KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Mental health providers are zeroing in on schools — or even a school — as they look to implement recommendations in a newly released behavioral health needs assessment for area youths.
A pilot program in one building might be the best way to refine the recommendations and prove their worth to other school officials, according to members of the regional Children’s System Change Committee, which coordinated the needs assessment.
The course of action arose this week as panel members worked to prioritize the nearly 40 recommendations from the assessment, which the committee issued last month.
“Every time I look at the list, it’s like, Where do we start?” said Chairperson Marsha Morgan.
Based on more than a year’s work, the assessment included a survey of more than 600 consumers and a January workshop that gathered input from approximately 140 service providers.
The final report grouped recommendations into five areas, such as expediting clients’ entry to care and eliminating service gaps. Another category encouraged wide adoption within the community of “trauma-informed care,” which treats behavioral issues as potential outgrowths of experiences such as abuse or neglect.
Schools figured in many of the recommendations.
For instance, the assessment identified school personnel as key access points to care and suggested trauma-informed care training for all school personnel.
It also suggested adoption of the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support, or PBIS, model.
The model focuses on small steps students take toward better behavior. It also incorporates school-based teams, which sometimes include parents and students, that tailor the approach by building based upon problem areas, such as attendance or discipline.
Working with one school seemed like a good way to start with a manageably sized project, said committee member Tom Cranshaw, chief executive of Tri-County Mental Health Services in Kansas City, Mo.
“There are so many needs and so many bright ideas (in the assessment),” he said, “that if we are not careful, we will have a list that’s so long we do nothing on any of them.”
Morgan said the bad economy was affecting not only students, whose parents might be struggling with money issues, but also teachers, who were worried about their jobs amid layoffs at districts.
Committee member Teresa Strub Molina, counseling clinical supervisor with Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, suggested the Center School District in south Kansas City as the site for a pilot program. Catholic Charities is going to work with the district’s early childhood education program.
The district would be open to discussions, said Supt. Robert Bartman.
Budget constraints have hampered Center’s ability to help students with outside needs that can affect their schoolwork, he said.
Bartman said the district can no longer afford to contract with Spofford, a mental health agency for youths, to provide family resource specialists in the schools. The specialists work with school personnel to help at-risk students and their families address issues such as substance abuse or mental illness.
“We have nurses, we have social workers, we have guidance counselors,” Bartman said, “but some of our families and kids have challenges that run deeper than the experience and backgrounds of our folks to help.”
Committee member Michelle Pendzimas is director of therapy services for Spofford’s residential program. Prior to that, she handled the mental health piece for the early childhood education program at the Independence School District.
As a believer in trauma-informed care, she said awareness of the concept would even be useful for front-office staffers who interact frequently with students.
Pendzimas said some teachers take to interventional strategies out of a desire to figure out what makes troubled students tick.
But with others, she said. “You still have kind of a philosophy out there of, I shouldn’t have to do this because I’m here to teach and I shouldn’t be dealing with this.”
At the Hickman Mills School District, also in south Kansas City, Associate Supt. Susie Fanning said Spofford’s family resource specialists and PBIS had proven to be great assets.
She said this is an especially stressful time for households because of the economy. Schools, she added, can help alleviate the stress, if staff knows where to direct families for assistance.
“A lot of families struggle,” Fanning said, “and they don’t know what things are out there to help them.”