Training teachers in student mental health

In response to a pressing need to help students in Washington, the UW Bothell School of Nursing & Health Studies is developing an online behavioral health education program for K-12 teachers and staff. The program will give them foundational knowledge in mental health, mental illness, substance use, de-escalation and school safety.

A close up shot of a little boy at school who looks distant and upset.

The need to respond to student anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidal ideation — while maintaining a safe environment — has never been more urgent, said Dean Shari Dworkin.

Democratizing knowledge

School counselors and nurses are largely the ones charged with responding to these issues, but there are too few of these professionals available to meet the demand, Dworkin said.

Creating low-cost, widely available training online can give school teachers and staff the skills they need to identify, refer and de-escalate behavior that calls for intervention.

“We’re interested in democratizing mental and behavioral health knowledge for those who are a front-line touch point with students,” Dworkin said. “This will serve to improve prevention, referrals and support of students in need.”

The program is being developed in collaboration with the Renton School District where modules will be tested in pilot programs in May and August, Dworkin said.

State support

Funding for the UW Bothell program was approved in 2019 by Washington state lawmakers who appropriated $400,000 for the School of Nursing & Health Studies to develop the behavioral health educational program.

Washington state Rep. Tana Senn, who chairs the House Human Services & Early Learning Committee, was instrumental in drafting and passing the legislation. She said the idea grew out of a conversation she had with Dworkin about the need for mental health support in schools.

Teachers, principals and superintendents have asked state lawmakers for mental health training as part of required professional development for teachers, Senn said. “They get that mental health is a huge and growing barrier, a concern and issue for their students — and they want to be part of the solution.”

The program isn’t expected to turn teachers into psychologists, Senn said. “It’s giving them the tools they need to be able to support kids in the classrooms.”

Ahead of the curve

UW Bothell is a “huge plus” in developing the program because of the diversity of its student body and its community connections, Senn said.

“Not only do we need more professionals,” she said. “We also need to diversify the professional base.”

The Renton School District is the perfect partner for the pilot because it is a diverse district with leadership that supports training to improve the school climate, said Senn, whose district includes part of the Eastside from Bellevue to Renton.

Added Dworkin: “They will give us feedback on functionality and how well it meets learning objectives — how easy to understand, their favorite elements, what didn’t work and why — so that we can adjust and make modifications.”

Innovation and impact

The interdisciplinary team of faculty in the School of Nursing & Health Studies who are developing the program includes program director Annie Bruck, Hoa Appel, Sunita Iyer, Kosuke “Ko” Niitsu, Andrea Stone and Maureen West.

They are working with UW Bothell’s IT Digital Learning staff on a user-friendly program that makes the best use of innovative online techniques and technologies.

“We’re going to wrap the content around the most common issues that K-12 staff and faculty face, and the situations that are most in need of intervention,” Dworkin said.

After Renton, at least five other school districts have expressed interest in the program. Eventually, with state support, it could go statewide.

“It’s a great investment to make,” said Dworkin.

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