With the new mandated state law for mental health education in schools across New York State, we learned more about how two school districts implemented a mental health curriculum. As part of WBFO’s Mental Health Initiative, senior reporter Eileen Buckley leads a conversation with New York State Regent Catherine Fisher Collins, who represents Western New York; Michael Cornell, Superintendent of the Hamburg Central School District; and Mark Laurrie, Superintendent of the Niagara Falls City School District.
"It's not a curriculum where you do it on Tuesday and it's done on Thursday. This is got to be a language and culture that permeates throughout the school year,” declared Mark Laurrie, superintendent, Niagara Falls City Schools.
Laurrie said the new curriculum must be a part of “culture” in classrooms.
Laurrie was joined by Hamburg Central Schools Superintendent Michael Cornell and State Regent Catherine Collins. Under the new state law, districts were required to create a curriculum for K-through-12, but it's not a cookie cutter curriculum. Instead the districts were allowed to customize instruction.
“It's teaching everyone to be a part of this mental health identification issue,” stated Regent Collins.
Collins said this allows the freedom of teaching mental health throughout many subjects and woven into daily teachings that should not burden teachers.
“Therefore it's not burdensome on just one classroom teacher -- everyone takes a part of it and I think that's why we gave the guidelines and we said okay superintendents go with it – boards of education go with it and put it in place,” Collins explained
Hamburg superintendent Cornell said he visited a 7th grade classroom Wednesday morning where a teacher was showing the ‘triangle’ lesson -- connecting physical, mental and emotional well-being for students.
“And Superintendent Laurrie is so right – it’s not just a curriculum where you are going to do this on Tuesday, this on Thursday – it takes a lot of forms and serves a lot of functions so that our students are safe and well at school everyday,” Cornell explained.
“Every day has to be a day of teaching mental health – it’s not an event,” Laurrie noted.
But there is a question of how the New York State Education Department will monitor this process, making sure that districts are providing enough mental health education.
“Well monitoring is important. We’re going to be monitoring a lot through what’s happening with our ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) plans and as the districts submit their plans, I’m pretty sure they will incorporate some portion of mental health programming that they have in their schools and we will measure through the ESSA plan. It’s not going to be hard to do,” Collins described
“I think it’s also important to recognize that when you’re in a social service industry – like we are – some of the most meaningful effects can’t be counted,” Cornell remarked. “There aren’t a ton of numbers that we are going to able to attach to the effect that what we are going to do is going to have on the lives of children and families.”
“Somethings are quantifiable, but you will see it in all of our School Improvement Plans,” Laurrie stated.
Both the Falls and Hamburg school districts have been providing extensive mental health first aid training to staff. Hamburg will even begin training parents.
“Frequency of students coming to us presented with mental health challenges – they’re coming to us younger – the problems are more serious than they have been,” Cornell responded.
“If you look at where public education is going in the future, I think we are going to see our schools as more centers of mental and physical health, as much as they are bastions of content,” Laurrie said.
"And one thing that we have to keep in mind, that these children are living in households where there are parents who may be having some mental health issues as well, and so we have to reach out to them and I’m hoping that some of our districts across the state will have parent programs where they will bring them in and talk about mental illness,” Regent Collins noted.
Regent Collins said her biggest concern is “diagnosing” a child correctly, separating mental illness from behavioral issues. She highly encourages parents to take an active role in recognizing and teaching children about their mental well-being.