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Early Intervention for Mental Health Challenges in Schools: A Compassionate Approach

By Dana Asby, Education Coordinator, New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center

Research has helped us better understand the interconnected nature of social-emotional learning (SEL) and academic learning, as well as the impact of early SEL interventions as a buffer against later mental health challenges. More educational leaders now push for expanded early childhood programming that naturally has a strong SEL focus. Integrating evidence-based SEL programming at all levels of education is an effective way of intervening in the development of mental health challenges like anxiety and depression, which have become an increasing concern for young people. Starting the conversation about mental health at all stages of a young person’s academic career can be a life-saving strategy to reduce the development of mental health challenges and suicidality later in life.

Quality Early Childhood Programming as a Buffer Against Depression, Substance Misuse, and more

Over the past two decades in America, there have been enormous investments in early childhood. The neuroscience research that showed that the years birth to five are the most impactful for brain development convinced educators, lawmakers, and the general public that these were years worth investing in. More funding has been directed toward these programs in the past two decades because the evidence shows they work. A seminal study of a high-quality early childhood program that followed children who did and did not participate in it for decades found that participation in the program resulted in:

  • Higher academic achievement

  • Reduced usage of special education services

  • Increased likelihood of attending college or university

  • Reduced risk of becoming a teen parent

  • Lower drug use

  • Lower likelihood of depression

  • Lower incidence of hypertension

  • Higher likelihood of having a job at the age of 30 (Sparling & Meunier, 2019)

This program, the Abecedarian Project, which began in 1972, is an exemplar for early childhood programming because of how comprehensive it is. In addition to the game-based curriculum that emphasized language development and social-emotional and cognitive skill-building, a key component of the program was the individualized nature that the low student-to-teacher ratio facilitated. The educators in these programs could truly get to know their students and develop a caring relationship with them. The learning also didn’t stop in the classroom. Resource teachers were assigned to each family. They taught caregivers how to use activities introduced in the classroom at home, met with classroom teachers to help the school and family stay on the same page, and advocated for the families’ needs. Today, the Abecedarian Project has evolved, but the foundation of the original program described above remains, and follow-up studies have continued to support its use (University of North Carolina, n.d.).

Continuing the Conversation in Elementary and Secondary School

Social-emotional learning is a life-long process. Our brains become primed to learn new relational and self-regulatory skills at each developmental stage. For example, essential SEL skills at the elementary level might include 1) recognizing and naming emotions, 2) understanding the emotions of others, and 3) learning how to share. Middle school students might benefit from SEL that focuses on 1) developing a growth mindset, 2) responsible decision-making, and 3) practicing positive emotional maintenance. High school students would most benefit from SEL instruction that helps them learn 1) conflict resolution skills, 2) healthy risk-taking behaviors, 3) self- and community care strategies, and 4) how to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues. At all developmental levels, SEL programs that teach self-regulation strategies can help young people practice healthy coping strategies for stress and reduce their risk for developing a mental health challenge.

Implementing trauma-informed screening practices alongside mental health stigma-reduction and mental health literacy programming also helps schools identify students in need of mental health services more quickly. Many schools and districts use a Multi-tiered System of Support to drive this process and their SEL programming choices. The Mental Health Technology Transfer Center has a wealth of resources to help schools effectively deliver SEL and mental health programming and design or refine their school mental health systems to best meet the needs of students.

Collaboration at the District and Community Level to Enhance Early Mental Health Intervention Effectiveness

Early interventionists—who help children under the age of three experiencing developmental delays receive services; early childhood, elementary, and secondary educators; and administrators at all levels can work together to coordinate academic and social-emotional learning and mental health programming. When this happens, students and their families receive a unified message that their emotional well-being is just as integral to their success as their academic achievement. To achieve this, districts can:

  • Convene regular meetings of educators and administrators to review standards, curricula, and programs to identify successes, challenges, and gaps in care

  • Provide transition programming to help students and their families successfully move from early childhood to elementary school, elementary to middle school, and middle to high school

  • Facilitate parent education programming to reinforce SEL and mental health concepts and strategies used in the school building at home

  • Conduct regular screenings in a trauma-informed manner to identify students at risk for developing mental health challenges early in life

To intervene early to reduce and address mental health challenges for young people, school districts can take a systemic, longitudinal approach at every developmental stage. Providing free, high-quality early childhood education with a focus on SEL helps young children develop the skills they need to form healthy relationships and navigate hardships—and with some programs, reduce instances of mental health challenges like depression. Continuing SEL programming in elementary and secondary school helps students develop effective emotional and behavioral regulation skills that improve their mental well-being and academic achievement. Introducing trauma-informed mental health screening practices during a child’s Pre-K-12 education helps identify those most in need of direct services to be provided early in life when they are most effective at addressing mental health challenges.


Sparling, J. & Meunier, K. (2019). Abecedarian: An early childhood education approach that has a rich history and a vibrant present. International Journal of Early Childhood, 1-10.

University of North Carolina. (n.d.). Groundbreaking follow-up studies. The Carolina Abecedarian Project.


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