Turn 2 Us: A School Based Mental Health Promotion and Prevention Program

What if an entire school community (students, parents, cafeteria staff, principals) collectively learned to combat stress & foster wellbeing

Photo of Evelyn Montanez
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Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

As a middle-school student it was evident to me that my siblings and caretaker were struggling with mental health issues, and there were no resources to help my family address these challenges. School personnel nor the pediatricians had access to the information or tools needed to identify or address these issues even though behavioral and emotional problems were on display every day in school. Fifteen years later, in my role as a Social Worker in a school based mental health clinic not much had changed. I witnessed how school personnel reported feeling ill-equipped to manage the array of symptoms witnessed in the school settings and some were even affected by the secondary exposure to their students’ trauma. It was evident that caregivers were still stifled by the stigma and lack of information on mental health and related resources. As a school-based clinician, I provided treatment services to 5% of the students, yet so many others still exhibited an array of symptoms, due in part to the many stressors in their lives. So I was determined to answer the same question I had as a middle school student with the support of a philanthropic foundation and New York Presbyterian Hospital. How can we provide mental health related psychoeducation to school personnel and caregivers so they can promote well-being and academic success while also giving children the tools to learn how to live healthier lives?

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • Hispanic, Latinx, or Spanish origin (for example: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuba, Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian)



Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • New York

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

New York City

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • New York

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

New York City

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Washington Heights has the highest concentration of single teen mothers in Manhattan; one of the highest domestic violence rates in NYC; and, 75% of its youth are born into poverty. Children struggle with familial, environmental and academic stressors (i.e.; homelessness, foster care placement, gang violence, low educational attainment). These stressors are barriers to social and academic progress as they are linked to an array of social/emotional/behavioral symptoms at home and school. The 2nd barrier is the limited dissemination of mental health literacy and training for school staff and parents. This lack of psychoeducation in managing youth stressors and behaviors adds strain on adults which can hinder their ability to maintain their own well-being and support at-risk youth. T2U uniquely develops the skills of parents, students & staff to reduce the impact of such stressors.
Sustainable Solutions: 1) Provide parents and school staff with a series of school-wide psychoeducational workshops, meetings by grades, and 1:1 consults to: a) heighten mental health literacy so all are better equipped to foster wellbeing, identify at-risk behaviors and refer children on-site for mental health support; b) decrease the stigma associated with mental health and help-seeking behaviors; and c) teach all staff/parents self-care practices that mitigate stressors in managing the social/emotional needs of young children, while also balancing the professional/personal demands; 2) Provide all elementary school students in each site (not just targeted students) the opportunity to learn healthy lifestyle practices and mind/body exercises that promote well-being and academic success; 3) Identify youth at-risk for mental health conditions and provide them the opportunity to engage in prosocial recess mentorship and afterschool extracurricular activities such as structured sports and art programs that reinforce social/emotional learning; 4) Provide school administrators and mental health support staff with additional consultation and referral support services to ensure policies and procedures for identifying and referring students for mental health services (not just academic services) are strengthened and met; 5) Provide Father/Child night events to foster parent/child relationships; 6) Strengthen the symbiosis of parents, students & staff to reduce the impact of stressors and foster wellbeing.

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities
  • Other

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Education
  • Mental Health

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

Ms. Rojas shared her struggles with handling disruptive and disrespectful behaviors in her classroom during a grade meeting. After attending a series of staff workshops, she reported utilizing the recommended strategies to re-engage her students and fostered a healthier working relationship with them. Having some of her students in our sports intervention tracks helped to increase classroom compliance as their participation was contingent on behavior. She also stated that being an active participant in our in-class mindfulness exercises helped to mitigate stressors for her and her students. Most importantly she reported feeling less ‘burnt-out’, engaged in less self-blame and was more confident in managing a very complicated classroom.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

