Assignment: Education- Mental heath affects Wisconsin schools

If you a group of teachers why they chose education as a profession, you will most likely hear similar responses.

“I’ve always been that person that wants to help everyone and take care of everyone,” said Summer Elston, an elementary school teacher, with the School District of La Crosse, “and so it just seemed like a natural profession to go into.”

Elston has been an educator for 15 years. In the past five years, she said, she’s noticed a change in student behavior.

“When I first started teaching, it was a lot of just ‘we’re teaching,'” said Elston. “And not necessarily dealing with a lot of those things that they were bringing in — the explosive behavior or the sadness.”

School-age children with behavior or mental health issues could be a factor in the changes that are being seen in classrooms throughout Wisconsin.

“It’s probably one of the No. 1 issues in the district right now in terms of needs in buildings, issues that are brought forward,” said Mark White, director of human resources for the School District of La Crosse. “It just seems like it’s a growing trend where we have more and more students who have more and more mental health needs, which definitely has an effect on the buildings.”

But while mental health is a concern in Wisconsin classrooms, 15 years of data show the number of students identified with the educational diagnosis of Emotional Behavioral Disability is steadily decreasing.

“While we may not be seeing a growth in numbers,” said Aimee Zabrowski, supervisor of special education for the School District of La Crosse, “we’re definitely seeing students that have needs that definitely have more complexity to them.”

The complex needs of the school-based diagnosis of Emotional Behavioral Disability combined with both clinically diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health issues among students could be a factor in disruptive classroom behavior.

“What I hear from the staff that evaluate and serve these students is that there’s a lot more trauma in students’ backgrounds,” said Zabrowski, “and it is impacting their needs at school in addition to a lot more mental health diagnoses that are happening at the same time as these educational diagnoses of emotional behavior disabilities.”

Regina Siegel, the director of pupil services and learning supports, said her district provides school counselors, social workers and school psychologists to help students and classroom teachers with mental health support.

“All of our elementary schools have a full-time counselor or social worker and they collaborate with their colleagues,” said Siegel.

Adequate mental health staffing has been a priority for the district despite budget cuts in education.

“For instance, right now our percentage or our ratio of our counselors and social workers to students is really essentially what it was 10 or 15 years ago even before there were cuts,” said White.

But aside from steady levels of mental health staff, the complexity of the cases is creating a demand for more help.

“We have excellent special education teachers that work with students with emotional behavioral disabilities, amongst other things,” said Zabrowski. “But when you have complex needs, their ability to support their entire caseload may be impacted with — they may be spending a lot of time working with one or two with significant needs, and that makes it hard for them to meet the needs of all their students. I think we just see people being stretched thinner and thinner.”

District leaders say the additional mental health funding proposed by Gov. Walker to support teachers and students could be very beneficial.

“Just to recognize that we maybe don’t have as much help as we would like to have,” said White. “So certainly some help from the state and some positions funded — that we might be able to tap into resources — would be wonderful for us.”

“In the ideal world, for example, at our elementary buildings, I’d have a full-time counselor and a full-time social worker in every building,” said Siegel. “The counselor could work on classroom guidance from the universal level and work with all students and all groups. That social worker would be working with families and working one-to-one with students quite a bit, delivering services, as well as our school psychologists.”

For classroom teachers such as Elston, the additional resources proposed by the governor are vital.

“Whatever resources we can use to get our students and our parents and our teachers in the best place that they can be to learn and to teach and to help each other, it will improve the classroom performance,” said Elston.

This could allow teachers to focus more on why they entered the profession — to care for and educate our children.