Across the United States, up to one in five children suffers from a mental disorder in a given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This equates to more than 17 million young people who meet criteria for disorders that affect their ability to learn, behave, and express their emotions.

Giving children access to mental-health resources early in their education, however, can play a key role in mitigating negative consequences later in life, said David Anderson, the senior director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute.

“It’s during childhood and adolescence where we have a large concentration of mental-health issues, and school is where many kids are spending a large portion of their day. That makes school the perfect place to focus mental-health resources,” Anderson said. “Waiting too long to pay attention to student mental health can easily lead to school dropouts or other problems later in life.

 Yet the majority of the nation’s youngest students don’t have access to mental-health resources at school. Only 23 percent of prekindergarten programs have on-site or scheduled visits from psychiatrists or psychologists, according to the Child Mind Institute’s 2016 Children’s Mental Health Report. The current shortage of mental-health professionals, which is expected to continue, only exacerbates the problem. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration projects that 12,624 child and adolescent psychologists will be needed to meet demand by 2020, but a supply of only 8,312 is expected.

With a lack of mental-health professionals placed in schools, the responsibility to address the needs of children with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges often falls on classroom teachers. This amplifies the call to incorporate learning that focuses on students’ mental health and well-being into daily classroom activities—something that can be beneficial for all children, not just those with diagnosable conditions.

One way classroom teachers can make mental health a more robust part of the school day is by integrating mental-health topics into already existing curricula. A recent study of the Mental Health Matters curriculum proves that the program, which is incorporated into sixth-grade English language-arts classes, is successful in increasing participants’ knowledge of mental-health illnesses and decreasing associated stigmas.

However, only 34 percent of teachers believe that they have the necessary skills to meet their students’ mental-health needs, according to a 2011 School Psychology Quarterly study. Without the proper training and guidance to accommodate students with conditions like ADHD, anxiety, and behavioral problems, teachers are more likely to experience additional stress on the job. And when teachers are stressed, they’re far more likely to rely on expulsion to manage children who struggle with behavior problems, according to Walter S. Gilliam, the director of The Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at the Yale Child Study Center.

The repercussions of expulsion and suspension in early education can severely compromise a child’s chance at success later in life. This type of disciplinary action is linked to underemployment, unemployment, and higher rates of incarceration. Suspended students are twice as likely to repeat a grade, and three times as likely to be in contact with the law within a year, according to the Child Mind Institute’s report.

When preschoolers are given access to mental-health services, expulsions are reduced by 47 percent, but prevention-based programs that teach young students how to contend with their emotions in a positive way rather than focus on punishment for negative behavior are more rare, Anderson said. “What we see much more of are intervention programs at later grade levels, and by then it may be too little or too late,” he said.

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