ECU psychologists receive $3.8 million to research, improve student mental health

Helping to prevent and address emotional and behavioral problems in elementary schoolchildren is the long-term goal of a nearly $3.8 million federal grant awarded to researchers at East Carolina University.

ECU associate professors of psychology Dr. Brandon Schultz, Dr. Christy Walcott and Dr. Alexander Schoemann have received a four-year grant from the Institute for Education Sciences — the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The team will conduct a randomized controlled trial of a school-community partnership focused on improving mental health services in elementary schools known as the Interconnected Systems Framework (ISF).

“Schools have long been tasked with teaching students who have underlying emotional and behavioral issues,” said Walcott, co-investigator and psychology graduate program director. “Although schools are attempting various programs to address behavior and mental health, the outcomes for students with emotional and behavioral problems continue to be disheartening. School services tend to be fragmented and more reactionary than preventative.

Schultz and Walcott

Schultz and Walcott discuss the implementation of psychology’s new $3.8 million research grant.

“This grant focuses on building effective interdisciplinary teams, improving decision-making and increasing implementation of evidence-based practices, which is really exciting and should benefit our schools and the larger community. Ultimately, we hope to improve school team functioning and increase student access to the most effective behavioral and mental health supports available,” Walcott said.

The team, led by Schultz, will test how well the ISF improves the quality of mental health services within Pitt County Schools and the Rock Hill Schools district in South Carolina.

“Pitt County Schools has made great strides in recent years toward implementing best practices,” said Schultz. “This project will augment those efforts and potentially provide an innovative, next-generation model for other school districts to emulate.”

University of South Carolina’s Dr. Mark Weist, developer of the ISF and professor of psychology, will coordinate the project with Rock Hill Schools; Dr. Orgul Ozturk, associate professor of economics, will lead the efforts to calculate cost-benefit ratios for each of the mental health outcomes; and Dr. Colleen Halliday of the Medical University of South Carolina will examine whether the ISF reduces disproportionate disciplinary actions for students of color.

The effect of the ISF on teacher teams will be the focus of co-investigator Dr. Joni Splett, at the University of Florida.

“Dr. Splett has extensive experience with the ISF in previous studies and will lead our efforts targeting team development and measurement,” Schultz said. “We expect improved team processes to benefit students in terms of social, emotional, behavioral and academic outcomes.”

Schultz’s team will test enhancements to the implementation guide of the ISF in eight elementary schools in each of the two districts. Early work will include identifying and preparing schools for the project.

“I will help with coaching and implementation support in Pitt County Schools as they use the Interconnected Systems Framework,” said Walcott. “I will coordinate and oversee activities in PCS and serve as a liaison to local mental health providers who are involved with the grant.”

In January, the team will randomize four of the eight local schools to adopt the ISF beginning in the fall of 2022 and running through the 2023-24 academic year. The remaining four schools will continue to implement current mental health practices. A follow-up assessment will occur in 2024-25.

For simplicity, the team will focus its assessment on students entering third grade and follow those students through sixth grade, evaluating their progress up to two times per year. All eight local schools will receive the same resources, including community-based mental health clinicians from Integrated Family Services.

“Student mental health will be measured using teacher reports and student self-reports, as well as academic records, attendance and disciplinary data,” Schultz said. “Our ECU statistician, Dr. Alexander M. Schoemann, will conduct a sophisticated statistical model to assess outcomes while accounting for several complicating factors, including school-level effects that could influence the adoption and implementation quality of the ISF.”

ECU graduate students in school psychology and pediatric school psychology will gain training and research experience by helping consult with school teams and deliver clinical services. Some advanced doctoral students will work with the researchers to learn about administration of a large grant project.

Ultimately, the team hopes its research will provide lasting, future benefits.

“Untreated emotional and behavioral problems can disrupt kids’ functioning at home, school and in the community. Family stress, persistent poverty, exposure to violence, the mental illness of a parent and stressors related to the pandemic all point to a serious need to prevent and address mental health problems among our children,” Walcott said. “Public schools are an ideal place to deliver behavioral and mental health services to all students. Schools are trying hard with the limited resources they are given, and we hope that the Interconnected Systems Framework will enhance the ability of our public schools to address the challenging problems that they face.”