Most teacher-preparation programs don't linger long on the concept of student mental health. But considering that traumatic childhood events have far-reaching—at times, even life-altering—consequences, from risky health behaviors to poor social-emotional development and even early death, teachers are in a crucial position to help support their students.
Jean Boyer, an assistant professor of instruction in Temple's College of Education and a long-practicing school psychologist, has focused on infusing just this type of trauma-informed education—also known as mental health literacy—into the teacher-training curriculum at Temple. In fact, Boyer was already focused in this area when the McDowell Institute for Teacher Excellence in Positive Behavior Support at Bloomsburg University came calling in 2019.
The ask? For Temple to join the institute in its efforts to expand Youth Mental Health First Aid training for teachers across the state.
Ultimately, Temple's involvement was an easy decision.
"We give [students] lots of field hours experience in the schools around [Temple]," Boyer said. "They see kids who've got incarcerated parents, or they see kids who've experienced the loss of family members through violence or other kinds of trauma, and they want to know what to do."
Teachers, of course, aren't mental health professionals. They're educators with schedules to set and curricula to plan. But considering teachers do spend a significant amount of time with their students, they're well-positioned to identify trauma and help children get the support they need.
Developed and delivered by the National Council on Behavioral Health, Youth Mental Health First Aid is a program designed to teach adults who regularly interact with children, but who are not mental health professionals, how best to respond to mental health challenges. Once the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration awarded their grant to the McDowell Institute to train pre-service teachers across Pennsylvania in Youth Mental Health First Aid, the call went out to other local universities who might be interested in participating.
Enter Boyer—and Temple, in addition to more than 20 other universities across the state.
"It's not therapy—we're not training therapists," Boyer cautioned. "But it might help that person self-refer to a mental health professional, it might be getting them to a mental health professional if they need help doing that. It might just be calming someone's who's having a panic attack, right in the moment."
Active listening. Compassion. Understanding. Providing factual information. Immediate in-the-moment support. Whether before, during or after a referral to a mental health professional is in place, Boyer believes teachers need to be well-equipped for the challenge of addressing student trauma.
"You could liken it to CPR training," Boyer said. "You might see someone in distress, you know how to administer CPR, elevate for shock, those kinds of things, while the professionals are on the way."
Youth Mental Health First Aid is an eight-hour course for pre-service teachers entering the student-teaching portion of their preparation. Those who take part in the program are certified by the National Council of Behavioral Health and, in addition, receive resources to initiate and build a mental health literacy toolkit for the remainder of their careers.
"It is that kind of first aid for kids who might have experienced trauma and have a trauma reaction triggered that might appear out of the blue [in school], but that's not out of the blue for them," Boyer said. "Or kids who experience other kinds of adverse experiences or just have mental health issues."
Boyer and the College of Education late last year launched an OwlCrowd campaign—with a big assist from Temple's OwlCrowd crew, led by Levi Dillon and Josh Schroder—in order to purchase books and space in the program for all 36 of Temple's current student-teacher cohort.
In December, Boyer said, all 36 of the student-teachers earned their certifications and will receive endorsements from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
But there are nearly 200 soon-to-be student teachers hoping for the same opportunity, hungry for the same knowledge, and the aim is to expand the program and train additional teachers-to-be as they prepare to enter Philadelphia's schools.
"We know from neuroscience that trauma has a huge impact on brain development, both structurally and functionally," Boyer said. "As we become more aware of the impact of trauma on kids and what it means cognitively, [we realized] this is something that teachers need to know."