2019 News Stories

USF researchers host panel discussion to discuss mental health well-being in schools

by Chelsea Grosbeck

Panel of researchers discuss strategies for promoting mental health and well-being in schools

A panel of researchers from the USF College of Education discussed strategies and recommendations for how educators and families can promote social, emotional, and behavioral well-being in schools. From left to right: Shannon Suldo, PhD; Sarah Kiefer, PhD; Jose Castillo, PhD, and Nathaniel von der Embse, PhD. 

In light of recent events, mental health and the well-being of students has been a focus of many K-12 schools across the state of Florida.

To share about relevant research and insights in this area, the University of South Florida (USF) College of Education hosted a panel discussion titled, “Promoting Social, Emotional and Behavioral Well-Being in Schools: A Critical Conversation.” During the discussion, experts in both school psychology and educational psychology shared their research in supporting student well-being and how their work can be utilized by school districts to improve the services and support provided to their students.

“In education, we all know it’s important to create research,” said College of Education Dean, Robert C. Knoeppel, PhD. “It really doesn’t matter unless it reaches into communities, into classrooms and into families.”

Keynote speaker Shannon Suldo, PhD, a professor of school psychology at USF, began the evening with presenting her research to students, teachers, faculty, staff and community members.

“The Student Life Satisfaction Scale (SLSS) assesses the student’s subjective well-being, or happiness,” Suldo said. “The Scale is numbered from one through six, with four being the neutral point.”

Suldo explains, in elementary school the average SLSS score is a five. As the child gets older, their number drops. It was found every time a student begins middle or high school, an immediate drop happens, with the score falling by half each time.

Suldo addressed the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) core competencies a student naturally wants to express. Qualities like self management, self awareness, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness are signs a student strives to show in the classroom. If a student is shown to be lacking in these areas, and shows a lower than average score on the SLSS, it’s a sign the student needs additional help.  

Following Suldo’s presentation, the panelists considered how their research can be best used as preventative measures in schools and how USF efforts are working towards transforming mental health awareness.

“The schools we’re dealing with exhibit the 20 on 20 phenomena,” said Nathaniel von der Embse, PhD, an associate professor of school psychology. “Upwards of 20 percent of kids will exhibit mental and behavioral health problems and yet we’re only serving about 20 of those kids at risk.”

Among other challenges, many schools struggle with staffing school psychologists to accommodate large numbers of students. Jose Castillo, PhD, an associate professor of school psychology, said he believes in an inclusive approach in finding a common method of decision-making on where to combine support from across the school system.

“School is the one place where we all have access to all of our children and youth,” Castillo said. “It’s a professional learning community for all educators and students.”

With educators and leaders in local school districts in attendance, the event later opened to a discussion about how research can be applied in today’s K-12 schools.

“In a system that still forces us to do grade level specific types of assessments to determine if our schools are successful, can we also have better condition settings in our schools?”asked attendee Jeff Eakins, superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools.

Structures in schools matter, said Sarah Kiefer, PhD, an associate professor of educational psychology. This is widely because students are able to build competencies through relationships. Kiefer says in Florida, less than a third of middle schools are implementing school structures in terms of “teaming,” or integrating support systems with adult advocates.

“What we are finding are those unstructured spaces are the places where relationships and their competencies matter the most,” Kiefer said. “…Like the spaces we don’t really look at— the cafeterias, the hallways, before and after classes— can really make a big difference on kids.”

To view the full presentation, watch the video below: