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Mental Health
May 10, 2022

Mental Health Matters: 12 Things I Learned From an International PBIS Conference

Mental health and social-emotional learning were trending topics at this year’s Association for Positive Behavior Supports Conference. These are 12 tips, tricks, and resources we learned from the experts that can support everyone’s mental health in your school.

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It’s been two years of cancelled conferences and virtual events, but this year we busted out of the office and took our show on the road! Our PBISApps colleagues attended not one, not two, but three in-person events this April. We were at the Northwest PBIS Conference in Tacoma, WA, the Association for Positive Behavior Supports Conference in San Diego, CA, and for the first time ever, the National Training Institute’s Addressing Challenging Behavior Conference in Tampa, FL.

Did I mention these conferences happened back-to-back-to-back? Yeah. We were booked and busy and so excited to see faces in real life.

We also found time to check out some sessions while we were there. Each conference grouped sessions by strands to help folks stay focused on the topics they wanted to explore. Following strands make it easy to build on concepts and explore the way other folks implement these practices where they work. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, we focused our attention on sessions related to social-emotional learning, mental health, and building communities of care.

It would be impossible to sit in on every single session in-person, so after the conferences ended, organizers unlocked hours of recorded sessions online. [If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it’s how to record someone talking and put that video online!] So, I sat down at my desk – with a full coffee cup and a blank Word document – and I proceeded to watch no less than seven hours of sessions from the APBS conference all about how to support mental health in schools.

Here are the top 12 tips I heard during my conference-session binge-watch…plus a couple of bonus tips at the end…because we’re friends.

1. Cultivate a Community of Care

Kim Dupre and Regina Pierce from Virginia Commonwealth University and the Virginia Tiered Systems of Supports challenged those attending their session to start cultivating schools where adults know they can take the time they need for self-care. One practice they highlighted comes from Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville, TN. It’s called Tap-in Tap-out.

Tap-in Tap-out is a simple text chain where colleagues with complementary schedules can send a message any time they could use support. Whether they need a quick break, or there’s a student having a hard time calming down, anyone can jump on the chain and ask if someone has a second to help. It’s an incredible practice and one that works great within a school-wide culture that centers wellness for both students and staff alike.

2. Add “When I feel Upset/Frustrated” to Classroom Behavior Teaching Matrix

Classroom behavior teaching matrices are great for helping students know what your expectations look like during different activities within your room. While we often think about teaching students what school-wide expectations look like during class-wide activities, focused learning times, or transitions, we think less often about adding information about what expectations look like when students feel frustrated or upset. Kim and Regina suggested adding “When I feel upset/frustrated” to the list of activities in your classroom behavior teaching matrix. The Center on PBIS has a practice guide you can download with examples of classroom matrices. Kim and Regina shared an example that looked like this:

Expectation Class-wide Entering Class Whole Class Activities Small Group Activities Transitions Feeling Upset/Frustrated
Be Respectful Communicate with a teacher/adult
Use kind words
Be Responsible Identify your emotion
Be Safe Use a coping strategy:
- 10 deep breaths
- Ask to use the calming corner

3. Download the Healthy Minds App

In their session about promoting social-emotional well being, Cristy Clouse and Barbara Kelley from the California Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavior Support shared an app they’ve been using at work. Healthy Minds is a free meditation app from Healthy Minds Innovations. The app takes you through a series of lessons, practices, and guided meditations you can do while you’re at your desk or out for a walk. You’ll learn about what science has to say about the way your brain works to keep you healthy and engaged. Even if you only have a minute to spare, the app has something to offer everyone’s schedule.

4. Conduct a Mindful Meditation

Cristy and Barbara also took their session through a quick, 5-minute open awareness meditation. They asked us to notice the way we felt, our thoughts, the sounds happening around us. They asked us simply to notice things, without judgement. I noticed my shoulders were tense and I was slouching (like I always do) in my chair. I relaxed my shoulders and sat up straighter. I felt better.

What if you incorporated something like this into the five minutes before a math test, or a transition to reading groups, or at the beginning of a staff meeting? It could give people the time they need to collect themselves, relax, and prepare for what’s coming up. Check out this 10-minute tour of the senses offered by Healthy Minds Innovations or this 10-minute meditation from the folks at Calm.

5. Download the Interconnected Systems Framework Practice Guide

In the collaborative session between Bob Putnam from The May Institute and Joyce West from Gardner Public Schools, presenters shared how they implemented the Interconnected Systems Framework (ISF) in the district. ISF is a way to blend the strengths of PBIS and school mental health into a single delivery system. It’s also a framework not everyone knows about, so Bob suggested folks check out the ISF practice guide from The Center on PBIS. The guide highlights practical strategies for how schools can strengthen their PBIS system by including families and community partners to expand the social, emotional and behavioral supports they offer.

6. Conduct a Mental Health Roundtable

Joyce West from Gardner Public Schools said one practice they implemented at the beginning of their ISF journey was pulling together all mental health professionals from across the district into the same room. Once everyone was collected, they had each person share with their colleagues what their role is in the district and how they support students. By bringing together school psychologists, social workers, counselors, behavior analysts, and school-based care coordinators, everyone learned about the services available within the district and started to consider ways they could all work together to achieve more efficient and effective outcomes.

