How to move from surviving to thriving with universal screening

Schools emphasize the need to assess students to determine which students might be at-risk for not meeting academic goals and may require additional supports, interventions, or alternative methods of instruction to reach academic success. Yet few schools recognize that it is equally important to periodically take the time to look at students’ behavioral and social skills to determine if there are any underlying problems or issues that might negatively impact a student’s ability to learn.

Typically when behavior problems are noted, schools create behavior management plans that focus on punishment and exclusion as their guiding principles with little attention to early prevention and on-going interventions to help change the behavior even though research repeatedly indicates that reliance on punishment does little to change behavior.

According to the US Department of Education, approximately one-third of all students have emotional problems that act as a barrier to their ability to learn, resulting in poor academic progress. That’s 10 students out of a class of 30! Add to that mix other factors that impact behavior including abuse, neglect, poverty, language and cultural differences, unpredictable home lives, divorce, alcohol and drug abuse, and traumatic life events, and one can easily see the daily challenges that manifest themselves as negative behavior in the classroom. If we ignore these factors, behavior and academic achievement will continue to suffer.

These determining factors also cause many classroom teachers to spend more time on behavioral issues and less on academics. Students who act out or are withdrawn can divert a teacher’s time away from teaching and learning. So the early identification and intervention with students exhibiting problem behavior is just as important and effective as early identification and intervention when students have academic difficulties.

We can no longer look at the number of office referrals to determine when a student is experiencing behavioral issues. Office referrals typically involve external or acting out behaviors only, and office referrals only focus on chronic behavior problems, punishment, and exclusion rather than deal with behavioral prevention. Students with internalizing or self-directed behaviors are overlooked because these students are usually shy and withdrawn, and they don’t pose a disruption to the classroom environment. Yet that doesn’t mean their behavior is not having a negative impact on their potential learning and the learning of others in the classroom.

So where do we look for solutions? A best practice for improving student behavior is to implement a universal screening tool that is administered to all students and allows schools to early identify behaviors that may interfere with learning. This tool allows teachers to note from observation and perception those behaviors that might be affecting learning so early interventions can be initiated in order to correct any problem behavior before it becomes a real roadblock to the student’s learning.

Universal screening tools look at both internalizing and externalizing behaviors, so no one falls through the cracks. While teachers are not typically qualified to assess and diagnose behavioral problems, they are the front-line adults who have the most access to the students and who can make the best observations of their daily behaviors and interactions in the classroom.

While universal screening tools vary, typically teachers are asked to respond to brief behavioral descriptors about students’ behaviors and interactions in the classroom environment. Descriptors include statements about everyday behaviors common in classrooms related to aggression, passivity, interactivity, motivation, physical and emotional well-being, and other social skills. The teacher rates each student on a scaled score and those scores are compiled to identify students that might be in need of further interventions to assist them in social and emotional development. Students can be screened by one or multiple teachers, by parents, and/or self-screen depending on the age of the student and the instrument used.

A universal screener offers a quick and reliable method to capture data on social skill development. Teachers tend to perceive that many students are doing “okay,” but that is not always the case; and is “okay” good enough to reach their academic benchmarks and other short- and long-term goals?  The universal screening tool puts a social and behavioral skill spotlight on each student and ensures no student in need of support or assistance is overlooked.

Data collected from universal screening can be used to provide positive behavioral interventions and supports to students individually, in group settings, or in school-wide initiatives. Strategies and interventions can be constructed that assist identified students with developing and maintaining positive relationships with others and improving self-images. We need to look at these students as not having problems but rather as having skill deficits that have not yet been developed in the home or at school. We need to care more about the students than just their test scores.

Curriculum demands and time constraints should not interfere with supports and interventions needed to ensure students also develop into healthy emotional and social beings. Students facing untold challenges can then move from surviving to thriving in the learning environment when the data from universal screeners tells us where we need to focus our attention and efforts.

When teachers are trained in the universal screening instrument with clearly defined terminology and methods of consistent scoring, they should be comfortable in administering the tool. Most universal screening instruments are short and specific requiring minimal time to complete for each student. Universal screening is an important tool in this identification process; and when used with behavioral interventions and supports, the outcomes of improved social, emotional, and academic performance can be enormous.

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