IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Building Partnerships to Support Mental Health Needs in Diverse Rural Schools: The National Center for Rural School Mental Health

About 1 in 5 school-age children experience serious mental health issues yet few receive services. In rural schools, geographic isolation and limited resources make receiving services even more difficult. The IES-funded National Center for Rural School Mental Health is addressing this challenge.

The 5 year, $10 million National R&D Center is supporting partnerships with a wide variety of rural school districts in three states (Missouri, Virginia, and Montana) to develop and test ways to support the mental health needs of their students. I recently spoke with Dr. Wendy Reinke, the Center’s director, about the unique mental health needs in the rural settings where the center is working and how she and her colleagues are approaching this work.  

Tell us a little bit about the rural communities you are partnering with in Missouri, Virginia, and Montana.

Each state provides a unique geological context that we anticipate will inform the tools and interventions we are developing for wide use in rural schools. For instance, Missouri sits in the middle of the country where half of the school districts are considered rural and another third or so are considered small towns. Virginia encompasses central Appalachia which struggles with issues of under-employment, mental health, and school dropout. In the northwest, rural residents are scattered across Montana’s 56 counties, 30 of which are classified as “frontier” counties with three or fewer persons per square mile.  The tools and interventions we develop will need to be feasible and effective across these very different contexts.

What are the most common mental health challenges being faced in the different rural communities you are partnering with?

Part of the work of the Rural Mental Health Center will be learning more about the types of  mental health challenges faced by rural communities. From my current work in Missouri’s rural schools, common areas of concern include youth with depression, anxiety, conduct problems, substance abuse, and suicidality.  Identifying youth early can help to prevent or reduce the burden of these problems.  Accordingly, we plan to not only offer interventions for youth facing mental health challenges but work with schools to prevent and identify early, youth who would benefit from supports.

The work you have planned for the center builds on prior IES-funded work. Tell us more about how this work provides a foundation for launching the work of the center.

A cornerstone of the Center is the use of an assessment tool that will allow schools to gather data to determine their needs for school-level prevention, group-based interventions, and individualized interventions.  This tool was developed in partnership with six school districts (five of which are rural) and University of Missouri researchers.  Through the IES partnership grant we were able to validate the measure and gather stakeholder input to improve the tool and the overall intervention model.  These data collected using this tool will be linked to evidence-based interventions, several of which have been developed and evaluated through IES funding.  It is very exciting to have the opportunity to pull all of these projects together to support our rural schools.

Much of your earlier research has been done in urban school districts. How did you become interested in research with rural schools? What would you recommend to other researchers interested in doing research with rural schools?

I grew up and attended school in a rural coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. When I moved to Missouri, I had access and opportunity in working alongside rural school districts.  One recommendation, which I think goes for research in any schools, is to operate as a partner with them. For instance, the six school districts we worked with formed a Coalition, and we include the Coalition as co-authors on any publication or presentation that comes from this work.  Further, we present with partners at conferences and report back findings to the community.  I think an open and collaborative relationship gains trust, allowing for additional opportunities to conduct research alongside our school partners. Additionally, our ideas for studies are nearly always driven by the needs expressed by our schools based on the pressing challenges they report to us.

The Center also has a policy focus with work that will be led by your Montana partners. Tell us more about this aspect of the Center’s work and the types of policy issues the Center will address.

We will be working with rural school district partners across the three states to identify important issues facing rural schools.  Dr. Ryan Tolleson-Knee from the University of Montana will be leading this initiative.  At the Center kick-off meeting held in June, a subgroup of rural school partners interested in policy was formed.  The plan is for this subgroup to develop a toolkit that can be readily used by public school personnel and state and national policymakers to improve outcomes for youth.  One topic of interest is how might rural school districts partner with one another (similar to the Coalition described earlier) to maximize and share resources across the communities.  Over the next five years, the toolkit will expand and connect to issues faced by our rural schools.

