Maine Schools in Focus: Prevention and Intervention—Addressing the Complex Needs of Students with Mental Health and Behavioral Challenges

MSinF - Prevention and Intervention
Jim Artesani, Associate Professor of Special Education/University of Maine

Schools in Maine and across the country face a wide variety of complex challenges as they seek to provide effective and equitable educational opportunities for their students. Teachers are tasked, both in state and federal legislation and in public discourse, with educating all students and adhering to high standards of achievement. While these are laudable goals, the challenges inherent in their accomplishment are widely underestimated.

A growing body of research has demonstrated what educators have long alleged: mental health and social/behavioral competence play a significant role in academic achievement, as well as in each student’s capacity to meet educational standards (DiPerna & Elliott, 2002; Diperna, 2006). Further, decades of research have confirmed that complex and interrelated biological, familial, community, and school risk factors can create pathways toward a host of negative school and life outcomes for far too many students (Reid, Patterson, & Snyder, 2002). Addressing such concerns typically requires schools to expand their capacity to identify, implement, and sustain effective mental health and behavioral services, as well as increase their collaboration with related community agencies.

A greater understanding of the serious and often long-lasting effects of complex risk factors has led to the development of systems-oriented models of prevention and intervention. Researchers over the past 30 years have demonstrated that evidence-based practices implemented through the coordinated efforts of knowledgeable and skilled professionals, nurturing family members, and other caring adults can have profound positive effects on students at risk. Over time, prevention and intervention have proven to be a coherent conceptual model for guiding research and practice aimed at addressing the multifaceted needs of students considered to be at risk and their families.

More recently, district and school-wide multi-tiered systems of prevention have emerged as the primary organizational framework for the delivery of evidence-based services to meet the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of all students. Two prime examples of multi-tiered systems of prevention in schools are Response to Intervention (RtI) and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support (PBIS), which are utilized in a growing number of schools across the country, including Maine. It is important to note that PBIS and RtI are not programs; they are organizational frameworks for the systematic implementation of the effective practice. Each district and school chooses the specific approaches to be included in their support system. Recently, researchers and practitioners have shown an increased interest in integrating various methods into the system of prevention. While many practices can be successfully integrated (and studies have indicated that this is a promising direction), trying to implement too many programs too quickly is a common pitfall. Not surprisingly, this often leads to a sense of initiative overload among staff members, a duplication of efforts, the inefficient use of limited resources, and most importantly, unsatisfactory student outcomes. This is particularly evident when schools attempt to integrate multiple large-scale initiatives, such as PBIS, trauma-informed care, restorative practices, and schoolwide bullying prevention, along with a host of social skills curricula. Successfully assimilating such approaches is a complex undertaking that should be done with a great deal of pre-planning. Given the organizational structure provided by multi-tiered systems, such as PBIS, it makes sense to begin by implementing that framework and then integrating approaches, such as trauma-informed practices. It is essential that the addition of new practices does not get ahead of establishing a system to support their implementation adequately. Further, when building multi-tiered systems of support developing a strong foundational tier is the key to success.

Although there are many challenges, schools have well-researched, system-oriented organizational frameworks to guide the development of prevention and intervention in their schools. Moreover, there has been a dramatic increase in the availability of effective emotional and behavioral practices that schools can incorporate into their systems of prevention. That said, it is essential to keep in mind that the benefits of well-conceived systems and evidence-based methods of prevention and intervention are best achieved when implemented by compassionate adults, ready and willing to create supportive and caring environments. According to the Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, a single stable and committed relationship with a parent or other caring adult is the most frequently cited factor in the lives of children that develop resiliency to risk. They advocate the creation of “an environment of relationships” to support mental and emotional well-being and behavioral growth. Similarly, Anthony Biglan, noted Senior Scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, reminds us in The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World that the science of prevention and intervention has dramatically expanded our ability to support students at risk, but it is not a replacement for genuine caring relationships and nurturing environments. He maintains that nurturing environments are an essential component of prevention and intervention services.

This brief closes with a list of core features of prevention efforts in schools and questions to consider.

Cornerstones of prevention in schools include:

  • Caring adults
  • Nurturing environments
  • Culturally responsive programming
  • Systems orientation
  • Theory-driven evidence-based practice
  • Family involvement
  • Early intervention for young children
  • Rapid response for later-onset concerns
  • Intensity and duration of services that match student needs
  • Delivered across multiple settings (e.g., individual, home, school, community)
  • Collaboration between key stakeholders in home, school, and community and mental health agencies.

In Maine, schools have partnered with faculty from University of Maine, University of Southern Maine, and University of Maine at Farmington to implement systems of prevention and intervention, particularly PBIS. At this time, students from University of Maine’s doctoral program in Prevention and Intervention Studies are also playing a pivotal role in securing grant funding, collaborating with the Maine Department of Education, and providing professional development and coaching to 46 schools throughout the state, including remote rural locations.

Questions for Consideration

Despite the progress described in this paper, important questions remain:

  1. Given the rural nature of Maine, how can educators in rural areas access sufficient professional development and ongoing support to make sustainable implementation possible?
  2. How can Maine organize and utilize its professional development resources to initiate and sustain district and schoolwide systems change efforts over time, especially in remote, rural areas?
  3. How do districts and schools in rural and/or impoverished communities identify and capitalize on local strengths to implement evidence-based approaches given limited resources, both in schools and in the community?
  4. Given the broad array of environmental factors that affect the development of children and youth, what are effective strategies for building trusting relationships and improving collaboration between schools, families, community mental health services, and other interested community members? Moreover, how do schools and researchers more effectively disseminate successful experiences and recent research findings regarding this foundational component of effective prevention and intervention?

Readers interested in this topic are also encouraged to read previous MSiF contributions by Catherine Biddle and Ian Mette, and Courtney Angelosante, which address issues closely related to those discussed in this brief.


Biglan, A. (2015). The nurture effect: How the science of human behavior can improve our lives and our world. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2016). From Best Practices to Breakthrough Impacts: A Science-Based Approach to Building a More Promising Future for Young Children and Families. Retrieved from

DiPerna, J. C. (2006). Academic enablers and student achievement: Implications for Assessment and intervention services in the schools. Psychology in the Schools, 43, 7-17.

DiPerna, J. C., & Elliott, S. N. (2002). Promoting academic enablers to improve student achievement: An introduction to the mini-series. School Psychology Review, 31, 293-97.

Reid, J.B., Patterson, G.R., & Snyder, J.J. (Eds.). (2002). Antisocial behavior in Children and Adolescents: A developmental analysis and model for intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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Any opinions, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Maine Schools in Focus briefs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect institutional positions or views of the College of Education and Human Development or the University of Maine.