Talking About Feelings: How Schools Support Mental Health

May. 2, 2019
Students at Summit Academy learn leadership skills in the Source of Strength student group
Students at Summit Academy learn leadership skills in the Source of Strength student group

Mental health supports for students are becoming increasingly important for schools, which identify social-emotional support as valuable for students across the district. Every school in DPS has at least one full-time school psychologist and/or social worker, with many schools working with community partners to provide internships and other opportunities to ensure schools have the staff available for students’ needs.


“We’re definitely seeing an increased need for mental health supports,” said Meredith Fatseas, who oversees school psychologists and social workers in DPS. “We serve students who come from incredibly diverse backgrounds and the type of support they need is going to vary based on their situation.”


In DPS, mental health supports should be community-focused and many schools consider the needs of their families in addition to their students. These supports may come in the form of connecting families to resources for housing or developing a behavior plan for a student who has experienced trauma.


While there are many opportunities for schools to improve the mental health services they provide, several schools are seeing success in helping support students. Below are two schools – Summit Academy and Ashley Elementary – who shared their strategies for creating a strong culture of mental health and why this work matters.


Summit Academy

Larry Botnick, social worker and James Barile, school psychologist


We are a pathway school that serves students in middle and high school. With only 230 students, we’re able to connect with each student individually to understand what they need. This relationship-building is important, because we have students come to us directly to let us know if they are feeling depressed or suicidal, or if their friends are. We’re an incredibly collaborative team with an open door policy for students.


We use the Signs of Suicide curriculum and encourage students to use the Safe 2 Tell hotline, but one of the biggest positive contributors is our student leadership. We have a Source of Strength student leadership team and a Gay Straight Alliance; having students feel empowered to make a difference in their school culture is one of the things that makes us special. We have also seen a decrease in substance abuse issues in the past few years, which we believe is connected to our Teen Intervene program. We use this rather than suspensions, which allows us to address the root cause of substance abuse rather than focusing on punishment.


We have seen some incredible turnarounds of students who have struggled with mental health issues or personal situations that have impacted their ability to attend school or focus in class. Because of the supports that we’ve offered, we’ve seen students change their future. A student who might be likely to drop out and become addicted to drugs can excel academically and go on to college. We never give up on our students — they are all diamonds in the rough.


Ashley Elementary

Sarah Laffin, school psychologist and Josh Konz, social worker


Joshua Konz, social worker at Ashley Elementary, supporting a student

Joshua Konz, social worker at Ashley Elementary, supporting a student

We serve a diverse community in the Stapleton neighborhood and culture is a big part of our success. Our approach to discipline uses Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) throughout the school, which provides a very consistent environment for our kids. Communication is another integral part of our success. Since many of our students have individual support plans, our staff works hard to make sure they’re communicating with each other and the families. We also have weekly time where kids learn social-emotional skills. We’re so fortunate that teachers here are open to meeting their students’ mental health needs and learning new ways to support them.


Getting to know the students, their teachers and their families is key. Connection makes a huge difference, because students will always tell you what they need from you — they just might not always tell you in the most direct way! We focus on being mindful and paying just as much attention to what students are saying as what they don’t say. Helping students change their thought process is another strategy we use. Reframing the negative to a positive, gratitude practice, mindfulness and role-play can help students think about their situation in a more holistic way. It’s also important to help students understand that emotions aren’t “bad,” but understanding and intentionally responding to them is what will make a difference with their success in life.


We’ve had success with students when we understand what they need. For some students, they struggle with behavior and acting out, sometimes violently. We help teach the social skills and emotional management skills students need to address how they’re feeling, which impacts the learning environment in a positive way. This can be challenging work, because it never ends — there is always more help we can provide. But since students spend so much time at school, having this direct access to mental health providers is an incredible asset. We get to shape the future of our world in a positive direction. That’s what keeps us coming back day after day.