Written by Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research

Are You What You Eat? Understanding the Links Between Diet, Behavior, and Achievement During Middle School

We’ve all heard the phrase “you are what you eat,” but what exactly does it mean for student learning and achievement in middle school? In 2018, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham received an IES Exploration grant to investigate the direction and nature of the relationships between middle school students’ diet, behavior, and academic achievement. These relationships have not been fully studied in the United States, nor have longitudinal designs been used (most existing studies are cross-sectional) making it hard to determine the precise nature of the links between what adolescents eat and potential implications for learning and achievement.  

Because children in the United States consume about half of their nutrients at school, the need to identify school nutrition policies and practices that benefit student behavior and achievement is great, especially given newly published findings that motivated this IES research and that have attracted lots of media interest in recent days (see this story from CNN and this press release). The Alabama researchers found that specific nutrients (high sodium, low potassium) predicted depression over a year later in a sample of 84 urban, primarily African American adolescents (mean age 13 years). In the IES study, these researchers are expanding their work with a larger and more diverse sample of 300 students. In the first year of this 4-year study, the researchers recruited about two thirds of their sample (186 students across 10 schools) who completed the first of three week-long assessments as 6th graders and who will complete assessments again in the 7th and 8th grades. During each week-long assessment period, each student reports on their own diet and academic functioning, and on their own and their peers’ emotions and behavior. They also complete objective tests of attention and memory. The researchers observe each child’s actual food and beverage consumption at school and behavior during one academic class period. They also collect school records of grades, test scores, attendance, discipline incidents, and information about each school’s nutrition policies and practices. Parents and teachers also report on student diet, behavior, and academic functioning.

This school year the researchers are recruiting the rest of their sample. If their findings suggest a role for school practices and dietary factors in student behavior and achievement, they can guide future efforts to develop school-based programs targeting students’ diet that could be easily implemented under typical school conditions.

Written by Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research

Teaching Organizational Skills to Adolescents: Bringing Clinical Practices into Schools

Organizing, planning, and managing time influence student achievement and become increasingly important as adolescents enter middle school. Clinical research offers promising practices for improving these skills in students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but the key is getting these practices into schools. That’s where IES-funded researchers come in.

In 2009, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University used an IES grant to develop Homework, Organization, and Planning Skills (HOPS)—a program that teaches middle school students with ADHD to use checklists to organize, plan, and manage their schoolwork.

In 2013, IES funded an initial efficacy study to test HOPS in public middle schools, comparing HOPS with more traditional homework support. Researchers found that parents of students using HOPS and traditional homework support reported fewer homework problems and better organizational skills at home. In contrast, teachers reported improved organization and management skills in the classroom only for their students who used HOPS, not the homework support. HOPS also provided greater benefits overall for students with higher levels of hyperactivity and oppositional behavior and greater deficits in organizational skills.

In June, IES awarded a grant to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to conduct a five-year effectiveness study that will test whether HOPS is beneficial for all students who have organizational skill deficits, rather than just students with a formal ADHD diagnosis. This is important because organizational deficits affect student achievement regardless of whether a student has been diagnosed with a learning disorder. This study will determine whether schools can implement HOPS effectively and inexpensively in a school environment.

Written by Greg Shanahan, IES Presidential Management Fellow, and Emily Doolittle, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research

New Data Show Growth in Online Bullying

A vast majority of middle and high school students have an online presence, resulting in heightened awareness and concern about cyberbullying. A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that reports of students being bullied online or by text are growing.

According to results from Student Reports of Bullying: Results From the 2017 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey, 20 percent of students reported being bullied during the 201617 school year. Of those students, 15 percent reported being bullied online or by text, which is an increase from 11.5 percent during the 201415 school year.

During the 201617 school year, students’ reports of bullying online or by text were found to differ by sex, race, and school level. For instance, three times as many female students reported being bullied online or by text (21 percent) as male students (7 percent), and about 17 percent of White students reported being bullied online or by text, compared with 12 percent of students of other races. Also, a higher percentage of high school students reported being bullied online or by text (19 percent) than middle school students (12 percent).

