What to know before assessing students for mental health needs

We recently addressed the why, the when, and the how of mental health assessments, as well as other evidence-based practices in school psychology. 

But school psychologists, administrators and other members of the education team may need guidance on where to start once it’s decided that an assessment of a student is warranted.

Mental health assessments are gaining new attention in schools post-COVID. 

There’s at least anecdotal evidence that the pandemic had a deleterious effect on the psychological and emotional wellbeing of middle and high schoolers, with many schools noticing challenges ranging from difficulties adjusting to in-person learning to full-blown conditions and disorders. 

How many students will need to be assessed? 

Even prior to the disruption of the past several years, it has been best practice to screen every student in school at least once a year. This is at least the “gold standard”: if districts can figure out a way to do this, it will give them an invaluable set of data to work with. 

The process for this is fairly straightforward. School-wide assessments can be conducted through a behavior support team or similar body with (a) school psychologist(s) and administrators. It can be as simple as disseminating a survey, and for older students, they will usually be able to self-complete the responses. 

Typically, students showing the highest level of support, or Tier 3, will only be about 5% of the total student population. In contexts where student surveys indicate Tier 3 need levels of 15 to 20% or more, this is obviously a red flag for either a school-wide or community-wide issue that has produced a high level of clinically significant mental health needs.

Knowledge is power: The benefits of widespread screening

A significant benefit of screening an entire student population is that it will allow both the school psychologist and administrators to handle mental health needs preventatively and proactively, rather than reactively. 

There is also a significant cost benefit to this, showing districts how and where generally limited funds can be apportioned – not to mention the fact that districts can typically make up their own surveys drawing on clinically standard examples.

Mental health assessments by Tier

Suitable assessments will vary by Tier levels. Our team at Psyched Services can provide context if you are unfamiliar or want additional information on them, but links have also been included where appropriate.

Tier 1: 
General and non-intensive student mental health needs.

  • The ACES (adverse childhood experiences) questionnaire
  • SHAPE, which is a free platform that can be tailored to fit a school or district’s specific needs or focal areas, from academic measures to school climate, social/emotional/behavioral concerns, student ages, languages, etc.
  • BASC-3 BESS: Determines behavioral and emotional strengths and weaknesses of children and adolescents in preschool through high school.
  • FAST™ Social, Academic, & Emotional Behavior Risk Screener (SAEBRS): Screens students either individually or by class, grade, or school for social-emotional behavioral risks
  • Classroom WISE: A three-part training package that supports K-12 educators in supporting the mental health of students in the classroom

Tier 2
Somewhat more intensive support, typically for about 10-15% of students. Sometimes counseling is within the scope of school psychologists’ practice, where we meet individually with students to address mental health needs. But not all school psychologists feel equipped to provide this. 

Some great evidence based interventions include:

Tier 3: These students may need a more individualized and intensive level of support. This could be through counseling or behavior support within the school setting. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular and clinically appropriate interventions at this level.

Check out our Mastering Mental Health Assessments course for more information on how to legally and effectively assess students who may need additional support in these areas.

learn more about Psyched Services' mental health assessment plan