1) In 2015, 109 educators completed a pre-post mental health literacy survey (N=56 at intervention school; N=53 at control school). Results from intervention school showed increase in a) familiarity with referring students with mental health needs, b) knowledge of mental health disorders, and c) self-efficacy after T2U intervention was delivered; 2) As in previous study (n=173 students) published in Feb. 2015’s Children & Schools, improved classroom/social performance, attendance & State exam scores in program participants; administrators also reported a decrease in incident reports; 3) Decreased symptoms (i.e. anxiety, disruptive) in previous participants (N=188) were also reported. Study is pending publication; 4) To date we reached over 8,000 students, parents and staff. By publishing the manual we can extensively promote children’s well-being and academic success.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $100k - $250k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

Through publishing the significant program outcomes and the manual, we hope to secure diversified city and state funding. The manual can to serve as an online training tool kit to facilitate implementation the program across many more under-resourced schools. As a vendor for the NYC Education Dept., we can now securing additional funds for capacity-building and sustainability.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

Many organizations specialize in one or two components of the program; however, T2U has a holistic multi-faceted approach to wellbeing: a) Provides continuum of reinforcing services before, during and after school; b) Offers community-building through full staff development (includes school-aides & para-professionals) and parent workshops, rather than just teachers; c) Includes preventative symbiotic self-care and healthy lifestyle practices for staff and parents, rather than just behavioral management strategies for students; d) Promotes wellbeing in targeted and general student populations.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Given recent national attention, there is a slow growing trend in increasing mental health literacy, positive help-seeking behaviors and decreasing stigma. This shift includes understanding the impact of youths’ cumulative stressors, traumas, biological and environmental factors that can hinder academic, social success and healthy relationships. A caring adult relationship is one of the main protective factors in resilient children- heightening adults understanding and ability to better serve children with social/emotional needs is life-changing.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Word of mouth

Program Design Clarity

Beneficiaries: students, parents, caregivers and all school staff. Services are delivered on site during/after school by program manager, social work interns & community partners. Activities: school staff/parents mental health series; in-class mindfulness curriculum; student/parent/staff assemblies on bullying, managing test-taking anxiety, healthy lifestyle practices to boost performance; recess mentorship groups; extracurricular activities for at-risk students; grade specific meetings with teachers to assist with challenging cases; father-child nights; crisis consults, referral management.

Community Leadership

1) Seek input from school staff, parents, students to assess needs & tailor services; 2) Identify/train key staff/parents at each site to ensure sustainability of wellness initiatives; 3) Deliver bi-cultural services to ensure parent access; 4) Link medical, mental health, community programs & schools to foster optimal wellness; 5) Create extracurricular activities in lieu of school funding cuts 6) Administer evaluations after each event

Age of Children Impacted

  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12

Spread Strategies

Dr. Montanez completed a 240-page manual in hopes to train more local schools on mental health promotion and prevention. The toolkits are intended to be uploaded online for replication in schools nationwide. As in the past 10 years, she will continue to present at national and local platforms. This sustainable and adaptable program model can spread nationwide through local community-building and heightening awareness through national platforms.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

A holistic approach to help children thrive: We 1) strengthen the school community’s mental health literacy so it’s better able to promote children’s wellbeing & child/adult relationships; 2) provide all students with tools to enhance problem solving, goal setting and stress management skills which heightens self-efficacy and 3) cultivate a school culture that embraces healthy lifestyle behaviors that lead to well-being for years to come.

Leadership Story

My commitment to social change over the past 30 years have been motivated by accounts of increased father/child involvement; teachers report of increased classroom compliance and sense of competency in addressing the needs of student’s, alumni’s account of the positive impact T2U had on their self-esteem, staff/parents report of increased proactive help-seeking behaviors for self and children. Despite the funding challenges that have greatly impacted our staffing, these accounts and so many more become the driving force and motivator to continue enhancing and expanding T2U.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

2013 - 7th Annual Mid-Career Exemplary Social Work Leader Award of the National Association of Social Workers NYC chapter 2013 - The Long Island Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Chairman’s Award 2010 - Turn 2 Foundation’s MVP Award 2010 - Distinguished Service Award, Duke Ellington School- PS4

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)



Join the conversation:

Photo of Tambra Raye Stevenson

Having worked in youth, trauma and stress at the federal level, I know your work is critical for children to thrive and find a sense of self to navigate this world. Keep pressing and making impact!

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