In the 2017 School Crime Supplement (SCS), students reported being bullied online or by text in higher percentages than did students being bullied only in person in three key types of bullying.

  • Students who reported being bullied online said they were made fun of, called names, or insulted more often (74 percent) than students who reported being bullied in person only (63 percent).
  • 90 percent of students bullied online reported that rumors were spread about them, compared to 62 percent of those who reported being bullied in person only.  
  • 39 percent of students being bullied online reported that they were excluded from activities on purpose, compared to 23 percent of students who reported being bullied in person only.

 



 

Browse the full report for more bullying estimates from the 2016–17 school year.

 

By Rachel Hansen

 

References

Lessne, D., and Yanez, C. (2016). Student Reports of Bullying: Results From the 2015 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime and Victimization Survey (NCES 2017-015). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved March 28, 2019, from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2017/2017015.pdf.

Yanez, C., and Seldin, M. (2019). Student Reports of Bullying: Results From the 2017 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime and Victimization Survey (NCES 2019-054). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Forthcoming.

IES Expands Research in Social Emotional Learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a key ingredient of high-quality education care, is important for both educators and children, and has been associated with children’s concurrent and later academic and social success.

Over a decade ago, Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence developed and began testing RULER, an SEL program geared toward children and educators (i.e., school leaders, teachers, and staff). RULER stands for five key social and emotional skills: Recognizing emotions in self and others, Understanding the causes of emotions in self and others, Labeling and talking about emotions, Expressing emotions across situations, and Regulating emotions effectively. For children and the key adults in their lives, RULER combines a whole-school professional development approach with a skill-building curriculum targeting educator and student social and emotional skills, school and classroom climate, and educator and student well-being. RULER is currently offered for pre-k–12 and out-of-school-time settings.

IES has supported the development and testing of RULER programs since 2012. The first IES award supported the modification of existing components of the RULER K-8th grade intervention and creation of new developmentally appropriate content for preschool settings. RULER is currently implemented in over 200 early childhood school- and home-based programs across the country and nearly 2,000 K-12 schools nationwide. Although RULER’s evidence-base has been growing over the years, RULER has not been systematically studied in large-scale, randomized controlled trials in preschool settings nor has it undergone an external evaluation in the later grades.

That is about to change: this year, IES awarded two grants to study the effects of the RULER programs. One will study the efficacy of whole-school RULER implementation for preschool students (under the Early Learning Programs and Policies program), and the other will do so for grades K-6 (under the Social and Behavioral Context for Academic Learning program).

The Preschool RULER grant (PI: Craig Bailey, PhD) will assess school readiness in children aged 3-5, as well as outcomes at the teacher/classroom and school leader/school levels. The researchers will study 72 early childhood centers, including public, private, and Head Start programs from urban areas in Connecticut, using a multisite, cluster-randomized control trial design. Altogether, approximately 216 classrooms, 1,800 staff, and 2,160 children will participate. Children, educators, and school leaders will be assessed for social and emotional skills, and educators/leaders will be assessed for emotionally intelligent pedagogy and leadership. Children will also be assessed for their approaches to learning, pre-literacy, and pre-math skills. This study will provide evidence about the efficacy of RULER in preschool settings and contribute to our understanding of high quality early childhood interventions that promote social emotional learning.

 

The other grant, for RULER in grades K-6 (PI: Jason Downer, PhD), will be the first large-scale external evaluation of RULER. The study will take place in 60 urban and suburban public elementary schools, including 420 teachers and 2,520 K-6 students in Virginia. Key outcomes for this study will include school climate assessments (assessed by teacher and principal reports), teacher well-being (assessed by self-report), and four student outcomes: social-emotional skills, behavior, academic engagement and academic achievement (assessed by standardized assessments, tests, and attendance records). Ultimately, this study will describe RULER’s effects on school climate, teacher well-being, classroom climate, and student outcomes.

By Amanda M. Dettmer, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow Sponsored by the American Psychological Association Executive Branch Science Fellowship

Photo credits: Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence