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Interconnecting Mental Health and Behavioral Support Improves School Safety, Study Says

Research affirms that access to interconnected resources will further improve school climate, student equity.
Date Published
March 21, 2022

When children experience violence at school, be it bullying or gun violence, the negative consequences of those interactions can follow them for years, often manifesting later as higher rates of absenteeism, lower high school graduation rates, and lower college graduation rates. Early intervention is a key resource in preventing aggressive behaviors from occurring in the first place, and effective early intervention serves to build a positive school climate for all students.

There is a growing desire to improve school climate by implementing guidelines that are based upon research and science, addressing the underlying causes of negative behavior, and replacing punishment with efforts to develop positive behavior and social skills.

With support from NIJ, researchers from the University of South Carolina employed and evaluated the Interconnected Systems Framework to address the limitations of two popular support systems in use today: Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and School Mental Health services. The Interconnected Systems Framework was designed to provide specific guidance on interconnecting the systems. By examining the integration of these two systems, they hoped to build upon resources that are already in use in many schools, to create more effective interventions for students in need.

There has been some success in recent years with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a proactive approach that emphasizes intervention to promote positive behavior. Through the implementation of prevention for all children (Tier 1), at risk children (Tier 2), and children with more significant problems (Tier 3), this approach endeavors to reach all students. But many schools have struggled to implement anything beyond Tier 1 interventions, partly because the approach does not directly address underlying mental health issues that, when left untreated, can become exacerbated.

School Mental Health services focus on early identification and access to the mental health support for students with behavioral problems. Clinicians who are implementing treatment, however, are often isolated from other school programming resources (like Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), so there can be a disconnect between those who are handling a student’s services. And it often takes a student reaching crisis levels before they are referred to the School Mental Health services that they need.

The Interconnected Systems Framework addresses the noted limitations of these common approaches by capitalizing on the strong implementation infrastructure of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and improving upon the School Mental Health services offered to students in Tier 2 and Tier 3. In addition, it stresses interdisciplinary collaboration, the functioning of teams, and improving data-based decision making and implementation of evidence-based practices.[1]

This first randomized controlled trial of the Integrated Systems Framework support found positive impacts on school climate and safety. Researchers compared results from elementary schools in two large districts in the Southeastern United States for the 2016-2018 school years that implemented (1) Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports alone, (2) Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports in combination with School Mental Health services, and (3) the Interconnected Systems Framework. The evaluations examined teacher ratings of students, student ratings of problem and prosocial behaviors at school, as well as school climate.

The researchers evaluated the efficacy of the Interconnected Systems Framework, by addressing:

  • School safety and school climate.
  • Behavioral and disciplinary problems.
  • School outcomes for students.

Broad Improvements in Interconnectivity and in Resource Appropriation Equity

The study indicated positive results across multiple domains. In particular, schools using the Interconnected Systems Framework recorded:

  • Improvements in school administration interconnectedness, broader involvement with school administration, more administrators and clinical staff in team meetings, and more discussion of school-wide issues at team meetings.
  • Increased Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions, and decreased in-school suspensions and office discipline referrals.
  • Based on reports by students, an increase in the reporting of feelings of respect for other students (after controlling for pre-intervention perceptions), more student engagement with school, less externalizing behaviors (e.g. conduct problems), fewer students rated as at-risk for behavioral disorders, and higher perceptions of school safety.

Researchers noted some desirable findings in relation to student equity, including:

  • A trend of increasing interventions for students of color.
  • Reductions in out-of-school suspensions and office discipline referrals for Black students.

Importantly, the researchers did not observe significant differences between the three types of school support systems in relation to student satisfaction with Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports, self-reported exposure to violence and/or bullying at school, or teacher-reported student aggression.

Research Limitations

Although data on the cost-effectiveness of their framework was examined at the school level, the results were inconclusive at this time. Further analyses of cost effectiveness at the student level might be more revealing. In addition, and likely related to a smaller sample size, researchers did not document any sustained impacts of the Interconnected Systems Framework on student functioning for a subset of students that the researchers followed into middle school from the elementary school level.

Implications and Future Research

Previous studies of the differential use of school-based behavioral and mental health services by racial and ethnic groups have suggested the need for culturally appropriate outreach and tailoring of services to improve service utilization.[2] The implementation of the Interconnected Systems Framework in this study revealed an improvement in the referral of resources for these particular subsets of students.

The first-of-its-kind work presented here highlights aspects of the Interconnected Systems Framework that are working well, such as improving identification and provision of Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention for students in need, reducing student discipline, and improving perceptions of school safety. The study also underscores the positive impact of the Interconnected Systems Framework in providing needed assistance to students at-risk for, or presenting, behavioral problems. Deeper analysis is needed to understand the impact of Interconnected Systems Framework on issues such as preventing or mitigating discipline problems and avoiding juvenile justice involvement in the future.

About This Article

The work described in this article was supported by NIJ award number 2015-CK-BX-0018, awarded to The University of South Carolina.

This article is based on the grantee report “Interconnecting PBIS and School Mental Health to Improve School Safety: A Randomized Trial” (2021) by Mark D. Weist, Joni W. Splett, Colleen Halliday, Michael A. Seaman, Nick Gage, Katie Perkins, Kelly Perales, Elaine Miller, Kathryn McCollister, Darien Collins, Victoria Rizzardi, and Christine DiStefano.

Date Published: March 21, 2022