In response to the recent school shootings in Newtown, CEC talks with Dr. George Sugai on positively supporting children and youth with mental health challenges. Dr. Sugai, an expert in emotional and behavioral disorders and strategies for effective school-wide, classroom, and individual behavior management, is professor of special education and director of the Center for Behavior Education & Research, and co-director of the Center of Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education.
CEC also talked with Council for Children with Behavior Disorders (CCBD) President Kristine Melloy, about how schools and the field of special education can help ensure that students who require mental health services get the help that they need.
CEC: What long-term steps do you recommend to ensure that students with mental health issues receive the right services?
Each of us has many ways that we can support and advocate for all children and youth, but especially those with disabilities and mental health challenges. I like to think about support and advocacy at four levels.
First, we must actively encourage policy makers, such as school board members, legislators, and advocacy groups, to develop and enact policies that are based on sound research, defendable theory, and good implementation science.
Second, we must give policy implementers feedback on how well their efforts are enabling educators, family members, and others to effectively support all children and youth, but especially those with disabilities and mental health challenges.
Third, we must give supportive feedback and encouragement to professionals who provide direct support to all children and youth, but especially those with disabilities and mental health challenges.
Finally, we, ourselves, must be active in directly using and modeling the use of effective practices (see 2. below) with all children and youth, but especially those with disabilities and mental health challenges.
CEC: What can you do to support children with mental health issues?
Dr. Sugai: Advocacy is necessary, but insufficient. All of us can do things daily that contribute to positively supporting all children and youth, but especially those with disabilities and mental health challenges.
Everyday, each of us should (a) actively monitor, supervise, and improve the quality of settings in which we live, move through, and work; (b) regularly and overtly acknowledge and recognize the efforts of others (colleagues, students, family members, etc.); (c) preventively rearrange for success those settings that have a history of promoting behavioral challenges; (d) provide preventive supports to children and youth before they enter challenging social and learning environments; and (d) increase our positive, supportive, and preventive engagements with children and youth with disabilities and mental health challenges, rather than decrease them.
Dr. Sugai: What general guidelines do you use in your own support efforts for children and youth with disabilities and mental health challenges?
Regardless of whether I’m developing a behavior intervention plan for an individual student, establishing a classroom or school-wide behavior support system, or enhancing a district-wide implementation system, I like to consider the following guidelines.
First, invest in practices that have the strongest evidence and likelihood of achieving the desired benefits for children or youth (empirically supported).
Second, select the smallest number practices that are likely to have the biggest and most durable effects in the shortest amount of time (efficiency).
Third, consider the culture or learning history of the intervention implementers and the children and youth who will experience the intervention (relevance).
Fourth, set high, realistic, and clear expectations for implementers of a practice and child and youth success (implementation fidelity and goal setting).
Fifth, continuously use information to judge the accuracy of implementation and child and youth progress and benefit (continuous progress monitoring and data-based decision making).
Sixth, consider the success and support of the individual child or youth within the context of the success and support all children and youth (inclusiveness).
Finally, for the addition or adoption of each new intervention or practice, strive to eliminate or combine two or more ineffective or inefficient ones (efficiency).
CEC's special interest division, the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders (CCBD), promotes the education and welfare of children and youth with behavioral and emotional disorders. CEC alked with CCBD President Kristine Melloy, about how schools and the field of special education can help ensure that students who require mental health services get the help that they need.
CCBD also released a statement about the tragedy, including resources to help educators and parents explain the recent events to children.
CEC: Everyone in the nation is grieving alongside the residents of Newtown, Conn., but the special education profession is acutely feeling this loss of students and our fellow educators.
Melloy/CCBD: Very much so. None of us can imagine losing our students in this way, but as a profession we also lost four dedicated people affiliated with special education in this tragedy. Along with the other adults involved, they were courageous and selfless in their efforts to save their children. We would have expected nothing less.
CEC: As mental health specialists, you’re also thinking of the young man who perpetrated this crime.
Melloy/CCBD: Whenever a senseless act of violence occurs, we may see a history of mental illness in the individual. Sometimes it started in childhood. As professionals trained to support these children, it is disheartening to read the trajectory of this young man. But, as professionals that have dedicated our lives to serving children with emotional and behavioral disorders, we know that we must respond with compassion.
CEC: Are there any things to warn against as people try to understand what happened?
CCBD: It’s important that the media – and the people who are getting their information from the media – understand that the last thing we want is for the increased attention on children with mental illness to lead to bullying or social isolation for the children we teach. No one knows enough about the young man involved to speak authoritatively about disabilities, and especially to draw any inferences about what did or did not cause him to do this terrible, terrible thing.
CEC: What can special educators do to help ensure that children who require mental health services are identified and provided with those services?
Melloy/CCBD: We need to change our knowledge, attitudes and behaviors toward individuals with mental illness. The stigma of mental illness marginalizes our students as members of society and limits their potential to succeed, in school and in life.
CEC: What can schools do to help?
Melloy/CCBD: Schools can promote training aimed at reducing discrimination against students with mental illness, screen students to identify those in need of mental health services, increase mental health awareness among all educators, increase the rate of self-help seeking behaviors, and increase availability of mental health services provided within schools.
CEC: What can the special education profession do?
Mellow/CCBD: We must continue to advocate for appropriate services for children with emotional and behavioral disorders, including providing screenings included in positive behavior intervention and support models that can provide early identification of children at risk for mental illness and offering general supports for all students. We can only hope that this tragedy will provide a commitment to better serving our children and youth with emotional and behavioral disorders.