If you are developing a plan to implement new school mental health programs, part of that process must include figuring out how you will measure the outcome. Here’s why you need to establish proper outcome measurement and reporting BEFORE you select and start implementing a program:
- Focus. Thinking about outcome measurement forces you to carefully consider what you’re trying to accomplish, and helps you focus your efforts on the most critical objectives.
- Funding. When you apply for the funding you’ll need to pay for new program costs, you’ll be asked about your plans for tracking the results of your programs. Learn more about funding here: Grants For Mental Health Programs In Schools.
- Reporting. You’ll need to submit reports about your results to organizations that have provided you with grant money. Chances are, you’ll also need to report on outcomes to your BOE and other stakeholders within your school community. Planning how you will measure outcomes ensures that you collect critical data from the beginning of the program (and ideally, even before you start the program).
- Buy-in. Having strong outcome data will help you to win the support you need to keep your school mental health programs going for the long term.
Here’s how to develop and implement an effective plan for measuring outcomes.
Assess needs and set objectives for school mental health programs
Before you can figure out how to track and measure outcomes for school mental health programs, you need to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. That’s why you should always start by setting objectives.
So how do you decide on your objectives?
If you are taking action now in response to an obvious need or recent incidents, then chances are your objectives are already clear to you. They might include preventing tragedies or reducing self-harming behavior, addressing trauma experienced by your school community, or getting school-avoidant students back to the classroom.
You might also have bigger goals in mind that impact a broader population of students as well as your school staff. For example:
- Build a healthier climate and culture in your district that supports mental wellness
- Overcome the stigma surrounding mental health issues in your community
- Address disruptive behavior in the classroom that impedes learning for everyone and leads to teacher burnout
- Overcome mental health barriers so students can make up for learning lost during the pandemic
It can be challenging to know where to focus and what to do first. We recommend beginning with a needs assessment, usually done in the form of a survey to students, staff, and possibly parents. The results can help you to understand the impacts of mental health issues on your school community, choose objectives based on your priorities, and develop a plan to achieve them.
Once your objectives are in place, the next step is to establish data points to track that are relevant to your objectives and will enable you to report on what matters to your stakeholders (such as providers of funding and/or your Superintendent and BOE).
The easiest place to start is with data that’s already available to you (and there’s more than you might realize).
Measure mental health impacts using data you already have
Mental health issues show up in a variety of ways that your school is already measuring. For example:
- Attendance. Struggling students tend to miss school due to their mental health problems. That includes attendance at school in general, and also attendance at individual classes for older students. School refusal in particular is a growing problem that can have a significant impact on your school’s attendance figures.
- Grades. While not every student suffering from mental health problems shows a decline in grades, most of them do, and they need support to be able to learn and succeed in school.
- Disciplinary action and behavioral incidents. Both the number of incidents and their severity can be reduced with mental health intervention. Pay particular attention to self-harming behaviors and HIB incidents which are red flags that there’s a mental health issue involved.
- Risk assessments. Monitoring the number of performed risk assessments, and their results, can give you a great deal of information about the students with urgent needs for mental health intervention. It can also reveal trends among particular populations of students (LGBTQ, recent immigrants, or those experiencing trauma at home, for example) that may indicate a need for more support.
- School nurse visits. Students who are having trouble coping with mental health issues often spend significant time in the nurse’s office. Monitor your nurse’s records to find out how many visits seem to be related to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Also look for repeat visits for somatic complaints (such as stomachaches, headaches, nausea) where no medical cause is found.
You can track these data points for your student body as a whole, and also for individual students with demonstrated need who are receiving direct intervention. That depends on your objectives.
For example, if your objective is focused on school refusal, you’ll track the students exhibiting non-medical absenteeism and how their data changes in response to intervention through school mental health programs. If your focus is on school climate and culture, you’ll want to track data for your entire student body and your staff.
Over time, you should see improvement in these data points that are attributable to your school mental health programs.
More ways to uncover the impact of school mental health programs
Depending on your objectives, you can do more to measure specific mental health impacts in your school community and your progress in overcoming them.
- Behavioral issues in the classroom. Disruptive behavior is a growing concern that’s eating into classroom time and disrupting education for everyone. To track the impact of classroom behavior, create a spreadsheet online and have teachers record the amount of time they spend each day dealing with behavior problems instead of teaching.
You can also track students with a history of problem behavior in the classroom. Have teachers record both the frequency and duration of outbursts.
- School refusal behavior. You’ll start by tracking school attendance, but you can do more to show how those students are progressing with intervention. Have teachers regularly report on which classes they attend, the amount of time they are able to stay in class, along with participation in class and performance.
- Culture and climate. Conduct periodic surveys of students, staff, and parents to measure how attitudes are changing over time as a result of your programs. Track factors such as staff morale, student satisfaction, and parent satisfaction.
Ask your students to rate their feelings about their social connections at school, their level of active engagement, and the opportunities they have to share their opinions and make choices in the school environment. Another tip: ask if they can identify experiences of joy during the school day or in school-related experiences.
You can also track attendance at mental health education programs that you provide for teachers, students, and parents.
Create and share informative reports
With needs assessment results (that serves as a baseline), the student data your school already tracks, and additional information you measure related to your specific objectives, you’ll be armed with everything you need to understand and report on the outcomes of school mental health programs.
How often? We recommend creating reports quarterly (or otherwise aligned with your school calendar), which gives you time to make adjustments to your plan if the data shows an immediate need.
Which data should you focus on? What you want to show is progress toward the goals and objectives you set before you started. That might include improvements in attendance numbers for school refusal students, or even specific examples of successful interventions. It might include decreases in the time teachers spend handling behavior problems. It might include fewer risk assessments and less severe impacts. Remember to re-state the objectives so they are clear to all stakeholders.
How to deliver the reports? When sharing results within your school community, it’s always best if you can present the results yourself instead of just emailing a document. That way you can answer any questions, give deeper explanations, and share your upcoming plans to help build support for what you’re doing. Another benefit: stakeholders receiving the live report will frequently offer you helpful feedback and ideas.
As you begin to see improved outcomes from your school mental health programs, you can also use that data to obtain more resources to expand your program and take on additional objectives.
You will likely have questions as you develop your plan for mental health support and intervention and work out how you will measure the outcomes. Thrive has been providing a variety of mental health support services to schools for decades, and we do regular reports for every school we work with. We are happy to share advice, so don’t hesitate to reach out with your questions.