One could argue a child's teacher may be more likely than a child's parents to spot the pop-up or beginning stages of a mental health issue.

For nine months out of the year, youth spend at least eight hours of most weekdays within a school's walls.

The role of New Jersey's schools in the area of children's mental health care has evolved immensely over time, and it's one that officials know needs to be on point, not only in high school buildings but middle and elementary schools as well.

This article is the third installment of a week-long series that examines children's mental health in New Jersey.

"Gone are the days when you just pat Johnny on the back and say, 'Tomorrow will be a better day,'" said Carolyn Marano, New Jersey Department of Education's Assistant Commissioner for the Division of Student Services.

Districts lean on the wisdom of trusted adults — from a student's teacher to their lunch lady — to recognize sustained changes in a child's behavior, and count on them to alert the right staff when there are changes spotted. Training of staff, officials say, help workers determine whether students are dealing more with just a bad day.

Specific protocols in schools, Marano said, dictate the professionals in school or in the district that should be notified first in times of concern for a student's well being. If warranted, a risk assessment may be performed — scoring based on a series of questions — to determine whether help beyond school staff is necessary.

"If a child is deemed to have a serious risk, that child has to be cleared by a medical professional before returning to school," Marano said. "There is no guess work involved."

The way an issue presents itself could vary by minor. Some students may have no problem approaching an adult, explaining their situation and asking for help. Others may fall behind on assignments out of nowhere, and shut down socially in and out of the classroom. Schools have to be equipped to work with all of the above.

And schools have picked up on the benefit of being proactive in reducing the likelihood of stresses overwhelming a student, rather than just reactive when a minor shows some chinks in their mental and emotional armor. Marano said she hasn't been to a district "that is not on top of emotional learning."

"So many have meditation rooms, some places have zen gardens, places where children can go ... to self regulate," she said.

Beyond those trained to spot significant changes in a student's behavior, schools have quite the list of staff trained on the emotional, behavioral and mental health needs of students, from guidance counselors to school nurses, said Dr. Kim Buxenbaum, director for the Office of Special Education, under the Division of Student Services. Teachers themselves are likely not licensed mental health professionals, she said, but create very strong relationships with students that give them perhaps the best eye for catching an issue early.

"I think we're seeing in schools more and more that students at younger and younger ages are trying to figure out how to navigate different challenges that come up in their lives," Buxenbaum added. "I think we're also more aware as a populous about mental health and emotional regulation."

Early intervention is key in helping a minor tackle their mental health challenges now and later on in life. The fourth installment of this series will focus on the treatment options available for children in need.

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