7. Watch for the Upcoming De-Escalation Practice Brief

Brian Meyer and Ami Flammini from the Midwest PBIS Network presented about de-escalation in one of the most inspiring presentations I was able to watch. So much of what they shared will be available in a soon-to-be released practice brief offered by The Center on PBIS. [Spoiler alert: They’ll teach you about the phases of de-escalation and what you can do at each stage to support yourself and your students through those tough moments!] If you’ve struggled with knowing how to handle more intense behaviors happening in your classroom this year, you’re going to want to keep your eyes peeled on The Center on PBIS’ social media channels (they're on Twitter and Facebook) as well as their website for the announcement that this brief is available.

8. Treat De-escalation as a School-wide Practice

A central theme to Brian and Ami’s session was how de-escalation strategies should be taught to everyone in your school, even the adults, as a Tier 1 practice. If you’ve never practiced the strategies to keep yourself calm, how will you know what to do in the moment when you’re upset? Taking the time to practice those skills when you’re in a calm, regulated state, helps you know what to do when you feel a triggering event coming on. Those skills are good for everyone. So, teach them school-wide.

9. Name Your Triggers

When I’m in the middle of an escalating situation, the last thing I want to hear is my name called over, and over, and over, and over again.

Everyone has something that causes their tension to snap. It’s the badgering, for me. Brian and Ami encourage us to name our biggest triggers, the actions that send us to our vulnerable decision points and cause us to make decisions influenced by our unconscious biases. When you know your triggers, you can plan how you’ll respond when they happen. Brian and Ami gave us a list of six common triggers. Which one sends you over the edge? What could you do to de-escalate when it happens?

  1. Badgering: When you hear, “Please, please, please, please…”
  2. Intimidation: Students throwing temper tantrums or showing aggression
  3. Threat: Students saying, “I’m going to run away!”
  4. Martyrdom: When a student says, “It’s because you don’t like me.”
  5. Butter Up: Whenever someone says something like, “Ms. Cave, you’re my favorite teacher.”
  6. Physical: When someone starts fighting, throwing objects, or otherwise damaging property

10. Partner Up

Tim Knoster from Bloomsburg University presented a session about partnering with community organizations to improve the social-emotional supports schools offer. During his session, he said something that may resonate with you like it did with me. “Schools, in many ways, have increasingly become the de-facto mental health provider for the majority of our nation’s youth.” Do you feel that this year? It’s a lot to manage on top of everything else you do during the day. One way to ease some of that responsibility is to partner up with community organizations that also provide mental health support where you live. Tim offered three questions to ask yourself as you consider which partnerships make the most sense for your school.

  1. What’s your vision? Knowing what you hope to achieve keeps you focused on the support you need to provide.
  2. What are you already doing to fulfill that vision and what are other people doing in your community to achieve a similar purpose? Look where your efforts overlap with what other organizations do in your community and start making a list of those organizations and what they offer.
  3. Which partners are the most pivotal to collaborate with? Time to prioritize. Once you have a list of partners, think about the supports you need more urgently than others. The partners providing those services might be the most important ones to connect with first.

11. Assess the Fundamentals

Kristin Moore and Tara Zomouse held a session on how to identify whether a behavior is just a behavior or if it’s an indicator of an underlying mental health issue. Essential to answering this question is knowing there is a strong foundation in place to support individual student needs as well as your school-wide community. Specifically:

  • Are students’ basic physiological needs being met? They have food, water, rest, all of their basic needs addressed.
  • Does your curriculum and instruction match student needs? Students are engaged in material aligned with their academic needs. You’ve provided them with opportunities to interact with each other and, where it’s appropriate, you can adapt your lessons to address everyone’s learning styles.
  • Are your Tier 1 PBIS systems and practices in place? School-wide systems and practices ensure everyone understands the way your school works. You can’t know who needs additional support if you don’t have a solid school-wide foundation in place first. Aren’t sure how things lookin your school? Take the Tiered Fidelity Inventory and actively assess how you’re doing at the school-wide level.

12. Describe the Ideal Classroom

Kristin and Tara asked two students they worked with what their ideal classroom would look like. One student drew a picture. Another student described it aloud. While it’s a practice they conducted with individual students as part of a behavioral assessment, it’s also a practice you can do with your students at the beginning of the year. Engaging your students to create a classroom where they feel successful is so important. You won’t know what they need until you ask. So have them draw, write, or share out loud how an ideal classroom would look and feel. Where you notice themes, implement those ideas!

Bonus Tip: Look Up Tucker the Turtle

Our early childhood educators know Tucker the Turtle well. He made an appearance at the National Training Institute’s Addressing Challenging Behavior conference. Tucker the Turtle Takes Time to Tuck and Think is an interactive story you can use to help children, their families, and their caregivers navigate big feelings. The story along with the teacher’s guide is available on the Challenging Behavior website.

Ok, One More Tip: Watch Dr. Erika McDowell’s Keynote Session

Dr. Erika McDowell was the keynote speaker at the Northwest PBIS Conference this year and what a kickoff it was! She started her presentation by getting everyone on their feet to sing and dance to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and ended with Mariah Carey’s “Make It Happen”. She was equal parts motivational and instructional, and in the end, she inspired everyone in the room to start creating school-wide communities where everyone feels like they belong.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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