs. For example, school districts nationwide have experienced an increase in chronic absenteeism. This has prompted an onslaught of data capture systems to track this issue. The article “Absenteeism Data Is Inconsistent Across States. But It’s Improving,” published in June by EdWeek, points out that data capture is improving but remains inconsistent. And absenteeism is just one data point of many.
To ensure the success of school-based mental health programs, school districts need the frameworks, tools, processes, and systems to measure the outcomes of their programs to demonstrate the success of programs that are working. By doing so educators and administrators can make informed decisions, track the effectiveness of interventions, and allocate resources more efficiently.
As first steps, districts should focus on the following:
STEP 1: Widen the Scope of the Student Support Team (SST) Within Your District’s MTSS Framework
Consider the functionality and process of your district’s Student Support Team (SST) to include students who appear in need of mental health support. An SST is an ideal means to address student mental health issues early on before they become a burgeoning issue. SSTs function best when they have a clear leadership structure, meet regularly, and focus on progress monitoring.
STEP 2: Identify Key Objectives and Indicators for Mental Health Services in School
SST leadership can provide guidance on program structure which includes modalities of care, evidence-based treatment methods, session frequency and duration, as well as psychometric progress monitoring tools. The SST leadership starts by clearly defining treatment objectives, along with specific outcomes you are looking for students to achieve. Are you targeting reduction in absenteeism, improvement in academic performance, or increased student well-being? If so, what are the best evidenced-based approaches to care? What are measurable indicators to demonstrate progress? Once the objectives are established, identify measurable indicators that will reflect progress towards these goals. These indicators can include:
- Delivered services:
✓ Total services
✓ Duration of services
✓ Average duration per week
✓ Average clinician hours per week
✓ Average Weekly services per student
✓ Weekly Engagement Rate
- Grades, Attendance, Disciplinary measures
- Measures of mental health status and therapeutic progress
✓ # of high-risk issues (e.g., issues of self-injurious behavior, suicidal ideation, etc.)
✓ Student progress vs. treatment plan goals
✓ Improvement in therapeutic symptoms as measured by a clinical measure like the GAD-7 (for anxiety) or the PHQ-9 (for depression.)
STEP 3: Determine Data Collection Method
How will you receive the data? This can involve a combination of quantitative (assessments, reports, tracking systems) and qualitative (interviews or focus groups) methods. Using standardized tools will ensure consistency and reliability of all incoming information. Standard privacy protocol should be followed to respect student confidentiality.
STEP 4: Determine Method of Storing and Analyzing Data
To efficiently manage the data collected, it is critical to establish a reliable and secure data management system. This system should include protocols for data entry, storage, and analysis. Ideally, districts should utilize an electronic health record system designed to be used in the behavioral health domain. As always, districts should place paramount importance on data security and any governing regulations like FERPA or HIPAA.
STEP 5: Translate analyzed data into actionable insights
Allocate time and resources to review the collected data, identify patterns, and evaluate the effectiveness of mental health services offered in school. Establish a reporting mechanism communicating the findings to relevant parties, such as teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents. Present the data in easy-to-understand formats like graphs, charts, or infographics to facilitate comprehension and discussions around the results. Data collection also allows for the longevity of youth mental health programs as schools seek sustainable funding and promote transparency and accountability for these initiatives.
STEP 6: Monitor, Analyze and Report Findings on An Ongoing Basis
Data collection and progress monitoring is an ongoing process. Use the insights gained from the data analysis to inform decision-making and continuously improve your mental health initiatives. If certain strategies or interventions are not yielding the desired outcomes, be open to modifying them based on the data and feedback received. Encourage a culture of adaptation to ensure that your mental health programs in school remain effective and responsive to the evolving needs of students.
Developing the complicated infrastructure for data capture takes time, but implementing guidelines, systems, and processes for data collection and progress monitoring of mental health programs in schools is crucial for their success. By establishing clear objectives, designing effective data collection methods, implementing robust data management systems, analyzing the data, and continuously improving services, schools can enhance their ability to support student mental health effectively. Ultimately, these efforts will contribute to a positive and nurturing learning environment where students can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.