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We Know What Works: Supporting Children’s Mental Health

As parents and educators, we do everything we can to set our children up for happy, healthy, and successful futures. As a society, however, we can do much more.

Mental health concerns are on the rise in our nation’s youth. Each year, 17.1 million children –nearly one in five – will have a mental health condition. A systemic lack of identification and intervention has led to suicide becoming the third leading cause of death for youth aged 10-24.

For kids struggling with mental health issues, intervening early and promoting psychological wellbeing can be the difference between life and death.

Fortunately, there is hope. We know what works. Researchers have found evidence-based programs to promote resilience and improve outcomes for children.

Our education system is in an optimal position to address youth challenges and promote wellness and resilience. However, this doesn’t mean that schools should be solely responsible. By working together, schools and communities can integrate services, support students, and create environments both inside and outside of the classroom that support positive mental health and effectively address any mental health challenges.

School-community partnerships create pathways to ensure that youth have access to — and actually receive — comprehensive mental health services if they need it. One example is Massachusetts’ Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to supporting student mental health. The program promotes trauma-informed school culture through staff training, reviewing and revising policies, and developing community partnerships. School staff are able to refer students and families to community resources, and can then follow up on these referrals and provide a supportive educational environment for students who have experienced trauma.

Within schools, small changes to the way that educators approach emotional and behavioral issues can go a long way. For example, the Mindful Moment program by the Holistic Life Foundation teaches children a number of mindfulness techniques to reduce stress and improve emotional regulation. In a West Baltimore elementary school, this program has dramatically reduced the need for disciplinary action – since the program was implemented, the school has had zero suspensions. Rather than punishing children, the Mindful Moment program teaches them skills and helps them to overcome emotional challenges.

Similarly, MindUP, a program of The Hawn Foundation, takes a neuroscience-based approach to mindfulness. It normalizes “brain breaks,” a short pause to quiet one’s mind and prepare for the next part of the day. The concept may be simple, but it works. The program has shown improvements in academic performance and increased resilience.

Some programs focus on empowering educators to better equip them to support their students. The Mindful Schools program provides educators with the resources they need to incorporate mindfulness into their own classrooms, by becoming more mindful themselves and by teaching their students techniques to reduce stress and improve self-regulation.

When it comes to protecting and promoting the brain health of our youth, we know what works. We simply need to put these evidence-based interventions into action.

By creating mental health systems within our schools and communities that work in tandem, we can identify student mental health needs early and intervene appropriately, encourage social and emotional learning to foster healthy relationships, ensure that students have access to treatment if and when they need it, and improve educational, social, emotional, and health outcomes for all our kids.

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“We stand on the doorstep to make momentous progress in advancing the cause of this new civil rights struggle started by the work of President Kennedy over 50 years ago.”
— Patrick J. Kennedy
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