By Tina Meketa, University Communications and Marketing
Two separate projects led by faculty in the USF College of Education and College of Behavioral and Community Sciences are being funded by a combined $8 million from the U.S. Department of Education to address mental health in Tampa Bay K-12 students.
Stacy-Ann January, associate professor in the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies, is leading efforts to enhance the capacity and effectiveness of school psychologists by helping schools adopt a framework for mental health assessments and intervention techniques. Through Project TIERS, which stands for “Targeted and Intensive Emotional and Relational Support,” USF will partner with local elementary schools in greatest need of assistance.
This initiative is one of many at USF that address mental health, especially within the university community. It expands upon USF’s school psychology program, in which 21 graduate students will spend the next five years working in local schools to identify students in need of support and tailor their services based on the intensity of their situation. January will then share what they learned with school psychologists across the country.
“Florida is three times above the recommended ratio for school psychologists and has just one psychologist per 1,856 students,” January said. “Impoverished communities tend to have less access to mental health providers, which has been exacerbated in the last few years due to the COVID pandemic. This project can be a great resource to these communities.”
Graduate student Amber Rivera is pursuing a career in school psychology. Growing up in Tampa, she said no one in her family knew that the profession existed. She hopes to raise awareness and positively impact not just the schools, but the community.
“Being Latina I know there is a common stigma surrounding mental health that is still prevalent today, Rivera said. “I want to be able to speak to my community, to provide education and change that long-term. Creating a wholesome school environment and helping families and communities receive the information needed to help these children is so significant.”
In the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, several faculty members are working with the Hillsborough, Hernando and Manatee school districts to launch Project MABAS, which stands for “Mental Health Applied Behavior Analysis Social Work.”
Project MABAS, also funded by a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education, will help diversify the school-based mental health services workforce by enhancing the pipeline of behavior analysts and social workers. Forty USF graduate students from diverse backgrounds enrolled in the applied behavior analysis or social work programs will provide integrated behavioral and mental health services in high-need schools, helping improve social-emotional, behavioral, and educational outcomes.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 70 percent of public schools report seeing a dramatic increase in demand for mental health services due to traumatic events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, community violence and adverse childhood experiences. However, only about half of the schools report having the capacity to effectively provide mental health services to students in need. This has contributed to behavioral issues – which tend to hamper a student’s ability to succeed in school.
“The disruptions to routines, relationships and the learning environment have led to increased stress and trauma, social isolation, and anxiety that can have both immediate and long-term adverse impacts,” said Catia Cividini-Motta, principal investigator and associate director of the Applied Behavior Analysis program. “Educators and school personnel play a vital role in providing mental health and well-being support, helping advance educational opportunities by creating conditions for students to fully engage in learning.”
USF students enrolled in Project MABAS and Project TIERS will receive tuition support and a stipend. In turn, they will have the training and skills needed to help thousands of children throughout their careers.
Students interested in joining Project MABAS can learn how to apply here. Enrollment will begin this summer and will continue through 2026.
Additional contributors to Project MABAS include Professors Alison Salloum, Kwang-Sun Blair and Kimberly Crosland. More information about the Applied Behavior Analysis program can be found here and the School of Social Work can be found here.