UM Helps Create National Center for Rural School Mental Health

March 06, 2019

MISSOULA – The U.S. Department of Education has awarded nearly $10 million to establish a National Center for Rural School Mental Health. Dr. Ryan Tolleson Knee, a University of Montana social work professor, will co-direct the new center.

Researchers and staff at the new center will create an online data and training system to support the mental health needs of students in rural schools throughout Montana, Missouri and Virginia.

“This national center will develop and provide a wealth of information and resources to rural schools across the three states,” said Tolleson Knee, who already directs UM’s Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development. “Many of Montana’s rural schools have limited access to reliable data, professional development resources and coaching opportunities to adequately address the mental health needs of children and youth. This center will create a framework of support for educators who need those tools.”

Tolleson Knee will co-direct the new center with colleagues Dr. Wendy Reinke at the University of Missouri and Dr. Catherine Bradshaw at the University of Virginia.

Over the next five years, the National Center for Rural School Mental Health will give rural educators and administrators access to scientific research that can help improve student outcomes. Specifically, researchers at the center have developed the “early identification system” – a comprehensive mental health survey meant to identify student mental health concerns in their early stages.

For the past four years, Reinke and her team have collected survey data from K-12 students and their teachers in local school districts. The data collected will help the research team at the national center provide professional development training and coaching to rural educators in the three partner states.

Schools in rural Montana encounter many obstacles when it comes to identifying and preventing behavioral problems that children and youth exhibit.

“By joining a nationally-recognized team in Missouri and Virginia and forming this national center, the University of Montana will reinforce its commitment to conducting research that aligns with the needs of Montanans living in rural communities,” Tolleson Knee said.

Within five years, the research team plans to work with 110 rural schools in Montana, Missouri and Virginia to assess whether or not schools that implement the screeners and trainings experience improve social, behavioral and emotional outcomes from students.

“To date, few school-based programs focused on preventing behavioral and mental health problems have been developed specifically for or tested in rural settings,” Bradshaw said. “Through the center, we will adapt and scale-up a number of effective programs in a way that directly benefits rural schools and communities. This presents a unique opportunity and a bit of a challenge to us as researchers as we work to make these programs fit the needs of rural schools.”

For more information email Tolleson Knee at ryan.tollesonknee@umontana.edu. More information about the Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development is online at http://health.umt.edu/ccfwd/.

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Contact: Ryan Tolleson Knee, UM professor of social work, 406-529-6499, ryan.tollesonknee@mso.umt.edu.