Amid a School Mental Health Crisis, a New Training Approach Shows Promise

Photo collage of a classroom setting, a woman smiling as she participates in a video chat, and students sitting in a classroom.

As part of a statewide initiative called the Virginia Partnership for School Mental Health, mental health staff from four Virginia school divisions participated in a professional development program. To see what was more effective, some participants had access to online training modules while others had both the online training and the monthly Zoom sessions.

During each virtual session, one participant presents a specific case, then the full team discusses and shares recommendations. Topics cover a range of mental health concerns, including trauma in schools and the mental health needs of high-achieving students. Conversations would reference resources in the modules, helping participants apply it to a real-life scenario.

The group that participated in ECHO sessions showed higher engagement with the training modules, and higher satisfaction with the program, compared to the participants who only interacted with the modules.

A key finding, Taylor said, is that the regularity of the meetings provided a more engaging and cost-effective way for school mental health professionals to learn, compared to more traditional avenues like annual training or seminars.

“Consistency is the key,” Taylor said. And, Lyons added, this approach is tailor-made for rural school districts where counselors and nurses may not have access to robust training and support.

While these findings are preliminary, the research team has several follow-up studies in the works. Researchers said upcoming studies currently under review suggest that ECHO could also affect participants’ knowledge and confidence.

“What we want folks to do is sustain the learning and distribute it over time,” Lyons said. “We’re starting to see this in later studies, but the hope is that it actually changes the way that they understand their role, and school mental health evidence-based practices, and then change the team’s behavior to promote better student mental health outcomes – which is the ultimate goal.”

The study, and the ongoing ECHO sessions, are one part of a much larger initiative to improve school mental health in the commonwealth. The Virginia Partnership for School Mental Health began in 2019, bringing together school divisions and universities to increase the number of school mental health professionals who provide evidence-based services in Virginia.

Another focus of the partnership is training graduate students in mental health leadership.

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