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Falls school officials begin mental health pilot program for elementary students

Niagara Gazette - 2/5/2021

Feb. 5—Mental health has become one of several rising issues in the country since the COVID-19 pandemic began last March. For students, who've had their entire education uprooted to different modes of learning, the going hasn't been easy. In Clark County, Nevada, there have been 19 suicides from students in the district, forcing them to consider allowing in-person instruction again.

For the Niagara Falls City School District, district officials are looking to help students before it comes to that. A pilot program has begun to implement the BESS (Behavioral and Emotional Screening Systems) developed by Pearson Assessments. The test is designed to determine the behavior and emotional strengths and weaknesses of children from pre-school to high school.

Richard Carella, administrator for Curriculum and Instruction for the Niagara Falls School District, described how this pilot program got started.

"We have a districtwide steering committee that is looking at the process of how we support our students with both academic and behavioral needs because what we know is that kids who are not functioning well, emotionally or socially may have trouble learning because of it. So, we have to have an integrated system where we look at students across the board, and not only support their academic growth, which is what you typically think of, but we need to also help them with their social-emotional well-being."

After examining national data, Carella found numerous components to be best practices such as looking at poor behavior and preventing this through some kind of early intervention. Other elements involved creating positive classroom environments to optimize learning. For the pilot program, the testing will be done for kindergarten though second grade students who are coming into school two days a week as a part of the hybrid model, with teachers observing student behavior, then answering a series of questions.

Each assessment being used in the district contains 20 simple questions, with some examples being if the child annoys other children or is the child prepared for school on a daily basis. Responses to these questions would be always, sometimes or never. Cathy Sullivan, the Intervention/Pre-K Coordinator for the Niagara Falls School District, spoke about the three different behaviors this assessment is designed to examine.

"They're divided into adaptive, internalizing and externalizing behaviors," Sullivan said. "Adaptive would be your study habits, your organizational skills. Your externalizing would be children who are openly defiant, often disrupt the class, intentionally disobey teachers and adults in the building. Your internalizing behaviors are the behaviors that teachers can look for is does the child worry, does the child show signs of being tense, and does the child change moods frequently. Those are taken directly from our screening tool"

Sullivan added results are scored electronically and reports will be available for teachers in the coming weeks. A majority of the preliminary results places a majority of children in what is considered Tier 1. This means the kids aren't in need of more support with the exception of the classroom environment and positive behavior placement programs in most elementary schools. As with plenty of new programs implemented during the COVID-19 era, there are some challenges.

Carella said another challenge is the longer lasting hybrid model, with the timeline of projected activities being truncated. At this time it remains undetermined if these assessments will return in the next school year.


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