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Researchers receive $3.1M grant to investigate the sustainment of mental health programs in schools

A grant from the National Institute of Mental Health will enable VCU researchers to study whether evidence-based mental health programs in schools continue after research support is removed.
elementary school student writing at his desk in a classroom

The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded a $3.1 million grant to Virginia Commonwealth University researchers to study whether evidence-based mental health programs in schools continue after research support is removed.

“Researchers have developed a number of evidence-based programs that reduce the risk of children developing mental health disorders,” said co-principal investigator Bryce McLeod, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “However, these evidence-based programs are rarely sustained in schools once the research funding ends, which reduces the long-term impact of the programs. Research that identifies barriers to sustainment is thus needed.”

The study, “Multilevel Determinants of Implementation and Sustainment in the Education Sector,” will seek to address that gap by identifying teacher, intervention and school-level factors that influence sustainment, or whether teachers continue to use evidence-based practices.

“Long term we hope that the work will help us understand how to reduce the risk of children developing mental health disorders,” McLeod said.

Researchers have done a good job developing evidence-based programs that reduce the risk of mental health problems in children, he said, but more work needs to be done to determine how to get those programs into the community and school settings where children need them the most.

bryce mcleod
Bryce McLeod, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Psychology

“This research will help increase the public health impact of school-based prevention programs by identifying how we can sustain those programs in school settings over a long period of time,” he said.

Kevin Sutherland, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education in the School of Education, is a co-principal investigator on the grant. Sutherland co-developed an evidence-based program in schools called BEST in CLASS, which aims to reduce problem behavior of young students with — and at risk for — emotional/behavioral disorders by improving teacher-student interactions and relationships.

“We're particularly excited about this project because it will help us learn about how to better support teachers and other school personnel to best meet the mental health needs of children in elementary schools,” Sutherland said. “We are fortunate to be able to leverage the work we're doing with BEST in CLASS to help better understand how teachers continue to use, or don't continue to use, evidence-based practices that they are trained and coached on in programs such as BEST in CLASS in subsequent years when these coaching supports are no longer available.”

kevin sutherland
Kevin Sutherland, Ph.D. a professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education

Sutherland added that the team hopes what they learn from this study will contribute to their work in supporting schools and teachers to best meet the needs of the students who need it most.

The study will take place in elementary schools in Virginia and Florida. The researchers will work closely with teachers and administrators over the course of an academic year to gather data through questionnaires, classroom observations, and interviews to understand the factors that influence sustainment of evidence-based practices.

In addition to McLeod and Sutherland, the project will involve co-investigators Kristen Granger, Ph.D., research faculty in the School of Education; Maureen Conroy, Ph.D., the Anita Zucker Endowed Professor in Early Childhood Studies and a professor in the School of Special Education, School Psychology, and Early Childhood Studies at the University of Florida; Aaron Lyon, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington; and senior research scientists Jason Chapman, Ph.D., and Lisa Saldana, Ph.D., of the Oregon Social Learning Center.

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