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Grassroots Goals Meet Rigid Realities: Implementing New York’s New Mental Health Curriculum

In July 2018, New York became the first state to mandate mental health education in K-12 health curriculum for all public schools. The mandate document provides a chart of subtopics within three larger categories—self-management, relationships, resource management—that schools must cover at various stages. News outlets nationwide applauded the directive as an exemplary step forward, as mental health dominated conversation in the wake of school shootings that rattled the country—most prominently, the devastating shooting earlier this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This September, public schools across New York implemented the new curriculum into their health courses.

But contrary to current media buzz, New York’s statewide mandate was a long time in the making, not a quick reaction to the shooting in Parkland.

Around September of last year, Jessica Hull, a health educator in Shenendehowa School District in upstate New York with nearly 15 years of teaching experience, participated in a statewide advisory committee to evaluate what districts around the state were currently doing in health and mental health education, to identify gaps, and to discuss ways to implement the statewide mandate.

Hull chaired a subcommittee that tackled instruction. She estimated that at least 75 teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, school psychologists, school nurses, and representatives from community health organizations from across New York participated in the broader committee.

“The timing was right, the interest was there, the intentions were good, and so from that we put together this guidance document addendum,” Hull said. “I was very proud of the final product, and the hope is that it’s being put into the hands of teachers who now use it to do an analysis of what they’re already doing and see how they could continue to improve.”

According to Hull, teachers across subjects are often handed “canned curriculum” put together by textbook or testing companies, and the fact that few, if any, educators are involved in the curriculum development has been a point of contention. But it’s been different in health education: A grassroots approach to writing curriculum has been a longstanding pattern in New York’s legislation surrounding health education. Hull speculates that may be because subjects taught in health classes can be more sensitive, which calls for specialists to be involved.

The statewide subcommittee found that the largest weakness in mental health education was in elementary school because, due to the lack of guidance at that level, health education has been inconsistent from district to district, and even from school to school.

The state of New York requires teachers to be specifically certified in health to teach it in middle and high schools. However, elementary schools generally do not have specifically certified health teachers, and any teacher is allowed to deliver health instruction. So, the onus lies on classroom teachers to deliver health education.

“Some [elementary] schools, although there are few, will have a certified health teacher who pushes into the classroom as a special to work with students,” Hull said. “And sometimes they only see students maybe once a week or on a rotating every-10-day schedule, but it’s better than nothing. It takes that requirement away from the classroom teacher because it’s often just one more thing and classroom teachers are already inundated with so many things.”

Lonnie Halusic, a health educator who has taught in Niskayuna School District in upstate New York for 22 years, echoed Hull’s concerns for K-5 teachers in her district. “Health curriculum kind of gets lost in the shuffle of everything else that they have to do,” she told The Politic in an interview.

According to Halusic, the Niskayuna district has worked to push back against these challenges by increasing the number of elementary school counselors and social workers. Halusic and Hull both agree that increasing support staff outside of the classroom can lift the burden of health education from elementary classroom teachers.

Emil Friedman ’20 attended public school in Niskayuna School District. At his elementary school, the administration took initiative for mental health education. He recalls frequent schoolwide assemblies that featured various themes of character and aspects of self.

“There was one campaign that I remember where they put up these posters all around my school that said, ‘Character is who you are when no one is watching,’” Friedman said. “And I still remember that.”

For Hull, the most impactful piece of the advisory committee’s work is providing structure and support to K-5 educators who wish to delve more deeply into health education.

The guidance document produced by the committee is available for free through an online resource center managed by the Mental Health Association of New York State. The website includes relevant book recommendations, links to other online resources and, most importantly for elementary school educators, scripted lessons. This is helpful because, according to Hull, many elementary school teachers want to teach mental health but feel uncomfortable because they feel mental health lies outside their area of expertise. In part, Hull said, the scripted lessons were intended for those teachers.

The scripted lessons were designed with an emphasis on involving the community and engaging other resources within the school. For example, at the elementary school level, a scripted lesson may recommend ways to invite the school guidance counselor to co-teach the lesson or may suggest an in-building field trip to visit the school psychologist so that the students know who the psychologist is and where to find them.

