One in five children struggles with social, emotional or behavioral health issues. And not just high school students, says Tim Knoster, executive director of Bloomsburg University’s McDowell Institute for Teacher Excellence in Positive Behavior Support.
“Depression, anxiety, eating disorders. These issues can arise as early as elementary school,” he says.
Established in 2012 through an initial gift of $2 million from philanthropist Susan McDowell ’16H, the McDowell Institute helps aspiring and practicing educational professionals address nonacademic barriers to learning.
This is what Knoster does, along with colleagues Danielle Empson, Charlotte Kemper and College of Education faculty. But he hesitates to call what they do “work.”
“It’s a mission,” he says.
The lifelong special education teacher and researcher earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Bloomsburg in 1978 and 1980. Before returning to Bloomsburg as a faculty member in 2002, he saw the struggles of vulnerable children, first as a classroom teacher, then as director of special education, and finally as researcher and director of national-level training and technical assistance. He earned his educational specialist degree and doctorate in Special Education from Lehigh University.
The McDowell Institute initially focused on incorporating what is known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports into BUs teacher preparation curriculum, from freshman year through student teaching. Recently, though, the institute has increased its focus on youth mental health. In the past year, more than 1,100 BU students and faculty participated in 19 campus programs on promoting social, emotional, and behavioral wellness in children from preschool through 12th grade.
The McDowell Institute’s outreach and impact also has expanded beyond campus, with more than 40 initiatives developed between BU and local, state, and national educators.
“Educators have two, interrelated priorities. Facilitating academic achievement in concert with social, emotional and behavioral competence of their students,” Knoster says.
The two priorities are inseparable.
“You can have the most brilliant kid you’ve ever met, but if he or she struggles with social, emotional or behavioral issues, their potential may never be fully realized.”
“In our rapidly changing society, kids have more complicated and complex life circumstances. In some ways, the explosion of access to information and technology can further complicate matters,” he says. “The trauma that can be associated with cyberbullying is unique for today’s students.”
A 2016 report from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that the rate of adolescents reporting an experience with depression has grown 37 percent in the last decade. Students with depression, as with other behavioral health conditions, are less likely to participate in school activities, more likely to miss class or school, disrupt classroom routines or experience suicidal thoughts.
Exposure to what educators call “adverse childhood experiences” — stressful or traumatic events that include abuse, neglect, and exposure to household dysfunction — are strongly related to a wide range of lifetime health problems, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Last year the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reported that one out of every four children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect their learning.
“With repeated exposure to adverse experiences, the child is in chronic ‘red alert’ — fight or flight — mode and the child’s adrenal glands kick into overdrive. As a result, the body can’t create sufficient cortisol to keep pace, which has an adverse impact on healthy development,” Knoster says. “The more adverse experiences present in a child’s life, the higher the risk for undesired outcomes including, hypertension, depression, anxiety, and suicide.”
“When you think about teacher training, and until relatively recently, teacher in-service training, it was predominately about the pedagogy of how to design a good lesson plan, how to deliver a good lesson, and knowledge in your content area,” Knoster says. “While those elements are absolutely essential, I believe that in most preservice training, the focus is myopically on the academic side of the street. There is very little that is explicitly taught about how to facilitate social, emotional and behavioral wellness, especially for kids with unique challenges.”
In fact, more than 60 percent of first-year teachers report being insufficiently prepared to address the social and emotional needs of students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“The good news is that social, emotional and behavioral wellness is achievable,” says Knoster. “However, addressing nonacademic barriers to learning requires a sober and thoughtful conversation and planning to build sufficient capacity in schools and communities. Certainly, schools are the common conduit for kids, so the goal is to have schools become the central point for organization across communities.”
The McDowell Institute has enhanced teacher preparatory programs at Bloomsburg University to include mental health awareness and skill-training into core courses for all education majors. The institute also provides seminars that teach aspiring teachers how to create a more therapeutic classroom environment. Student and faculty fellowships have been awarded to provide training and funding for scholarly research in school-based behavioral health. This spring, on-campus training included individual intensive behavior support, mental health awareness panels, and 12 seminars in Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA).
YMHFA training is similar to standard first-aid training, focusing on behavioral health triage, stabilization, and supporting adolescents who need professional help.
“This training provides teachers with a skillset and action plan that they know they can use when a student is in emotional distress,” Knoster says.
At Bloomsburg University, education majors complete YMHFA training before their student teaching experiences. The McDowell Institute supports this training in school districts and with state partners, including in the Diocese of Harrisburg, the Milton Area School District, the Susquehanna Valley United Way, and the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. This year the institute will help 15 other colleges and universities across the state incorporate YMHFA training to their teacher preparation programs.
The institute also helps with the federally funded Safe Schools/Healthy Students project, which puts behavioral health support in schools across Pennsylvania. Nearly 8,000 students in those schools have benefitted.
While Knoster and his colleagues are focused on the here and now, the excitement for future initiatives and continued growth across the commonwealth — and beyond — is palpable.
“We are just starting to scratch the surface, which is both challenging, and exciting,” says Knoster. “There’s a huge opportunity to make a positive difference in the lives of kids and families.”•
Susan Field ’11/’12M is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.
McDowell Institute team members Jim Krause, Darlene Perner, and Craig Young shared their insights on Youth Mental Health with educators from around the state.