Social work faculty collaborated with a Department of Education in a US Midwestern state to identify the range of practices and programs public school districts across the state use to promote student wellness. The study was part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMSHA) Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) grant initiative, which aims to create data-driven approaches to build schools’ capacity to address students’ mental health needs. For the study, the term Student Wellness was used to encompass students’ social, emotional, and behavioral wellbeing. The study established baseline data to guide school, community, and state leaders in advancing student wellness supports in public school settings. The study sought to address two research questions: (1) How do public schools address student wellness within their district settings? (2) What are the strengths and barriers that public schools encounter when addressing student wellness needs in their school district settings?
Data were collected for a three-week timeframe in 2019 using an exploratory, cross-sectional online survey design. A purposive sampling strategy was used to recruit respondents from two email listservs comprised of superintendents and social emotional coordinators identified for each school throughout the state. The 32-question survey was sent to respondents via email. Out of the 401 possible respondents, n=211 (52.6%) participated in the study. A mixed methods data analysis approach was used that included descriptive statistics (e.g., frequencies) for numeric data and thematic analysis for open-ended questions. These responses were coded thematically, guided by principles of an inductive approach to qualitative analysis.
The survey findings produced a statewide composite of the practices, programs, and implementation strategies that public school districts used to address student wellness. Themes suggest that educators and administrators are committed to addressing student wellness, but organizational, community, and funding barriers constrain their ability to adequately address student needs. Aligning with this core theme, the data analysis produced four key findings: (1) Variability of schools districts’ interpretation of student wellness and the multi-tiered approaches they implemented; (2) The need for shared organizational vision and evaluation of student wellness supports; (3) Gaps in sustainable funding for student wellness supports, especially for those related to mental health; (4) The central role of community partners in meeting student wellness needs.
This study demonstrates a multi-disciplinary, translational research partnership between a State Department of Education and a university-based social work research team. This collaboration produced research-informed evidence to guide the Department of Education in strategically addressing gaps in schools’ approaches to supporting student wellness. Findings illuminated the need for shared conceptualization of student wellness initiatives and state level investment in sustainable funding, specific to student wellness supports and school-based mental health workforce capacity. The study outcomes also provided direction for building community and school organization collaborations that align with school districts’ unique rural, urban, and suburban contexts. Results from this study revealed ways the state could benefit from other state and national best practice models related to school-based mental health and social emotional learning.