How schools can better address mental health in wake of Sandy Hook shooting

Hindsight may be 20/20, but as we look back, it appears Sandy Hook Elementary School was as well-prepared as it could have been for such a horrific scenario.

Part of the healing process in a tragedy like this is moving forward and implementing procedures that will prevent another awful situation from happening. There are changes to be made in schools throughout the country – and now is the time to make them.

Our schools need to provide more and consistent counseling for all students.

All children can benefit from having a supportive adult with whom they can talk. We need to emphasize the importance of emotional health in our children and their families.

I believe children with special needs benefit from counseling to support their emotional development and enhance their understanding of the challenges they may face.

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    One of the worst things I ever heard in a school was, "We are a school for children with autism. We don't offer counseling." This was said in a district with three school psychologists on staff. It is a travesty that this school district only looked at the diagnosis and not the individual needs of the child.

    When asked what she thought about the school shooting, a friend's daughter said, "It would be a better idea if the shooter could have somebody that he could talk to when he was feeling upset. It's a good idea to have somebody around all the time to listen."

    As I heard these wise words from such a young person, I realized she tackled the question we need to answer: Did Adam Lanza have a support system in place?

    Our schools must employ full time psychologists and counselors.

    Schools will tell many tales of budget cuts, which often result in reducing non-mandated positions from full to part-time. This is unacceptable. We are dealing with mental health issues on a more consistent basis, and as we tackle the support these children need, we need more resources available around the clock.

    Our children need better diagnoses.

    Often, parents and schools accept one primary diagnosis and don't worry about others, because the child is receiving appropriate educational services. The Connecticut shooter may have had Asperger's syndrome, but it is not uncommon for people with disabilities to live with more than one disorder.

    For example, I see this often in children with autism and possible specific learning disabilities. As students gain language and develop social skills, we get a clearer picture of their academic skills as well. I have seen autistic children who struggle more in one academic area than another, and this may be attributed to a learning disability – not necessarily their autism.

    Identifying and diagnosing mental health issues in children is challenging, and we need to better train staff on how to identify risk factors and concerning behaviors.

    Our staff must see something and say something.

    Many schools hire lunchtime and recess aides to monitor students during these unstructured times. Others utilize staff on a rotating basis. There are often between two and five adults monitoring hundreds of children. It's virtually impossible for the adults to have eyes on everyone.

    That said, if staff members see something odd on the playground or in the classroom, they must talk to the child's teacher and the school psychologist. It is important not to pass off all behavior as "kid stuff," even if it means sounding an alarm when there may not be cause for one. This is clearly an instance of 'better safe than sorry.' What may appear as child's play could be an indicator of something more serious.

    The time to take our children's mental health seriously is now. Many schools do a great job of supporting their students’ needs, while others need to heed warnings to better educate and prepare themselves. We must make emotional health and development a priority in all schools if we hope to raise well-adjusted and healthy children, as well as possibly prevent tragedy from striking.