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A new tool to monitor whole-school mental health promotion

Research shows that the best student mental health outcomes happen when wellbeing programs are applied school-wide, yet there has been no simple, brief measure of implementation until now, reports ACER's Katherine Dix.

Successive Australian governments have made improving the capacity of schools to enhance students’ academic achievement and wellbeing a priority, in recognition of the crucial roles they play in identifying and reducing mental health difficulties and in promoting the social and emotional skills that underpin wellbeing. Several major national initiatives to improve student wellbeing are available to schools, and the evidence suggests they are most effective when taken up school-wide.

But implementing any whole-school initiative is a complex undertaking, and there is still little evidence of how schools measure the extent and quality of their implementation and impact. Some researchers cite a lack of appropriate assessment tools as a root cause, saying those available are not quantitative, are cumbersome and challenging to use, fail to capture school-level characteristics and do not allow for psychometric assessment or comparisons between schools.

The Survey of School Promotion of Emotional and Social Health (SSPESH) is designed to measure implementation of mental health promotion at a school-wide level. It was validated using results from a 2015 online survey of almost 600 NSW primary school principals administered as part of the New South Wales Child Development Study (NSW-CDS), an intergenerational study combining the health, education, welfare and justice records of around 90 000 children and their parents in order to identify the childhood factors that promote positive mental health and wellbeing later in life. The SSPESH was developed to investigate how schools factor in a child’s social-emotional development.

The result is a 13-item survey that gives an overall social-emotional health promotion score used to identify where a school sits on a continuum with cut-points for high, moderate and low implementation. It is an approach that has been used successfully in whole-school evaluations before and one that acknowledges the systemic and geographical differences that exist between schools, which affect implementation.

The SSPESH can also serve as a guide for schools in identifying target areas for whole-school improvement in mental health and wellbeing in their community. By scoring subscales, indications are given of a school’s capacity within four health-promoting domains:

  • creating a positive school community
  • teaching social and emotional skills
  • engaging the parent community
  • supporting students experiencing mental health difficulties.

These draw on the World Health Organisation’s Health Promoting Schools Framework, and reflect the national KidsMatter and MindMatters Frameworks.

Assessing program implementation in this way not only describes a school’s current functioning, allowing it to better meet the social and emotional needs of its community, but can be used to measure progress over time and against other schools.

The printable SSPESH tool is available for schools to download and use from the supplementary material of an open access article in School Mental Health. ■

Read the full article: ‘The Survey of Emotional and Social Health (SSPESH): A Brief Measure of Whole-School Mental Health Promotion’ by Katherine L. Dix, Melissa J. Green, Stacy Tzoumakis, Kimberlie Dean, Felicity Harris, Vaughan J. Carr and Kristin R. Laurens.


About the author

Katherine Dix is a Senior Research Fellow in ACER’s Australian Surveys research program.

More [rd] articles by Katherine Dix

View selected works of Katherine Dix

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