Behavioral Health Residency to Support America’s Educators

By Christine Gerchow


Has there ever been a unified, well-resourced effort to support teacher behavioral health and well-being? Henry Seton, in an essay in Educational Leadership, called teacher behavioral health the elephant in the classroom. “Teachers are attuned to the social-emotional wellbeing of our students and trained to monitor for signs such as trauma, anxiety, bullying, or microaggressions,” he wrote. “Yet we are still just learning how to discuss a huge, lurking threat to our work: our own mental health.”

This was in 2019.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in six U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year, and half of all mental health conditions begin by age 14. What will these statistics look like post-pandemic? Probably much worse as we see the byproducts of unreported and untreated trauma (e.g., physical abuse, exposure to domestic violence, sexual abuse, neglect). Students are going to need us to support their resiliency journeys. To do so, we need skilled and self-regulated adults including counselors, school psychologists, and of course, educators.

Along with students, our educators may have been dramatically affected by the pandemic. They may be exhausted from being sick themselves; caregiving for children, ill, or aging loved ones; managing economic hardship; and coping with anguish and other emotions related to racial trauma and race-based traumatic stress. This is on top of the demands of managing last spring’s emergency instructional triage and the ongoing demands of the academic year’s remote milieu.

Now is the time to leverage COVID-19 disruption and make a decision to no longer tolerate silence about teacher mental health. We must finally remove the elephant from the classroom!

How might we do this? No longer does the one and done professional development training about the biology of trauma suffice. Teachers may appreciate knowing about the amygdala, but we must do more. We must provide individual support, group support, and in-vivo classroom support (i.e., for students who present with challenging and triggering behaviors) in addition to training. The support should be provided by clinicians, including pre-service clinicians, who receive training in behavioral health interventions as well as educators’ ecosystem, socialization, expectations, pressures, and beyond!

Expected Impact

The potential impact is profound. Educators may have better health outcomes (e.g., lower blood pressure, reduced sugar intake; increased participation in exercise and mindfulness activities; increased use of distress tolerance practices). With improved health and sense of well-being, educators may approach youth, particularly those who have challenging behaviors, with more self-regulated, caring responses. This may improve the relationships that are so critical to learning (all learning is social and emotional!). In turn, educator job satisfaction and retention may increase.

Adopt & Adapt

Key stakeholders:

  • Universities: The residency component, facilitated via universities, is critical to ensure clinical providers receive training and supervision and that outcomes are measured. A multi-disciplinary approach to training could include schools of social work, medicine, education, and professional programs in psychology, among other areas. Mentor clinicians along with professors and other experts would play an active role in training, supporting and consulting with the residents. Universities would also play a key role in carefully curating the curriculum and assessment models.
  • California Commission on Teaching Credentialing: Why not create an employee services credential (EPS) in addition to the pupil personnel services (PPS) credential? Or some type of credential add-on (like the BCLAD)? PPS credentials are given to school psychologists (who are often doing assessment and client-centered consultation) and counselors (who are few and far between). The CTC has no qualification indicator for persons trained to support a central component of our education system: the teachers.
  • School districts and K-12 schools: During planning and development, school district leadership and instructors assist in the development of program objectives and curriculum. During a pilot phase, district(s) leaders match schools with BH residents. A memorandum of understanding outlines expectations and deliverables.
  • HR departments: Perhaps there needs to be a new job classification that pertains to those who receive an EPS credential or certification along with a Master’s or other degree in a behavioral health related field. The job classification pertains to supporting educator well-being, retention, and effectiveness.
  • Teachers’ unions: It would behoove program developers to consult with local, state and national union leaders about goals, deliverables, data collection methods, vision, and interplay with Employee Assistance services.
  • Length of time to implement: This is a major undertaking that would require an emboldened and innovative leadership structure housed at a University. It could take 2-3 years to plan and implement a pilot.
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