The past year and a half have brought new meaning to May’s National Mental Health Awareness Month. As students, families, and school staff navigate virtual, hybrid, and new routines surrounding in-person learning, promoting mental wellbeing has been a large topic of discussion for supporting students and educators.
The National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) funds projects that include an emphasis on the mental health of students with or at risk for disabilities and their educators. Below are examples of such projects, which focus on supporting students who have internalizing disorders or experienced trauma and preventing and reducing burnout in special education teachers.
At the University of Connecticut Health Center, Dr. Golda Ginsburg tested the efficacy of a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) intervention for youth ages 7-17 in special education with an anxiety disorder as part of the School-based Treatment of Anxiety Research Study (STARS) program. This intervention was designed to be implemented by a school-based mental health clinician and contains seven core modules to help students understand, manage, and cope with anxiety. STARS also includes similarly focused parent training modules. Results demonstrated that parent-reported level of child anxiety decreased after participating in the program. They also suggested that older youth, those with social phobia, and those with more severe anxiety at the start of the study were more likely to benefit from participating in the STARS program.
Dr. Ginsburg has been developing another intervention for anxiety, Teacher Anxiety Program for Elementary Students (TAPES). This is a professional development program that enhances teacher knowledge and skills for identifying and reducing anxiety in students with or without disabilities who have elevated anxiety symptoms. TAPES contains materials informed by CBT to be used class-wide and during teacher-parent-student meetings. The research team will soon be conducting a pilot test of this program.
Additionally, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Stephen Kilgus and colleagues are currently developing the Resilience Education Program (REP), a tier 2 intervention for elementary students at risk for internalizing behaviors. REP consists of three components: A cognitive behavioral instructional curriculum to promote acquisition of social-emotional skills, use of the Check In/Check Out (CICO) system (an existing intervention for promoting the maintenance of acquired skills), and parent skills training that promotes CICO implementation and facilitates positive parent-child relations.
At SRI International, Dr. Carl Sumi and colleagues tested the efficacy of the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS), a school-based, structured, symptom-focused therapy program for middle school students who have experienced significant trauma and are experiencing related emotional or behavioral challenges. CBITS consists of 10 group therapy sessions and one individual session with a school-based mental health clinician with training on relaxation techniques, cognitive therapy, exposure, and social problem solving. The study found positive impacts of the intervention overall on social-emotional and academic outcomes, but the outcomes varied depending on level of behavioral concerns prior to beginning treatment. Specifically, for youth with more significant externalizing behavior problems (such as aggression), those who experienced CBITS had greater reductions in post-traumatic stress and other emotional and behavioral problems, as well as improved scores on a standardized literacy assessment. In addition, for students with internalizing behavior problems (such as anxiety), participation in CBITS led to better performance on standardized math tests 1 year later.
At Ball State University, Dr. Lisa Ruble and colleagues are adapting an existing manualized intervention for mental health workers, Burnout Reduction: Enhanced Awareness, Tools, handouts, and Education (BREATHE), to be used with special education teachers to reduce burnout. BREATHE is both a prevention and intervention strategy, as it aims to prevent burnout from occurring and reduces burnout when present. Sessions cover CBT stress reduction techniques, meditation and relaxation practices, and social skills training to increase coping skills and the ability to manage stressful job demands.
This blog was written by Alice Bravo, virtual intern for IES and doctoral candidate in special education at the University of Washington, and Jackie Buckley, program officer for NCSER’s Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Competence program. Katie Taylor is the program officer for NCSER’s Educators and School-Based Service Providers program.