Ever since the Parkland shooting, the state of Florida has placed much greater emphasis on mental health services in schools. The state wants every adult who deals with children to be able to help students who are distressed.
That includes school bus drivers.
In the Miami-Dade County Public Schools district, 1,200 bus drivers have to keep their eyes on the road while simultaneously keeping their eyes on the kids.
“Can we spot something that is a little bit different, because that might be a sign of something to look into before it gets much worse?” the instructor is asking a room full of adults.
On this day, the bus drivers are off the road and in classes instead, learning how to spot the signs of a child in crisis as opposed to one who is just misbehaving.
“Are they having a bad day or is this behavior escalating concern that maybe they do need some sort of mental health support?” said Sally Alayon, the assistant superintendent for mental health services.
The course is called, “Youth Mental Health First Aid.” The goal is not to turn bus drivers into psychologists, but rather, to give them tools so that the first adults who see kids in the morning can recognize signs of mental distress they might’ve missed before.
It’s all about preventing the worst outcomes, such as suicides or attacks on other students or faculty.
“It’s not something that a child’s necessarily going to be in trouble, you want to get to the why, why are they experiencing these issues, why are they acting out like this, and then you can establish some services early and get them the support that they need,” Alayon said.
The bus drivers learned about a variety of factors which can cause kids to be depressed, anxiety-ridden, or verbally disruptive.
The instructors discussed everything from schizophrenia to bullying to abuse to economic stress at home.
Can the drivers make a positive impact? “Yes,” answered Marian Thomas, “if we take the right initiative to speak to the kids and not just talk down to them, but listen to them.”
Most of the bus drivers indicated they have seen students acting out on their buses, so they welcome this training.
“Knowing this type of training is good because it gives us a positive impact on how to deal with different situations and different kids and not being so quick to judge and think that they reactions are just being misbehaved, they have a serious problem,” said veteran driver Adrienn Smith.
After what he learned in the training, bus driver Frank James said he will evaluate kids more carefully.
“You handle them totally different, you wouldn’t think that they’re just a problem child, you realize they’re having a situation that they can’t handle themselves so you can help them to handle it.”
The bus drivers are buying in. They are now another layer of support for kids who might need it.