ECU psychologists receive $3.8 million to research, improve student mental health

ECU researchers are working to prevent and address emotional and behavioral problems in elementary schoolchildren with the help of a $3.8 million federal grant. 

ECU associate professors of psychology Brandon Schultz, Christy Walcott and Alexander Schoemann received the four-year grant from the Institute for Education Sciences – the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The team will conduct a randomized controlled trial of a school-community partnership focused on improving mental health services in elementary schools known as the Interconnected Systems Framework. 

“Schools have long been tasked with teaching students who have underlying emotional and behavioral issues,” said Walcott, co-investigator and psychology graduate program director. “Although schools are attempting various programs to address behavior and mental health, the outcomes for students with emotional and behavioral problems continue to be disheartening. School services tend to be fragmented and more reactionary than preventative.” 

The grant focuses on building effective interdisciplinary teams, improving decision-making and increasing implementation of evidence-based practices, Walcott said. 

The team, led by Schultz, will test how well the ISF improves the quality of mental health services within Pitt County Schools and the Rock Hill Schools district in South Carolina. “Pitt County Schools has made great strides in recent years toward implementing best practices,” said Schultz. “This project will augment those efforts and potentially provide an innovative, next-generation model for other school districts to emulate.”

The University of South Carolina’s Mark Weist, developer of the ISF and professor of psychology, will coordinate the project with Rock Hill Schools; Orgul Ozturk, USC associate professor of economics, will lead the efforts to calculate cost-benefit ratios for each of the mental health outcomes; and Colleen Halliday of the Medical University of South Carolina will examine whether the ISF reduces disproportionate disciplinary actions for students of color. The effect of the ISF on teacher teams will be the focus of co-investigator Joni Splett at the University of Florida.