“We designed the lessons that way for that reason, because if it is true that some elementary teachers just don’t have that level of comfort, bring in someone who does,” Hull said.

At the middle and high school level, the subcommittee found that a lot of the information proposed in the new mandate was already being taught.

Halusic, who teaches health at Niskayuna High School, has observed that the Niskayuna district had been including mental health topics, such as suicide prevention and stress management, in its health curriculum for several decades already. She accredits much of this to the district’s former health director, who served Niskayuna district for nearly 40 years and was a vocal leader in bringing more mental health into school curriculum statewide.

“When the mental health standards came down, we looked at them, and we were pretty much already hitting a majority of the pieces that were coming down,” Halusic said.

Some students who attended New York state’s public schools, however, offer a different perspective.

Sidney Saint-Hilaire ’20 attended public school K-12 in Sewanhaka School District on Long Island. Recalling the health classes at his 7-12 school, he remembered rote memorization and copying of portions of outdated textbooks.

“All of the teachers that taught health were also gym teachers, PE teachers,” Saint-Hilaire said. “It didn’t really seem like a lot of them enjoyed [teaching health] that much. It was just kind of one of the parts of the job, which is why I am hesitant to believe that, in a school like mine, anything will change. I think they’ll probably do a mental health version of the stuff that they’ve already done, which is super unengaging, super uninformative ultimately.”

Saint-Hilaire, who is now majoring in cognitive science at Yale, believes a curriculum like New York’s is limited without sufficient infrastructure in schools to support students who may now recognize and identify their own symptoms of depression or anxiety. According to Saint-Hilaire, the public secondary school he attended had one school psychiatrist to tend to the needs of between 1,000 and 1,500 students, and Saint-Hilaire himself never interacted one-on-one with the school psychiatrist in his six years there.

“Regardless of the new [mental health] curriculum, because of the structure with which health education is delivered in schools like mine, I don’t think it will be effective,” he said.

Emil Friedman brought up another structural barrier to note in implementing mental health curriculum in all public high schools: According to Friedman, New York’s curriculum, across grade levels and subject areas, feels inflexible. That’s because in New York, students are required to take Regents exams, or exit exams, in math, English, social studies, and science at various checkpoints throughout high school. With these statewide standardized assessments looming at the end of each school year, teachers charged with those core courses tend to follow the curriculum closely.

“It’s hard, especially in lower-performing schools, where they can barely get through what they need to get some of their students to pass the Regents exam,” Friedman said. “It’s going to be very difficult for struggling schools to begin with to give them this additional thing they have to work on. I think that’s always a challenge because you’re piling it on the teachers and they barely have time to do what they already need to do.”

Halusic, from a teacher’s point of view, thinks the key is professional development for health educators as well as for counselors, psychiatrists, and social workers. Halusic speculated that if she were a new teacher, she might struggle with whether she was teaching the newly-mandated mental health topics correctly, which highlights the need for school districts to be able to support their health educators to attend conferences and workshops, to receive training and exchange ideas.

Of course, a district’s ability to support professional development opportunities is largely reliant on funding. Districts allocate funding for mental health curriculum development, including professional development, as they see fit. Districts can also vie for state or federal funding, but that money is based on a plethora of other factors and often delegated to all content areas, not specifically for mental health.

“In theory, every time a new mandate came out, it would be awesome if there was X amount of money to fund it and to send teachers to professional development. Generally, it’s not that simple,” Hull said. “It’s a juggling act, as many things are in education, and it comes down to the priorities of that school, that district, and where the need is. So in theory, there is money, but it’s not earmarked for mental health.”

Funding is a messy behemoth of an issue all on its own. For now, Hull’s greatest wish is for an increase in contact hours required for health education. Currently, students receive 20 weeks, just half an academic year, of health education during middle school and another 20 weeks during high school.

“We’re cramming so much content into these 20 weeks,” she said. “And you want to do it with prudence, but something’s got to give at a certain point, but that can’t be mental health. But then what is it going to be?”