A Leader’s Guide to School-Based Mental Health Support

by The EmpowerU Team on May 16, 2022

Education leaders shine brightest when their teams bring varied experience, skills and perspectives to the decision making table. Social-emotional learning, or SEL education, is no exception. Student services, MTSS and counseling leaders are the most likely roles to offer leadership and expertise on supporting student social and emotional health.

School-based mental health services have been shown to create the most equitable access for students most in need of help. And there are five things any leader — regardless of training or background — should know when it’s time to make a decision about SEL programs that can create these supports in a school system:

The skills are fundamental

Self regulation. Conflict resolution. Motivation. Responsible decision making. Accountability. Respect. Safety. Self worth. These are among the skills built through a school-based mental health system that includes social-emotional learning.

From birth through adolescence and beyond, a person’s life and school experience is filled with relationships and emotions. And the ability to manage these in healthy ways, even when the road gets bumpy, plays a significant role in creating a fulfilling and happy life.

The skills a student builds through SEL education are essential to navigate and thrive in school, college, career and life. These skills, such as problem-solving, managing emotions, communication and teamwork, also improve a student's academic learning, attendance and test scores. 

This approach is not new

Rooted in science and demonstrated through data, SEL education has been part of the education landscape for more than 20 years. A thorough collection of research, reports and best practices is available from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, most often referred to as CASEL

“SEL may seem like the latest buzzword, but the reality is that it’s been an integral part of education for decades,” said Katie Dorn, LSC, MFT. “The approach is sometimes labeled differently, such as whole child education or character education. But SEL research and implementation has been helping kids, adults and communities for decades.” 

An experienced licensed K-12 counselor and therapist, Dorn is CEO and co-founder of EmpowerU. The EmpowerU team partners with schools to deliver outcomes-based SEL curriculum and Tier 2 interventions. 

"The one big change we are seeing everywhere right now," Dorn said, "The growing youth mental health crisis has school leaders desperate for the capacity to meet it. It's all but impossible to meet this need with current staff teams, and hiring is just as hard. It is time to rethink this equation."

MTSS, SEL and PBIS work together

Social-emotional learning can create positive change and improve student mental health when it works inside a school’s multi-tiered system of supports, or MTSS, framework. It is also integral to a positive behavior supports, or PBIS, approach to learning and classroom management. 

“It’s not just important that SEL fits into a bigger framework, it’s critical” Dorn said. “MTSS and PBIS can’t fully succeed without a firm foundation of evidence-based SEL. But when a school takes an integrated approach, social-emotional learning has the power to drive the goals and objectives of MTSS and PBIS in lasting ways.”

In the language of MTSS, Tier 1 SEL is a universal curriculum, taught to all students. Tier 2 interventions are targeted to support individuals or small groups in need of more focused, specific skill building. And Tier 3 is customized to evaluate and support students with highest needs. The goal of Tier 2 and Tier 3 is to provide extra support for skill building to help students eventually succeed in a lower Tier, including universal Tier 1. A successful SEL implementation should help a school reduce costly testing and implementation of IEP and 504 Plans, as students gain the skills to succeed as learners without intense individualized support.


These skills form the foundation of success
in school and in life. And they support all other
outcomes, both academic and behavioral. 


In fact, CASEL research shows that SEL programs meeting quality standards have boosted students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points, along with improved classroom behavior, stress management and attitudes about themselves and others.

Data matters

Measuring growth and learning is fundamental to teaching and learning. Schools invest significant time and resources to understand the growth of students, both as individuals and as cohort groups. SEL education must take the same approach.

“If you can’t measure SEL,” Dorn said, “what’s the point? I’ve never met a school leader who has time or money to waste. No leader should settle for a SEL program that lacks the ability to monitor progress and measure results.” 

Dorn recommends working with any provider to understand the approach to outcomes and data. Ask about integration and support for screener tools and other progress monitoring systems that are used in your school. And request samples of the reporting that you can expect to receive from the SEL partner, whether real-time or at specified points throughout the year.

The EmpowerU approach to measurement uses the Transtheoretical Change Model, based on the long-respected research of James O. Prochaska, Ph.D. and Carlo DiClemente, Ph.D. 




Fidelity of implementation is key

Whether reading, science or SEL, the success of any learning program is only as strong as the person teaching it. Many times, schools rely on their teaching staff or education support professionals to help deliver a SEL curriculum and interventions. Given the ratio of counselors to students, this approach makes a lot of sense. But long-term results will suffer without an approach focused on fidelity.

To gain real benefits, fidelity of implementation goes far beyond an evidence-based curriculum or intervention. It means that the person teaching consistently uses the best practices of SEL education. Most schools cannot possibly rely on counselors to meet the growing Tier 2 behavior needs of students — much less the universal needs taught to all students through a curriculum. 

Whether Tier 1 or Tier 2, Dorn recommends looking for a turnkey approach to delivery to improve fidelity of implementation. When it comes to technology solutions, she stresses that it must be intentionally designed to enhance school-based relationships to be worth considering.

“At its very heart, SEL is relationship,” Dorn said. “Technology has the power to connect more kids and teenagers to the highly-trained support they need. But technology on its own doesn’t solve the problem. What our world needs right now is a way to help more students, quickly — without sacrificing relationships or results.”






EmpowerU’s highly personalized, data-driven SEL Tier 1 and Tier 2 solutions equip students to be resilient, self-directed learners and reach their goals — without additional hires or a heavy lift from schools. The program provides each student with interactive lessons and personalized coaching, pairing technology with brain research in a unique way that supports students, empowers their growth and reduces feelings of anxiety and depression. Multi-year data makes it clear: nobody understands Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and approaches SEL the way EmpowerU does.

Topics: social emotional learning programs