Promoting Universal Well-Being in Schools

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By Michele Calvo, Policy Associate

It’s a scene that brings joy to parents everywhere—a room full of energetic kindergarteners competing to sit up straight, listen quietly to their teachers and focus on each lesson in pursuit of a treasured gold star. Losing means receiving a dreaded frowny face. This ritual—called the Good Behavior Game—now takes place in elementary school classrooms all over the country.  Its popularity is a sign of the growing, national recognition of the value of early childhood programs that can prevent a lot more than unruly classroom behavior—they support better mental health and help prevent substance use as they grow older.

As part of this work, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) is supporting a new, national working group to recommend policies that advance mental health in schools and may also prevent substance abuse and encourage better academic performance. Unfortunately, evidence-based programming to promote mental health in the United States is rare and where it exists, the quality of implementation varies widely. Yet, universal primary prevention of mental health issues, ranging from substance use to suicide, that incorporate social and emotional learning, positive peer and teacher relationships, positive behavioral change, mental health literacy and trauma informed approaches are proven solutions.

This is great news, but educators and child health experts are facing a challenge—how do they identify programs that duplicate efforts and successfully streamline the work so that they avoid wasting badly-needed classroom resources?

While the Kellogg working group has identified policy and programmatic opportunities such as early teacher training and emulating successful health care funding partnerships, there is another practical programmatic approach. Prevention scientist Dennis Embry proposed the concept of “evidence-based kernels”—low-cost, practical changes in culture to influence behavior.

Rather than attempting to implement one program with poor implementation because of the constraints of school environments, these kernels use only the essential processes of evidence-based prevention programs such as peer-to-peer tutoring, dialogue to encourage self-control, or problem solving discussions in the classroom.

But how do we get the attention of school administrators and staff when they face such pressure to meet academic performance standards? A common theme we hear from local health departments around the state, through the Academy’s Advancing Prevention Project, is that they want to work with schools on promoting the health of children, but they find it very challenging.

One way to get their attention is to highlight the success that programming for all students, like the Good Behavior Game, has in not only promoting mental and emotional well-being, but also in enhancing educational outcomes such as reading competence, test scores, and high school graduation.

There are a number of initiatives happening locally and nationally to be optimistic about. The White House recently released a toolkit with accompanied e-learning modules on trauma sensitive schools emphasizing elements of a positive school climate that include emotional supports between peers and social-emotional skill-building.

In New York State, one of the core tenets of the recently released Suicide Prevention Plan for 2016-2017 is to create “suicide safer schools” through programs like promotes connections between peers and adults and increasing help seeking behaviors. Finally, in New York City, our mental health roadmap, Thrive-NYC includes expansion of school based social-emotional learning.

Just through these three examples, we can see that there is tremendous overlap in the processes these programs employ to promote mental health. To be effective, the initiatives should not operate in isolation, each demanding the already limited time of school administrators. We hope to see greater alignment and collaboration between these programs to realize effective and sustainable mental health promotion in schools.


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