Mental health training starts for Iowa teachers as children's mental health system takes shape

What They're Thinking: Grant Wood Area Education Agency Director John Speer

As Iowa establishes its first children’s mental health system, the state’s nine area education agencies are providing much of the mandated training for educators.

John Speer, director of the Cedar Rapids-based Grant Wood Area Education Agency, said that training is underway.

State lawmakers allocated $2.1 million to the area education agencies, or AEAs, which provide training and professional development to educators in their regions.

While legislation dictates those funds will back “a range of approaches” and “a clearinghouse of mental health resources” — partnerships with outside counseling services and a mental health resource website, for Grant Wood AEA — the majority of state dollars were slated for training.

“Each AEA will get about $200,000,” said Speer, whose AEA serves public and private school districts in seven counties — Linn, Johnson, Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Jones and Washington. “Probably 85 or 90 percent, in the end, will be used to offer mental health first aid.”

Speer talked to The Gazette about the AEA’s role in Iowa’s children’s mental health system, what teacher training will look like and the program’s funding.

Q: What have you heard from the state about funding for the children’s mental health system recently?


A: We’re pretty well down the road and have a good idea of what’s going to happen. The vast majority (of funds we receive) will be used to take all educators through Youth Mental Health First Aid. Each AEA will provide that. … The legislation doesn’t make it clear what “educator” really means, so each district will determine who that is.

The intent of the Legislature, and I think it makes sense, is that any individual that has really regular contact with kids on a daily basis would benefit (from training). Teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals — any support staff that really interact with kids.

Q: What does the curriculum look like?

A: It’s a very prescribed, national program. We have offered it for a number of years — there are 6,000 (local) educators who have already gone through it. But there are tens of thousands or more people in Iowa who haven’t been through it.

It’s a tried-and-tested, nationally recognized program, and what it does is try to help adults who work with kids look for signs of mental health distress. In no way does it try to make teachers who work with kids mental health professionals. … Kids with mental health issues, they manifest differently in each individual. It can look completely different from one situation to the next.

Q: What’s the timeline for these trainings?

A: First Aid (training) is beginning as we speak. ... At our AEA, our staff includes people who can be trainers, but they can only train 30 at a time. We will need a cadre of trainers, and we have a handful already.

These things are underway right now, and we’ll start working with educators beginning in August.

Q: You mentioned each AEA will have about $200,000 to provide these services. Can you contextualize how much money that is for Grant Wood AEA?

A: This really just has to be a first step. Though $200,000 sounds like a lot of money, I think every AEA will spend more than that to deliver this Mental Health First Aid in the state. It doesn’t really cover the cost, but it helps that we have the funds geared toward something really important.


But this can only be looked at as a first step — we can identify the students we have who are in our districts, but the next step is, how do we help them? That’s a very expensive and complicated process.

Clearly, this is a very expensive issue, but it’s maybe the most important issue we’re dealing with right now in education and in the state.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: No one group of people is going to solve this problem. It’s going to take each AEA, private providers, nonprofit providers — there is such a need for work in this area. It requires us all to work and partner together. There can’t be any turf battles in this issue because it will take all of us to really affect change and help kids.

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