Whenever a massacre occurs at an American school, such as at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, there is often discussion as to whether school officials may have missed any “red flags”.
As a researcher who specializes in supporting student mental health, I believe important issues have been overlooked in these discussions. To stop school violence, the discussion must shift. Instead of what schools have missed, the emphasis should be on how schools can be more proactive about identifying students with mental health needs before they display signs of distress.
Ideally, the school should be a setting in which all youth care adults have frequent access. A typical primary school teacher will spend more than 1,000 hours with students per school year and thus will be in an ideal position to recognize behavioral and emotional changes in students.
However, teachers rarely receive training in mental and behavioral health, making them more likely to focus on student behaviors that impede instruction, such as aggression and turn-taking. It is little surprise that sending children to the office – known as office discipline referral – remains the primary mechanism for identifying students in need of emotional, behavioral and mental health support.
the challenges of being more active
Increasingly, schools have adopted a framework known as Positive Behavior Intervention and Support, which is a proactive system for teaching essential social skills and preventing subsequent behavior problems. This system is meant to create a positive school environment through support at the school, classroom and individual levels. This includes setting expectations throughout the school for behavior and helping teachers with classroom management. Instead of being punished for bad behavior, students are recognized for positive behavior.
However, even in schools that use positive behavior interventions and supports, the reactive approach of using data about how often children are sent to the office is still used.
a problematic approach
Why are discipline referrals a problem? Consider a specific referral process. Research has consistently shown that male Hispanic and African American students are sent into office at a disproportionate rate. Behaviors that are disruptive to instruction, such as turn-taking talk, are more likely to lead to referral, whereas students with more calm and internalized concerns, such as anxiety or stress, are often overlooked. Discipline referrals are unreliable and rarely provide information about how schools can help students.
Many school security plans have focused on physical security measures, such as metal detectors and armed school resource officers. However, a comprehensive and effective safety plan includes physical and psychological protection.
Since 2012, I have been researching universal screening tools as a way to actively identify students in need of emotional or mental health support. A universal screening tool is a brief assessment that typically takes less than two minutes to complete and measures early indicators of social, behavioral and emotional needs. For example, an assessment might ask teachers how often a student engages in argumentative and impulsive behavior or is unhappy. Students are asked similar or similar questions about themselves. A teacher can complete a screening tool on each student in the class in less than 30 minutes for the entire class.
These tools are not diagnostic but rather show general areas where a student could benefit from help, such as emotional coping skills and anger management.
to find out quickly
Research conducted by my colleagues and myself over the past decade has consistently found that screening tools accurately detect students who need additional support at school. Evidence shows they work across a wide age range and helps determine what type of intervention is needed.
Research has found that these screening tools show that students who report themselves as being at risk are more likely to have poor grades and lower test scores on statewide tests.
My colleague Stephen Kilgus, an associate professor of school psychology, and I developed the Social, Educational and Emotional Behavior Risk Scale — also known as the SAEBRS — that has been used in rural, suburban and urban school districts across the United States.
Nearly a quarter of American schools now use some sort of systematic tool to evaluate students’ mental and emotional health. This is up from about 13% in 2014.
And yet most schools do not use these types of active devices. Administrators cite the cost, time and lack of school mental health professionals as barriers to using screening tools.
Despite the time and money cost, these screening tools can pay off in the long run. Ultimately, screening tools linked to prevention systems can reduce critical behavioral concerns by up to 50% and suspensions by 22%. This results in substantial time and cost savings.
To start, screening plans should include who completes the screening tool. It is necessary to have the perspective of both the teacher and the student.
New research has demonstrated the benefit of multiple raters. Students as young as kindergarten can use tools to report mental health needs when the tool, which contains child-friendly language.
In supporting several local schools, we found that teachers reported needing support to 40% of students, while 70% of students reported needing support themselves. The student’s voice is an important component in communicating mental health needs.
In December 2021, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy reported that the pandemic had worsened the country’s youth mental health crisis.
As our society grapples with rampant school shootings, schools must play a vital role in preventing future tragedies. Effective prevention requires proactive evaluation. Universal Screening has proven itself to be effective in promoting student welfare. The question is whether schools will use them.