School mental health training for teachers leaves room for improvement

BlogHealthy SchoolsAug 20 2019

This blog was updated on August 21, 2019 to clarify details regarding a referenced training program and its evaluation.

As youth struggle with mental health issues at increasing rates, their teachers are struggling to help them. One recent study found that, while 93 percent of teachers are concerned about student mental health needs, 85 percent expressed the need for further mental health training. Schools must ensure that teachers are prepared to identify and support students by building their capacity to effectively address student mental health.

Mental health is a topic not commonly covered in current teacher trainings. These trainings tend to address classroom management skills and a variety of teacher competencies, with little or no focus on student mental health. However, some schools are incorporating effective teacher training on student mental health within in-service trainings. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA), one of the most commonly used training programs of this kind, has a growing evidence base demonstrating increases in teachers’ knowledge and ability to address student mental health needs. Additionally, teachers report a more positive sense of their personal mental health after participating in an MHFA training.

Despite some schools’ progress in integrating mental health training into their in-service trainings, schools are still challenged when it comes to increasing teachers’ ability to identify and address student mental health needs. Teachers and school leaders feel that public schools lack time, funding, and other resources to effectively address these needs. Even the more commonly used teacher training programs like MHFA, originally designed to be a 14-hour training program, are often truncated due to a shortage of time and resources. One evaluation of a shortened MHFA training in Australia found that, while teachers’ general knowledge and confidence increased as a result of the training, it had not affected their behavior toward students. As the depth of the content that teachers receive in their in-service trainings varies across school districts nationally, a more consistent, disciplined approach would be beneficial.

Schools should consider modifying the content included in their current trainings. First, preservice training programs should include mental health training. Research suggests that many of these programs lack a mental health component to prepare teachers for the issues they will encounter in the classroom. Second, as schools begin to incorporate mental health training into in-service trainings, they should consider more effective ways of building teachers’ capacity. Third, schools implementing teacher-delivered mental health interventions might consider incorporating more interactive structures, like coaching. Teacher coaching has been shown to strengthen teachers’ instructional practices, and emerging research suggests that coaching around mental health needs has promising impacts in the classroom.

As the number of youth struggling with mental health issues increases, it is crucial that teachers—the adults with whom students spend most of their day—are able to utilize methods like these to effectively identify and/or address the mental health needs of their students.