Whenever a massacre takes place at an American school, such as Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, discussions often ensue about whether school officials may have missed “red flags.” “.
As a researcher specializing in student mental health support, I believe these discussions overlook important issues. To prevent school violence, the discussion must change. Rather than what schools have missed, the focus should be on how schools can be more proactive in identifying students with mental health needs before they show signs of distress.
Ideally, schools should be the only setting where all young people have consistent access to caring adults. A typical primary school teacher spends over 1,000 hours with students per school year and is therefore 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 disrupt teaching, such as aggression and speaking out of turn. It’s no surprise that sending children to the office – known in the field as the office discipline referral – continues to be a primary mechanism for identifying students in need of emotional, behavioral and mental support. .
Challenges to be more proactive
Increasingly, schools have adopted a framework known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, a proactive system intended to teach essential social skills and prevent later behavior problems. The system aims to create a positive school environment through support at the school, classroom and individual levels. This includes setting school-wide behavioral expectations and assisting teachers with classroom management. Rather than being punished for bad behavior, students are recognized for their positive behavior.
However, even in schools that use positive behavioral interventions and supports, the reactive approach of using data on how often children are sent to the office is still used.
A problematic approach
Why are disciplinary referrals a problem? Consider a typical recommendation process. Research has consistently shown that Hispanic and African American male students are sent to the office at a disproportionate rate. Behaviors that disrupt instruction, such as speaking out of turn, are more likely to lead to dismissals, while students with calmer, internal concerns, such as anxiety or stress, are often overlooked. Disciplinary references are unreliable and rarely provide information on 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 security plan includes physical and psychological security.
Since 2012, I have researched universal screening tools as a way to proactively identify students in need of emotional or mental health support. A universal screening tool is a brief assessment that usually takes less than two minutes and measures early indicators of social, behavioral and emotional needs. For example, an assessment might ask teachers how often a student argues and behaves impulsively or is sad. Students are asked the same or similar questions about themselves. A teacher can complete a screening tool on every student in the class in less than 30 minutes for the whole class.
These tools are not diagnostic but rather show general areas where a student may need help, such as emotional coping skills and anger management.
Research by my colleagues and I over the past decade has consistently found that screening tools accurately detect students in need of extra support in school. Evidence shows that they work across a wide age range and help determine the type of intervention needed.
Research has found that these screening tools show that students who self-identify as at-risk are likely to have poor grades and lower test scores statewide.
My colleague Stephen Kilgus, associate professor of school psychology, and I developed the Social, Academic and Emotional Behavior Risk Scale – also known as SAEBRS – which has been used in rural, suburban and urban school districts in across the United States.
Increase in use
Nearly a quarter of US schools now use some type of systematic tool to assess students’ mental and emotional health. This represents approximately 13% in 2014.
And yet, the majority of schools do not use these kinds of proactive tools. Administrators cite cost, time and a lack of mental health professionals at school as barriers to using screening tools.
Despite the cost in time and money, these screening tools can be cost-effective in the long run. Ultimately, screening tools connected to prevention systems can reduce significant behavior problems by up to 50% and suspensions by 22%. This results in substantial savings of time and money.
To begin with, screening plans should include who completes the screening tool. It is essential to have both the teacher’s and the student’s point of view.
New research has demonstrated the benefit of multiple raters. Students as young as kindergarten can use the tools to report their mental health needs when the tools, which feature child-friendly language.
Supporting a number of local schools, we found that teachers said 40% of students needed support, while 70% of students said they needed support. Student voice is an essential part of 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 continues to grapple with mass school shootings, schools must play a vital role in preventing future tragedies. Effective prevention requires proactive assessment. Universal screenings have been shown to be effective in supporting student well-being. The question is whether schools will use them.