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Student mental heal and student well-being were problems long before Covid--here's how we can continue nurturing it.

Using universal screening to improve student well-being


Mental well-being was a problem long before Covid--here's how we can continue nurturing it

Key points:

The pandemic shined a light on the mental health crisis facing our students–but student well-being is not a new phenomenon. According to CDC data from 2009-2019, 1 out of 5 adolescents aged 12 to 17 reported having experienced at least some kind of major depressive episode.

Now, looking more closely at the impact of the pandemic, the CDC found that more than one-third of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, 44 percent reported that they persistently felt sad or hopeless during that past year, and almost 20 percent had seriously considered attempting suicide. But again, this is not a new phenomenon–the pandemic just escalated the mental health crisis youth face, and there is no doubt that we have some work to do. 

Setting a foundation for student well-being means you’ve met a student’s basic safety and psychological needs, and created predictable and consistent routines and procedures while establishing school-wide expectations. You’ve set the groundwork, but we need to do more. Educators also need to intentionally build relationships to foster a sense of community and connectedness, while establishing strong support networks for both students and adults. An intentional focus must be placed on fostering those protective factors and resilience, because they don’t just come from individuals alone–they are shaped by the environments we create.

Traditionally, schools have focused on student well-being from the perspective of an absence of risk.  However, an absence of risk does not equate to the presence of social-emotional skills. When we focus on building skills that will foster resilience, we create protective factors in students, while positively impacting all the best practices we use in education. It benefits students’ ability to follow school-wide expectations through Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), to repair harm when it occurs through restorative practices and help students be present and fully engage with instruction. 

As Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, said: “I believe psychology has done very well in working out how to understand and treat disease, but I think that is literally half-baked. If all you do is work to fix problems, to alleviate suffering, then by definition you are working to get people to zero, to neutral.” When we react to student issues that rise to the surface, this is oftentimes what we end up doing.

To change course, we must become more proactive in identifying what pro-social skills students are demonstrating and what skills need to be strengthened to prevent students from relying on unproductive responses that not only get them in trouble, but can lead to poor mental health outcomes–and we need to do that through a strength-based lens. 

Dual model framework 

Research shows promoting student well-being is best done through a dual model resilience and risk framework that focuses on developing strengths or those protective factors to promote early identification and prevention of risk factors. This framework prioritizes all the components of a trauma-sensitive approach, as recommended by SAMHSA, and aligns with guidance from The National Center for School Mental Health from the University of Maryland (NCSMH). Making sure you have a clear vision of the framework that your district will follow will be beneficial as you move forward with next steps. Regardless of the framework you choose, a comprehensive approach ideally includes universal screening for your students so we have a reliable and valid way to identify student strengths and have an early indicator of risk.

What is universal screening?

According to the National Center for School Mental Health, universal screening is the assessment of students to determine whether they may be in jeopardy regarding their well-being. Screening can be conducted schoolwide or with specific grade levels, but it’s broad on purpose, trying to catch as many students as possible who may need interventions. And screening is simply designed to identify a risk factor so that we can act quickly and effectively using that reliable data. It shifts the focus from a reactive “wait to fail” model to a proactive system where needs are identified early, and interventions are delivered efficiently. 

Having that data allows us to intentionally monitor the strengths and needs of students over time, and using universal screening proactively is considerably more cost-effective compared to a reactive approach that tends to lead to more long-term or highly-intensive support. The challenges many districts experience that prevent them from getting started with universal screening are straightforward: not knowing what reliable and valid measures are available, budget limitations, and limited resources and support. Districts simply need guidance and to know that there are resources available to tap into. 

How one district implemented universal screening: Roswell ISD case study

Cynthia Price is a district-wide behavior specialist for Roswell Independent School District in New Mexico. Recently, the district focused on building multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), or what they term multi-layered systems of support, for behavior, with a shift from focusing solely on special education interventions to building preventative and targeted systems of support across behavior and social emotional learning. 

The district was seeing an upward trend in special education identification and an increased reliance on special education staff to guide interventions for students with behavioral and social-emotional needs. The mindset was that special education has the space and the practices already in place. But the district quickly realized it needed to establish prevention and targeted interventions, or risk special education eligibility continuing to rise and a lack of support for highly intensive interventions.

The district determined it needed universal screening for social-emotional behavior skills and took a step-by-step approach, starting with the research. District officials read guidance from the National Center for School Mental Health and SAMHSA to really understand how to start. The next step was to conduct a needs assessment of the current system. 

The district used the school mental health quality assessment and the PBIS tiered fidelity inventory. The School Mental Health Quality Assessment from NCSMH allowed the district to self-assess best practices for mental health and behavior in one system. The district used a variety of stakeholders from general education and special education to score its quality domains, which included teaming, needs assessment, mental health screening, mental health promotion of Tier 1, early intervention, and treatment in Tier 2 and Tier 3. The district considered the funding sources and the impact on student learning.

This gave the district’s administration the confidence and the “why” for moving toward adopting a multifaceted approach instead of relying on one initiative to support mental health and behavior. Additionally, the school mental health quality assessment provided the baseline to show stakeholders why they needed to adopt universal screening. 

The district chose to move forward with a strength-based approach and determined that the DESSA was the most sound assessment, providing a complete universal screener implementation and management solution. What continued to move the program forward was the ability to pilot the program with an elementary school counselor and an administrator.

After the pilot, Price received feedback from the school and from the counselor on how it was used at the building level, and it helped to drive the tier two interventions for students (practices) and inform professional learning communities (systems) for teachers. Once they knew it could be successful in the current system, they moved to adopt the practice for all schools, K-8th grade, with the goal to have effective universal programming and support in place to minimize the number of students who need support at advanced tiers. 

Roswell ISD illustrates that there are nuances of how to approach comprehensive student well-being. Moving in the direction of adopting a universal screener may take some reflection and refinement, but is an effective way to capture those students who need our support the most. 

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