Recent articles and gatherings, including Prizmah’s Mental Health Summit, have addressed a growing concern about mental health issues in our schools. While creating initiatives to address the mental health needs in our school communities is necessary, the long-term success of these efforts is not guaranteed.
What often happens in schools is that an identified problem, or even an opportunity to improve something, leads to initiatives (or innovations) that are poorly or incompletely implemented, or dropped entirely. In some cases, the problem was misdiagnosed, the solution did not match the problem, the initiative was not well thought out or even needed. It can also happen that the process of engaging the faculty was too top-down and, as a result, there was no real buy-in from teachers.
Just as often, however, the reason for failure is that the school simply did not have the bandwidth to take on a new project. As one colleague used to say, “More things get piled on our plates, but no one gives us more people or more plates!”
Adhering to successful practices in change management will ensure that your initiative in mental health will be well conceived and planned. If you are the one(s) being tasked to introduce new mental health programming, here’s what you need to do so things don’t get messy.
In the language of organizational management, projects that succeed pay attention to a school’s institutional capacity (people, funding, time, management systems, leadership, communication protocols, relationships, technology, ability to assess and monitor) and the school’s Institutional readiness (change management skill sets, history of success, ability to plan, role clarifications, history of collaboration, relationships, consensus on purpose/goals/outcomes, ability to adapt). In other words, your school community may want to solve a problem, or launch an initiative, but you have to ensure that you have the necessary resources and readiness to do so. As leadership guru Warren Bennis points out, it’s the difference between the “desire to do things right” versus the “ability to do the right things.
Administrators are under pressure to innovate, to run “cutting edge” schools, to be first out of the gate to adopt a new educational approach or curriculum. This pressure comes from a variety of sources: board members, donors, parents, even teachers. Some pressure is good. A school should examine its practices and strive for improvement. This is healthy and should be encouraged by the school’s administration, as well as its board.
But a successful school will manage pressure, stick with programs and encourage faculty partnerships. Schools would be wise to follow Douglas Reeves’s Rule of Six: no more than six initiatives at any one time. This includes both new projects and other recently launched initiatives. Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I would like to suggest that a lack of institutional capacity and readiness eats school culture for lunch.
Using the concepts of “institutional capacity” and “institutional readiness,” and engaging your entire school community in this process, is a good way to ensure that your school does the right things, and does them well.
Checklist for a New Program
I would like to propose some questions you and your leadership team might consider asking before launching a new mental health initiative. While the focus here is on mental health, I believe that the following approach can work with all kinds of initiatives.
As you go through this list, I suggest you keep this mantra in mind:
Tafasta merubeh, lo tafasta (the more you grasp, the less you really have). Do fewer things, better.
Capacity and Readiness Inventory
Defining the Problem
- What is the (specific) problem we are trying to solve?
- What does it look like?
- How is it impacting our students, teachers, families, others?
- How important is it? What is the priority?
Why Should We Tackle this Problem?
- How does addressing this issue fit in with our mission and vision?
- Which of the school’s core values are guiding us here?
- Will this initiative force us to drop something from our ongoing strategic plan?
- What if we don’t tackle this problem?
How Will We Discuss This?
- Who are the key people involved in looking at this issue?
- Where will we get our information about this?
- Who needs to know about it?
- What do various constituencies need to know about it?
- Do we have a shared vocabulary—mental health terms, planning terms (goal, input, outcome), education terms (curriculum, unit, lesson, learning goal, assessment)?
- Who will be part of making decisions (about program content, resources needed, prioritizing)?
- Who will “own” this decision?
- Who will decide what other goals or projects will have to be put on hold?
- How much time will it take to plan this initiative?
- How many meetings (# hours) will we need for this?
- What other meetings will drop off in order to do this?
- Who has to be at what kind of meeting (planning, budget, curriculum, other)?
- Do teachers have time to attend some or all of our planning meetings?
- What combination of “plug and play” resources and teacher-made programs are we aiming for?
- What will drop out of our regular classroom and large-group educational programming?
- How much will it cost to implement?
- What role does technology play in this?
- What will be the role of parents?
- Who is in charge of implementing the initiative and individual program(s)?
- Have roles been delegated clearly (goals, how to get things done, assessment protocols)?
- How will administrators adjust their workload/other assignments for this to be successful?
- Will we need to add hours/salary to make this happen?
- How many meetings (# hours) will we need for ongoing management of this initiative?
- What other meetings will drop off in order to do this?
- Who has to be at what meeting?
- Do teachers have time to do this?
- What tasks will the Head of School take on in this effort?
- What will the board and administration communicate to others (parents, teachers, student, donors)? How often?
- In what venues will the Head of School address this?
- What educational/mental health resources will the school make available to teachers and parents?
- What are the criteria for success for each part of our initiative?
- How will we measure? How often will we measure? Who will measure?
- Are we willing to allow ongoing assessments to lead to midstream changes in the program?
- Will teachers be evaluated on how they implement?
- Will administrators be evaluated on how they implement?
- How will the school celebrate progress/success?
- How will post-Covid needs/demands add to the school’s already long to-do list?
- How will post-Covid needs/demands impact the daily schedules of teachers/administrators?
Mental Health Sensitivity Questions
- What are the prevailing beliefs/attitudes about mental health in the school community?
- If there are stigmas attached to mental health, what advanced work must be done to overcome them so that programming will be successful
At this point, you may ask, “Isn’t this a lot of front-loading to undertake before beginning to address mental health issues in our school?” I get it. The need is great and you want to do something NOW.
Here’s one answer: Growing up in LA, I was used to seeing cast members wear T-shirts that advertised their upcoming movies. A shirt for a movie about stuntmen called Stunts had the following tag line: “Forget the dialogue, let’s break something!” Unlike movie stunts, your goal isn’t to break things; it’s to repair what’s broken. Like a carpenter, you need to measure twice and cut once.
Another answer: We read in the Friday night Lecha Dodi prayer: “Sof ma’aseh bemachshavah techilah”—start with the ends in mind. If you don’t know where you’re going or how to get there, you won’t accomplish what you need to, and you’ll be frustrated. Take the time to plan and you’ll ensure success. In the end, you’ll be glad you did.