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Conducting Social-Emotional Behavior Screenings at School: An Ecological Systems Perspective

By: Katie Eklund, Ph.D. and Stephen Kilgus, Ph.D.

School Psychology Program, University of Missouri

Although many schools commonly systematically screen students for academic concerns, social-emotional and behavioral screening measures are less frequently used. Yet, there are many benefits to implementing systematic social-emotional and behavioral screening. Measures such as the Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener-Teacher Version (SAEBRS) and SAEBRS-Student Version (mySAEBRS) can be used to identify students who are at risk for a range of difficulties, including those related to the display of:

  1. Externalizing behaviors (e.g., noncompliance, disruption, aggression)
  2. Internalizing behaviors (e.g., withdrawal, worry, sadness)
  3. Limited social skills (e.g., cooperation, responsibility)
  4. Limited academic enabling skills (e.g., preparedness for instruction, academic engagement, study skills).

Data derived from these measures can be used to determine which students require services and supports to be successful. Furthermore, such screeners can be used in a proactive fashion to identify at-risk students at the earliest possible juncture when behaviors are most responsive to intervention efforts. Such early identification permits a prevention-oriented approach to service delivery by providing needs assessment data of an entire population of students (e.g., classroom, school, district) to determine how school-based resources can best be allocated to support at-risk students.

The vast majority of schools use some form of social-emotional and behavioral screening data to identify students in need of individual or small group interventions (at either Tier 2 or 3). Yet, such an approach is considered largely inefficient for many schools, particularly high needs schools that are likely to identify a large number of students who are at risk. These concerns are based on the premise that it would be difficult to provide supports to each individual student, given the available school-based personnel and resources. One possible solution would be to provide supports only to the most at-risk students, such as the top 15% of students demonstrating problem behavior. However, we argue such an approach is misguided, as it ignores documented concerns for many students. We propose an alternative approach to conceptualizing risk, which moves beyond thinking about risk as only being specific to individual students, towards a consideration of risk status within certain environments (see Kilgus & Eklund, 2016 for more information regarding this particular approach).

To engage in screening using this alternative approach, it is necessary to examine the base rate of risk across an entire school and within each classroom. By base rate, we mean the actual percentage of students who are found to be at risk of behavioral or social-emotional concerns. Next, we must identify a serviceable base rate (SBR) across the school and within each classroom; that is, the percentage of students that the school feels it could feasibly provide individual or small group supports. Schools with more resources and personnel will be able to serve a larger percentage of students, while schools with fewer resources and personnel would support a smaller percentage.

Some schools have aligned their availability of services with an MTSS framework, whereby 20% of students are considered to be the serviceable base rate for receiving targeted or intensive supports. To consider any more students could exhaust current school resources and to consider fewer students might ignore a number of students who are demonstrating behavioral concerns. Once observed base rates have been calculated from screening data and serviceable base rates have been determined, school personnel should compare the two numbers to identify the most appropriate group for resource allocation. This process follows a three-step process, which is depicted in the figure below, and described in each of the following steps.


  1. If the school-wide base rate is larger than the serviceable base rate (e.g., 30% of students school-wide demonstrate behavioral risk and the school has identified 20% as their serviceable base rate), the first course of action is to reexamine the Tier 1 universal support plan. This plan might not be effective enough to reach the range of student concerns present within the school. Alternatively, it could be that the plan could be more effective if it was implemented with adequate fidelity. Adjustments to universal level supports can include teacher-guided interventions (e.g., increasing student opportunities to respond in the classroom), classroom management strategies, and developing or modifying student classroom and schoolwide expectations, such as those used in schools that embrace positive behavioral intervention and support (PBIS) models.
  2. If the school-wide base rate is smaller than the serviceable base rate, the next course of action would be to determine if each classroom’s base rate exceeds the serviceable base rate. For example, certain classroom screening data might show that 30-40% of students in one classroom are demonstrating behavioral concerns, exceeding the serviceable base rate. School personnel would then want to consider providing supports at the classroom level. Such an approach is considered highly efficient, in that a single strategy can be used to address the needs of all students in the classroom. It is also considered necessary, as the screening data indicate that the existing classroom environment is not sufficient to meet the needs of a larger than acceptable number of students. When classroom-level SBR are present it is likely due to one of two causes.
    1. First, it might be a teacher is having difficulty with classroom management or instructional practices.
    2. Second, it could be that teachers are using appropriate practices, but such practices aren’t addressing the problematic behavior being demonstrated by students.
    3. In the former scenario, schools should look to consult and collaborate with teachers toward the betterment of their skills. In the latter scenario, schools should provide teachers with the resources and training necessary to adopt additional class-wide interventions, such as contingency management strategies (e.g., Classwide Function-based Intervention Teams) or class-wide instructional curricula designed to meet student social-emotional needs (e.g., Second Step).
  3. Finally, if the school-wide and classroom-wide base rates are smaller than the serviceable base rate, schools can then provide individual or small group interventions to at-risk students. These interventions can best address the needs of specific students once larger systems-level considerations have been addressed.

In summary, social-emotional and behavioral screening represents a vital aspect of prevention-oriented service delivery. Although traditionally considered a means by which to identify at-risk students, we have proposed an alternative approach to universal screening through which risk might be identified at both the individual student and classroom level in order to provide the most efficient and effective level of services.

Katie Eklund is an Assistant Professor in the School Psychology Program at the University of Missouri. She received her doctorate in Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and her Masters degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan. Prior to entering academia, Eklund worked in public education for 10 years as a school administrator, school psychologist, and school social worker. She is currently a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and licensed Psychologist.

Stephen Kilgus received his Ph.D. in School Psychology from the University of Connecticut. His primary research interest is in the area of school mental health, with a focus on social-emotional and behavioral intervention and assessment. Kilgus has authored and contributed to the development of a number of assessments, including the Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener (SAEBRS) and Direct Behavior Ratings (DBR). He has also conducted research regarding targeted interventions for students at risk for mental health concerns. Kilgus currently serves as an associate editor for the Journal of School Psychology. In 2016, he received the Lightner Witmer Award for early career scholarship from Division 16 of the American Psychological Association.

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