Michigan is expanding mental health services in schools – and equipping teachers to implement them

A University of Michigan program is providing teachers much-needed support to implement social-emotional learning in the classroom.
This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

Michigan’s schools are expanding behavioral health services to students across the state – and a University of Michigan (U-M) program is providing teachers much-needed support to implement those services.

Many districts have introduced trauma-informed education. Telehealth and telepsychiatry have brought therapists into school buildings to counsel students virtually. Schools and communities have collaborated to connect families with resources like housing, transportation, and healthy food. Mindfulness activities teach students how to cope with their feelings in healthy ways. And most recently, the state of Michigan has begun emphasizing the importance of classroom-based social and emotional learning (SEL), which develops the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors students need to make successful choices. 

As with other classroom-based behavioral health programming, teachers will ultimately shoulder the burden of establishing SEL within Michigan’s classrooms. 

“These teachers are people who have barely taken a breath since March 2020. They’ve been running at full pace, initially trying to pivot to online learning, then trying to plan for all of last year,” says Elizabeth Koschmann, director of U-M's TRAILS (Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students) program and research investigator at the U-M Department of Psychiatry. “I think it’s really important to recognize that these are people that are approaching exhaustion.”

TRAILS will play an important, state-funded role in taking some of that burden off teachers, offering free SEL training and curricula that they can implement in the classroom.

TRAILS paves an easy path for SEL

According to the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), SEL helps students “understand and regulate their emotions, successfully complete goals, take others' perspective or point of view, develop positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

“It’s just like physical health. If you have a broken arm, it’s much more difficult to write,” says Dr. Jennifer Krzewina, mental health services coordinator for Marquette Alger Regional Education Services Agency (MARESA). “If you have a mental health concern, such as anxiety or depression, that makes it much more difficult to think clearly and focus on content that your classroom peers are focused on.”

In collaboration with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Association of School Social Workers, Michigan School Counselor Association, and Michigan Association of School Psychologists, MDE has established an SEL and Children's Mental Health Network representing all 10 Michigan Association of School Administrator (MASA) regions. The network supports intermediate school districts and individual schools in implementing SEL and nurturing students' mental health across the state.

As SEL rolls out into Michigan schools, TRAILS is also offering schools no-cost SEL training and curricula. MDE's budget for fiscal year 2022 will fund the TRAILS SEL program for all of Michigan’s 56 intermediate school districts over the next three years. The goal is to make incorporating SEL into the classroom easy for teachers.

The TRAILS SEL curriculum includes 20 lessons targeted to three student age groups: third through fifth grades, middle school, and high school. The lessons provide teachers a flexible, comprehensive, weekly, 30-minute lesson plan that can be broken down into shorter teachable moments. A discussion guide and suggested activities help teachers introduce kids to core strategies for managing their concerns. 
Elizabeth Koschmann leads a TRAILS training session for school mental health professionals in 2019.
“Teachers have always played this [mental health] role but now they are being asked to balance true academic needs with SEL needs,” Koschmann says. “Those academic needs are very complex. Many kids missed a lot of schooling. Here they are trying to find out where they are at [and] make up for lost learning, yet they are not emotionally ready to be back in school.”

During the first week of school, five of Koschmann’s friends called her with concerns about their own high-school-aged children who were unable to sleep, having panic attacks, afraid of contracting COVID-19 in the classroom, and worrying that bad grades from online learning will prevent them from going to the colleges of their dreams. Koschmann believes these difficulties are a common denominator among students not only in high school, but also in middle school and elementary school.

“The [TRAILS] curriculum builds in ways a teacher could capitalize on natural situations in the classroom to reinforce the skills we are talking about. Teachers don’t feel like, ‘Here’s one more thing on top of everything else I am doing,’” Koschmann says. “By the end of a week or two, kids have had a chance to think about a topic, learn about a skill, do an activity, watch a video clip, and take information home so that families who want to can reinforce the same skills and practice together.” 

Koschmann recognizes that standard mental health recommendations like “make time for yourself,” “make sure you’re eating right,” and “exercise” are, in reality, not always achievable. TRAILS pulls from cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness practices to help students recognize what’s troubling them and quickly manage those worries instead of getting stuck in a spiral of thinking about all the things that could go wrong.

“We also recognize that some of what we’re going through with COVID is similar to grief," Koschmann says. "You can learn to tolerate the distress. You do not have to get rid of it. Realistically, if you are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic as an essential worker or professional educator, how perfect do you have to be? We should be treating ourselves with a little more compassion and kindness.”

While the MDE is officially introducing TRAILS to all of Michigan’s intermediate school districts, Koschmann also invites individual teachers to sign on for the curriculum via the TRAILS website.

“I have heard from many teachers, ‘My district is requiring that we include SEL but they haven’t given us a curriculum. Having the teachers making one up is absurd,'” Koschmann says. “SEL should not be a teacher alone prepping for a lesson late into the night, then, bleary-eyed, delivering it the next morning. TRAILS will help them make their classroom function more smoothly with better student engagement and students feeling safer and more supported in their environment.”

“Make mental health a priority in education”

While implementing SEL may still seem like just one more item to add to teachers' already long to-do lists, even with TRAILS' support, Krzewina believes that it will make teachers' jobs easier in the long run.

“Ultimately it should help teachers in the classroom,” she says. “Mental health concerns can play a significant role in a student’s ability to learn. They can come out as disruptive behaviors that interfere with learning for themselves and others. The more support we can put in place for students’ mental health, the better off they will be [and] the better frame of mind they will have to learn in the classroom environment.”

In MARESA's service area, Ishpeming High School and Munising High School both take part in TRAILS programming. In addition, MARESA contracts with 31 mental and behavioral health providers throughout its district to support students experiencing mild to moderate mental health issues with individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy. With parents’ permission, teachers can be brought into the loop. Staff and teachers from middle and high schools also complete an eight-hour certification course in Youth Mental Health First Aid.

“Mental health has to be a priority. It really impacts the ability of students to learn,” Krzewina says. “The mental health of our staff also has to be a consideration, especially with the COVID pandemic. The studies are coming out on how there is an impact on youth mental health related to the pandemic. It’s only going to be a need that continues to be on the rise. It’s in the best interest of our students and everyone in society that we make mental health a priority in education.”

A freelance writer and editor, Estelle Slootmaker is happiest writing about social justice, wellness, and the arts. She is development news editor for Rapid Growth Media and chairs The Tree Amigos, City of Wyoming Tree Commission. Her finest accomplishment is her five amazing adult children. You can contact Estelle at Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com or www.constellations.biz.

Elizabeth Koschmann portrait by Eric Bronson/Michigan Photography. Training photo courtesy of TRAILS.