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3 Tips for Strengthening School and Mental Health Agency Partnerships


3 Tips for Strengthening School and Mental Health Agency Partnerships




3 Tips for Strengthening School and Mental Health Agency Partnerships

Supporting youth mental health requires a continuum of support. Our kids spend the majority of their time in school so it makes sense that schools become a place where mental health needs are first noticed. School counselors and social workers may be available for short term individual and group support; however, they rarely have the flexibility and availability to provide more intensive individualized therapeutic services. This is when strong partnerships between schools and mental health agencies become critical to comprehensive care for students and long term student success. These partnerships help families overcome obstacles of accessibility as well. We can increase their comfort and streamline support by building a system that promotes collaboration and clear communication to build on the strengths of both partnering agencies. Read on to discover three tips for strengthening these critically important partnerships.


  1. Clarify Expectations

3 Tips for Strengthening School and Mental Health Agency Partnerships

I was a school social worker at an elementary school when I first experienced this type of collaborative approach to supporting student mental health. In all honesty, I was defensive about new people coming in to work with our students. I didn’t feel valued as an employee at a district level and I was fearful that this was a first step in pushing school social workers out. It seems silly in retrospect; however, these were very real fears of mine at the moment and I’m sure I’m not alone. There are a few things that would have eased my discomfort and gotten me fully on board in those early days and they all go back to clear expectations! 


Just as students need to know what their role is, adults benefit from clarity of expectations. My recommendation is that this should be done with or without partnering agencies so everyone knows what their role is in supporting student success! Approaching it from an MTSS lens, create a list of all the staff positions that play a part in supporting student mental health: instructional assistants, teachers, school counselors, school social workers, school psychologists, behavioral coaches, administrators, partnering mental health agency case manager or therapist, etc. Then, identify expectations according to tiers. In this scenario, you’ll likely see more responsibilities fall to teachers and instructional assistants in tier 1, school counselors and social workers in tier 2 and partnering agency employees in tier 3. See the very skeletal example below to get an idea of what this may look like in the beginning stages.



Teachers

School Counselors

School Social Workers

Partnering Mental Health Agencies

Tier 1

Implement school wide SEL supports in the classroom

Deliver monthly classroom lessons


Assess student data

Deliver required school-wide preventative programs such as bullying prevention, etc. 


Establish community partnerships

Provide training to staff in areas such as: trauma-informed teaching, mental health first aid, QPR, self-care, etc

Tier 2

Complete student support referrals and collaborate with school social workers/counselors in implementing supportive strategies

Run brief skill building groups to increase student organizational skills, stress reduction, test taking strategies, etc. 

Run brief support groups for students experiencing family transitions, grief, anxiety, etc.


Tier 3

Communicate with staff providing support to students in need of tier 3 services

Refer to mental health agencies


Stay in communication with partnering agencies to streamline student support

Collaborate with families as they complete initial intake. Provide warm hand-off from school support to agency support


Stay in communication with partnering agencies to streamline student support

Provide therapeutic services to referred students at the individual and small group level


Communicate with families and school staff to streamline therapeutic supports


Set regular meetings with school administrators to assess effectiveness of relationships and provided supports. 



2. Professional Collaboration

3 Tips for Strengthening School and Mental Health Agency Partnerships

Once roles are clearly defined everyone will understand that it takes the whole team to meet the students’ needs, everyone’s position is valuable, and the responsibilities of each role are complementary. With an appreciation for everyone’s strengths, we are in a prime position to learn from one another and support each other in building capacity to best serve our students! Some mental health agencies will provide free or low cost training for the entire school staff. This type of professional learning ensures that all educators have access to the knowledge and strategies that are being used to support students across tiers and agencies. Students will feel comfort in hearing the same language and practices as they move between school and therapy. On the flip side, partnering specialists should be included in staff training that addresses school wide initiatives. Developing an understanding of the systems in place equips teachers and therapists to better serve students with continuity. 


Collaborative efforts must continue through a system of communication that allows families, educators, and therapists to share information that will benefit the students. While adhering to FERPA, IDEA, and HIPAA, it is important to communicate what strategies and supports are being utilized and measure their effectiveness to increase student outcomes. When we can all support our students with similar approaches and consistent praise, we demonstrate to our students that they are surrounded by people who care about them and their well-being. 


Finally, it can be helpful for the partnering mental health agency to walk school staff through their intake and goal setting process so that educators are better equipped to communicate with families when they are making referrals.  When we all understand our roles, the roles of our partners, and the process to access services, we can ease family discomfort. This will increase the likelihood of buy-in from families and hopefully reduce any anxiety they may have about welcoming another agency into their child’s support team. 


3. Ongoing Evaluation

Once we’ve identified roles and responsibilities and built systems of communication, it is important to monitor the effectiveness of our process. We want to know if each agency is holding up their end of the deal. Are the families that are receiving services happy with the process? Have the needs of the school community changed in a way that might require a shift in our collaborative system? Regular meetings with administrators, school staff, families, therapists, and agency leaders will help keep the systems running smoothly so that continuity in care is not disrupted.


Conclusion


As youth mental health needs increase, we must be collaborative in our approach to care. School staff are simply not equipped to provide the type of intensive support that some of our students require. Partnerships with mental health agencies can be beneficial to families AND educators if approached in a strengths-based collaborative way. Together, we can more effectively approach the very big job of supporting youth mental health! 












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