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Tia Burroughs Clayton, MSS
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Alyson Ferguson, MPH
Chief Operating Officer

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Vivian Figueredo, MPA
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

Derrick M. Gordon, PhD
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Georgia Kioukis, PhD
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Samantha Matlin, PhD
Senior Learning & Community Impact Consultant

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Director of Learning & Community Impact

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Joe Pyle, MA

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Nadia Ward, MEd, PhD
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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Bridget Talone, MFA
Grants Manager for Learning and Community Impact

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Hitomi Yoshida, MSEd
Graduate Fellow

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Ashley Feuer-Edwards, MPA
Learning and Community Impact Consultant

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The Emotional Backpack Project

The Center for School Behavioral Health at Mental Health America of Greater Houston

The Emotional Backpack Project Logo

Program Website
Winner Status:
Program Type:
Training and Skill Building
Target Population:
Providers and Caregivers

Program Description

The Emotional Backpack Project aims to infuse mental health into school culture by providing education and advocacy services to parents, teachers and students so that every child feels supported and able to come to school ready to learn. The first component is a Train-the-Facilitator program. Participating schools select two staff to be trained in delivering mental health, suicide prevention, and trauma modules for staff and parents. Once these trainings are completed, facilitators receive a student-facing suicide prevention module. Additionally, participants are given lesson plans for leading a school-wide “I Wish My Teacher Knew” Campaign to promote positive relationships and communication, as well as a lesson plan for leading a Children’s Mental Health Arts Showcase. After participating in a year of coaching and evaluation, the trained facilitators can access the training modules free of charge for future use in their schools. Additionally, we provide free resources for parents, students and teachers through our Emotional Backpack Toolkits. These toolkits provide easy access to information, books, activities, etc. to talk about mental health, to work on their own challenges, and to connect to services in the Houston region. Additionally, the website provides Public Service Announcements that schools can use to promote mental health.


This project is unique in that it has elements for teachers, parents and students. It is critical that each group be addressed to fully change the culture in our schools. Disseminating information and resources is essential so that people know what to look for and how to access help, but also because awareness helps reduce stigma. When people know more, they are less likely to be afraid. However, changing deep-rooted attitudes and beliefs goes beyond a once-a-year training. The Emotional Backpack Project is special because it provides a space for an ongoing conversation around mental health through the “I Wish My Teacher Knew” Campaign and Children’s Mental Health Arts Showcase. Houston is extremely diverse, and the art and writing elements provide students from every culture with a voice that allows them to participate in the conversation, helping mental health become a valued component of the school culture.


We designed this program with two questions in mind: • How can we centralize various program elements under one umbrella for a larger impact on school culture? • How can we offer individualized programming to schools that is sustainable for both our organization and the school? These questions, coupled with our knowledge of the existing school mental health landscape in Houston, guided our development of the project outline and implementation plan, which included timelines for material development and rollout. Over six years, we have built strong relationships with 26 school districts and 80 community organizations in the area, which allows for easy marketing of the project. Additionally, it is advertised through an 1,800 person email database, and a flyer is distributed at meetings and trainings. Participating schools receive magnets with the Emotional Backpack Toolkits web address to distribute to parents, and backpacks to distribute to students that promote the project.


While access to the online toolkits and PSA’s are free, schools participating in the Train-the-Facilitator pay a $500 registration fee. This provides financial support so that our agency can continue to offer the Project, and also adds to the level of buy-in from school administration. The Project is designed for schools to be able to sustain the programming in future years at no additional fee. The two facilitators can train educators, parents and students in the modules for years to come, which is extremely valuable considering that the educator trainings are mandated by the State of Texas. Over 1 million students attend Houston schools, and some of our largest area districts, including Houston ISD, are committed to bringing the Emotional Backpack Project to their schools. Additionally, international organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children are supporting our efforts to improve the mental health landscape for Houston-area youth.


Because most of the project elements are not specific to Houston—other than local resources and services provided on our website—it can be easily replicated by other organizations. Training manuals, lesson plans, project implementation plans and evaluations already exist, and we are happy to work with organizations to provide training and support as they work to adapt the project to meet their specific community needs. Following Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, the project design was modified to include a disaster-specific trauma module and a mindfulness component. These new components prepare educators for future trauma-related challenges they will likely experience in the classroom by providing strategies and tools for addressing student behaviors as well as their own personal needs. The resulting program could be implemented in any area to assist with man-made or natural disaster recovery.


Preliminary results for the train-the-facilitator model and three-year data on the training modules are: • Participants in the train-the-facilitator program increased knowledge and skills by 11% according to Pre- and Post- test results. • School staff trained by facilitators increased knowledge and skills by 14.5% according to Pre- and Post- test results. • Historical survey data of training modules shows that 91% of participants feel confident in recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental illness, and 90% feel confident in their ability to assist a young person experiencing a mental health crisis and connect them to resources. Additionally, the school mental health culture building activities have been positively received. Regarding the “I Wish My Teacher Knew” activity, one participant said, “The students were so honest and vulnerable – it was an amazing experience for them! Thank you for providing us with this opportunity!” Please see attached documents for additional reflections.