New UA Center Aims to Improve Behavior, Mental Health in Schools

New UA Center Aims to Improve Behavior, Mental Health in Schools

Dr. McDaniel sits at the head of table with others around her.
Dr. Sara McDaniel will lead a new center focused on improving approaches by primary and secondary schools to behavioral challenges and mental health.

The University of Alabama has strengthened its role as the leader in the state for improving education for primary and secondary education students through encouraging alternative discipline methods and supporting students with mental health issues.

The Board of Trustees of The University of Alabama recently approved establishing the research-designated Center for Interconnected Behavioral and Mental Health Systems, or CIBMHS, which combines existing research and service efforts on campus under one organization to boost schools and prepare educators who can implement the methods.

“This new Center is actually the first in the country, and we are very excited to fill the gap between organizations and structures that occur not only in our University but also in schools and districts,” said Dr. Sara McDaniel, who will serve as the center’s director and is associate professor special education and multiple abilities.

The center will integrate methods and interventions from across different disciplines to improve behavior and mental health prevention and treatment for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. The CIBMHS aims to conduct rigorous, federally-funded research in the areas of positive behavioral interventions and supports and school-based mental health, also known as Interconnected Systems Framework.

“Schools often view discipline and mental health in students as separate concerns with a separate set of procedures, but, in reality, these issues are extremely interrelated,” said Dr. Daniel Cohen, center co-director and UA assistant professor of school psychology. “Our work will help schools take an integrated and systems level approach to supporting students in these areas.”

While schools across the country have made headway in adopting ways to teach academic content, the implementation of the same type of approach to address behavioral and mental health concerns has lagged. The positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS, framework helps prevent and improve outcomes for students with challenging behavior.

It expands on the work led by McDaniel through the Alabama Positive Behavior Support Office in the UA College of Education, a statewide technical assistance and research agency focused on preventing challenging behavior, improving school climate and student outcomes, and supporting students at-risk for, and with, disabilities. The office will continue its work under the new center.

The new center will focus on connections between the methods of PBIS and school-based mental health through the Interconnected Systems Framework.

“We look forward to conducting innovative, important research across the k-12 continuum including out-of-school time programs like afterschool and summer programs, not just in Alabama but hopefully nationally representative research,” McDaniel said. “In our state, this research will benefit k-12 students, their teachers, caregivers, and our University students who need training and research experiences.”

The center will mean more graduate students who receive experience training and coaching schools across Alabama to use the integrated systems along with undergraduate students who are trained in mental health related content such as suicide and bullying preventions.

“We hope to continue to fund students who can receive critical research and practical experience as well as create a strand of mental health trainings for pre-service and in-service teachers in our College that would include suicide prevention, bullying prevention and mental health awareness,” McDaniel said.