Student Mental Health Needs to be a School Priority

Student Mental Health Needs to be a School Priority

Story Contributed by Christopher Murphy, Ed.D

The rise of mental-health needs across the country puts principals in a position of making its support a priority. Whether the increase of our collective understanding of mental illness has caused the need for additional support or other biological or environmental causes at play are increasing the number of instances of mental health concerns is irrelevant. More than ever, our students demand social-emotional supports just as they require academic supports.

Fortunately, most schools and districts have systemic protocols in place to help identify and monitor social-emotional concerns–Response to Intervention (RtI), or its expanded cousin, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). RtI is a model of identifying academic concerns and providing various interventions or differentiated supports for students based upon collaborative academic data analysis.

Depending on the severity of the need, interventions may increase in their frequency or may be conducted by more specialized personnel. It should be noted that these supports are in place to all students, with or without previously identified Special Education or English Language Learning accommodations or modifications.

As the academic need increases, the tier level increases: Tier 1 may be a differentiated learning experience within the classroom, led by the teacher; Tier 2 may include a pull-out session where students work in a small group with a Reading Specialist a couple of times per week; and Tier 3 may be more skill-based and research-based intervention that occurs more frequently and to a smaller group, even one-to-one.

RtI is designed in cycles and to be regularly monitored by assessing students’ progress towards meeting learning expectations. As students improve or do not improve, it is likely that students move fluently through the Tiers depending upon their progress. Thus, students receive targeted learning supports that meet their needs in order to ensure that all students achieve at high levels.

MTSS takes on a similar approach as does RtI, in that data-driven supports are provided to students in various settings by different professionals based upon need. The primary difference is that the MTSS approach includes providing tiered mental health and social-emotional supports to students simultaneously as it provides academic supports.

In order to effectively support the mental health needs in school, principals must devote the same attention to data and resources as they would with academics. Staffing plans should include social workers, reading specialists, and school psychologists skilled in providing targeted social-emotional interventions and supports.



Research and experience have shown time and again that academic success is closely tied to social and emotional well-being and support. Just as educators have prioritized academic interventions and ensuring all students have access to lunch, social-emotional interventions and supports should be a priority as well. Students who are cared for and supported as whole persons will be better prepared to tackle the academic demands of the classroom.