Universal Screening 101: Benefiting students with behavioral and emotional risks

Female elementary school teacher interacting with students sitting on the floor

In today’s school culture of frequent assessment, we may need reminding that the ultimate intent of screening for emotional and behavioral issues is to directly benefit students. Yes, teachers and administrators can, and should, refer students for help when they are concerned. However, sole reliance on referrals can lead to unfair practices whereby some groups of students (e.g., often male minority students with externalizing problems) are referred more frequently than others. Additionally, existing referral systems often fail to ask students how they are doing, which is particularly important when considering the “quiet” nature of emotional symptoms. By universally and systematically asking teachers, parents, and the students themselves about how they are functioning, students with behavioral or emotional risk can be fairly identified and provided with timely, needed supports.

The screening process should begin with the creation of a planning and implementation team. Because of the complex decisions involved and the importance of the task, screening is not an activity that should fall in the hands of a single individual. Instead, a team of individuals, which we have deemed a “screen team”, is needed to ensure that the planning, screening, decision-making processes, and follow-up procedures are completed in an efficient and effective manner. Schools may consider integrating with pre-existing school teams (e.g., student success teams (SST), school safety teams, or crisis response teams) as well as established programs and systems (e.g. discipline management, Response to Intervention). Among other school professionals, we believe school psychologists are integral to a school’s screen team. In fact, because of their specialized training to utilize problem-solving strategies to enhance the positive development and general social and mental health of all students, school psychologists can assume a leadership role.

Once the screen team has been created and its members designated, the purpose of the screening must be identified. A number of considerations come to play when determining this. For example, team members must determine who their target population will be (e.g., all students or certain grades), what they will be screening for (e.g., overall behavioral and emotional risk or only depression), and how the screening will benefit the students, staff, school, and community. Clear, defined purposes and goals for screening are needed to guide the entire process. For example, some schools may opt to use screening as a way to monitor all students or the effectiveness of a school-wide effort to improve student wellbeing, and thus conduct the screening with the entire school population throughout different periods of times during the school year. Other schools may decide to use screening to identify students who are at-risk for emotional and/or behavioral problems and then refer them to school- or community-based mental health services.

After the purposes and goals of screening have been identified, the screen team is ready to move on to other phases of the screening process. Among these are: identifying the optimal time to conduct the screening, selecting informants and screening tools, obtaining consent, and determining follow-up procedures. For example, parent and/or teacher rating scales are more suitable for elementary-aged students, while use of student self-reports are recommended for secondary students who may be more aware of their personal psychological experiences. More comprehensive systems involve numerous informants to gather information across settings and contexts. Numerous screening tools are available to conduct screenings, and selecting the appropriate tool is a task that should be based on the purpose of the screening as well as the resources available to the team. Above all, though, the school should use a measure with acceptable psychometric properties that is capable of predicting a wide range of behavioral and emotional outcomes. In terms of obtaining consent, various approaches are possible.  In an attempt to serve as many students as possible, screen teams at several of our partnership schools in southern California have opted for passive parental and active student consent.  These teams have sent out a letter informing parents of the intent and purpose of the screening alongside the student handbook and code of conduct prior to the start of school. Parents who do not want their children to take part of the screening are asked to sign the form and return it to the school. District guidelines deserve consultation prior to engaging in an active or passive consent process.

The logistics required to carry out the actual screening ask for careful planning and timing to ensure a smooth process and consistency. Some of the high schools we collaborate with who conduct universal self-report screenings have scheduled a special and well-advertised “screening day” on their calendar.  This way, all school staff and students are aware of the upcoming event and any questions or concerns can be dealt with in advance. These schools set aside an hour on this day to inform students that the school staff is genuinely interested in how they are doing and to conduct the screening. All members of the screen team are onsite to help disseminate and collect screening materials as well as take care of any difficulties that may arise.

After the actual screening is conducted, decisions must be made about who will manage the data, how results will be shared, and how to connect identified students with appropriate resources. Typically, once data have been aggregated, school-wide de-identified information to highlight overall well being and trends across the years can be shared with school faculty and staff through  staff meetings. Schools may also choose to share information with students and families. Above all, the team must have well designed follow-up plans, as not following up with students identified as at risk would be unethical. Thus, it is important for schools to identify what follow-up resources are available before embarking on the screening journey. One of the final steps of the screening process requires team members to formatively evaluate the screening, focusing on the integrity, fidelity, and consistency of the process, in order to identify areas of improvement, remembering, again, that the ultimate intent is to directly benefit students.


To further explore the overall conceptualization of utilizing a universal screener to help identify students that are having behavior difficulties and promoting early intervention, attend the upcoming interactive town hall-style webinarUniversal Screening, Thursday, May 5, 2016, Noon, ET. Bring your questions and participate in a great discussion.

More info about other webinars and town halls is located on our Behavioral Matters website.


 About the Authors

Oscar Widales, B.A., is a graduate student in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has worked previously as a high school teacher in Texas and is interested in early identification and treatment of emotional and behavioral risk, particularly among Latino youth.

Erin Dowdy, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor and Director of Clinical Training in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her academic career has focused on screening, prevention, and early intervention. They have partnered with a variety of elementary, middle, and high schools, including schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District, to conduct universal behavioral and emotional screenings.