An early-warning system for mental-health problems

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In the wake of the tragic events that lately have hit Arizona, the talk among major media outlets has focused on mental health concerns, particularly as they may affect students in our public education system.

As experience suggests, mental illness can remain undetected for many years until it erupts in a burst of tragic outbursts.

Teachers and psychologists in the Kyrene School District are aware of this, and say they do their best to maintain an early warning system.

Even with such procedures in place, however, district administrator Kelly Alexander emphasizes that “the lens through which teachers pursue their goals is education,” not diagnosing future psychiatric problems unless they affect what goes on in the classroom.

Gina Taylor, assistant superintendent of instructional services for the district, said the district has a support team of behavioral intervention teachers and psychologists who help identify and assess students with emotional disabilities, with a main focus on providing the best environment for the students to achieve prescribed learning goals.

“The support system for the schools is really to help the kids access education,” Taylor said. “We’re not a clinical setting – we don’t work with the psychological needs, except as they support the student’s learning in school.”

Although it’s uncommon, there are times when students are identified as having behavioral issues that may result from an emotional disability, she said.

“We start with how it presents itself in school,” she said. “If a child (appears to be) withdrawn, that might be an indication. Or a child might be acting out.”

Immediately, the student’s parents are notified and the teacher meets with them to discuss what behavior has been witnessed that led to the concern, Taylor said.

“If (such interventions) don’t seem to be helping that child, that might be when the school psychologist would come in,” she said.

Behavior intervention teachers work with the student’s regular teacher to assess the child’s behavior and challenges in the classroom.

“They do a behavioral assessment, trying to find out what proceeds a child’s outbursts,” Taylor said. “Maybe there’s something we can change to help the child be more successful.”

“If it is something that has medical roots, or might be psychiatric in nature, then we work with the parents to inform them of options they might consider for their child,” she said.

In some cases, a student with an emotional disability will be placed in a home-based setting, or with a smaller number of students in the classroom, Taylor said.

In some cases, there are students with mental disabilities who have outside psychiatric help and perform well in school, with no evident behavioral issues.

“It may be a child who has an emotional disability functions just fine in school,” Taylor said. “The school is aware of the child’s needs and monitors them, but maybe it doesn’t present itself as an issue when the child is in school.”

If behavior problems do arise, teachers and staff work together to provide the best strategy to help the student perform well in classes.

“Maybe a child needs a behavior plan,” Taylor said. “For example, a child who frustrates easily might need their work in smaller doses.

“But, there’s a plan and the teachers are aware of it.”

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