The Wisconsin School Mental Health Framework: Entry Points to Improving Your System

By Liz Krubsack, School Mental Health Consultant and Jess Frain, School Mental Health Consultant, Department of Public Instruction

As discussed in the previous article, The Wisconsin School Mental Health Framework:  Shifting Perspectives about Mental Health, building and sustaining a Comprehensive School Mental Health System (CSMHS) requires schools to establish a shared, accurate understanding of mental health within the school community, as well as a shared commitment to systems change. Once schools have established a shared commitment to systems change, the next entry point to building a more comprehensive and equitable system is to assess the quality of existing mental health efforts. Assessing the system is not only a helpful first step in identifying areas for growth, but is also a necessary part of the ongoing process of continuous quality improvement.

One impactful tool for assessing a district or school’s mental health system is the School Mental Health Quality Assessment (SMHQA). The SMHQA is housed in the School Health Performance and Evaluation System (SHAPE). Developed by the National Center for School Mental Health, SHAPE is a public-access platform that offers schools and districts a free online workspace and targeted resources to support school mental health quality improvement. The quality domains included in SHAPE’s SMHQA align with the components of the Wisconsin School Mental Health Framework, allowing teams to separately assess each domain of their CSMHS. The following image displays this alignment.

Schools and districts planning to complete the assessment should start by gathering a team of stakeholders to provide input on assessment questions.  This team should be multidisciplinary, including stakeholders such as school staff, community partners, and caregivers, and represent the perspectives of historically marginalized groups in the school-community.  Teams have some flexibility in how they go about completing the assessment.  For example, Ashland School District completed the assessment twice, and used a different approach each time.  “The first time we assembled a very large team from every building and all did it, averaging our scores for the different areas.  This year a smaller team compiled information first and then worked on it together coming to a consensus on scores.  We found this way to be a bit easier and more nimble since feedback from the first year was that some people were just guessing on areas that they weren't familiar with,” noted Greta Blancarte, Ashland School District Wellness Coordinator. 

While completing the assessment can feel like a daunting task, the following tips can ensure a smooth and positive experience:

  • Plan to spend about 2 hours completing the assessment.  The assessment can be completed over multiple sessions, and teams can choose which domains they would like to assess. 

  • Avoid getting stalled on one question by setting a time limit for each. Remember, the assessment is meant to provide a snapshot of the system as a whole, and extensive discussion about individual questions can be a barrier to completion. 

  • Each question includes best practices in school mental health, which are a general guide to high quality in each domain. When scoring each question, consider both frequency and number of best practices implemented.

When the assessment is complete, the SHAPE system provides a summary report and planning tool to guide teams through the improvement process. The planning tool helps teams to select an area of focus by considering the need and desire for change in each area and resources and barriers to achieving that change.  Blancarte shared that this process helped the team to “set goals in areas of overall strength by seeing the gaps (such as youth and family voice on our teams) and areas that have a lot of room to grow (such as implementation and fidelity work for our tier II groups). Despite our focus on mental health systems and supports over several years, we knew there were areas that still need a lot of work and this assessment clearly shows us where our efforts can make the most impact.” As teams consider where to focus their time and energy, they can also access a free library of tools and resources housed in the SHAPE system. Once teams have narrowed their focus, they can consider what small changes to day-to-day programs and practices they can make to improve their systems. 

Since SHAPE’s release, 82 school districts in Wisconsin have completed the SMHQA district version as part of their continuous improvement efforts.  One such district, Webster School District, recently completed the assessment as part of a National Learning Collaborative focused on advancing school mental health.  Kelly Ince, District Student Success Coordinator, said that completing the SMHQA “has allowed us to have open, honest, and transparent conversations about what we are doing system-wide. Additionally, utilizing the SHAPE assessment has opened our eyes to not only the areas we need to improve upon, but also validated the great work that we are doing. As a result of using the assessment, we have begun dissecting our needs and are bringing ideas or areas of concern to our administration team to begin creating necessary changes.”  Like Webster, many districts have used the assessment to create momentum for small changes to day-to-day practices that eventually lead to big improvements in their mental health systems.

For additional support with completing the SHAPE assessment, visit the SHAPE website or the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) Comprehensive School Mental Health webpage.  For districts looking for a higher level of support in completing the assessment and engaging in subsequent planning, consider enrolling in AWSA’s 2023-2024 Comprehensive School Mental Health Academy. While registration is not yet open for the 2023-2024 cohort, districts can learn more about the current year’s Academy here.