Why, when, and how should schools perform mental health assessments?

Even if we know mental health support is essential to the work we do with school kids, it can be hard for school principals and directors, and even psychologists, to gauge exactly when to do formal assessments for mental health conditions. 

CDC figures suggest close to 6 million kids in the United States suffer from anxiety, about 5.5 million exhibit behavioral difficulties of some kind, and just under 3 million are impacted by depression. During COVID-19, nearly 40% of high school students reported regular mental health struggles, and many experts have described what students of all ages faced throughout the pandemic as a form of trauma

Much in the same way that adults do not leave our feelings and struggles at the office door, it’s logical to conclude children have brought complex backgrounds, psychological struggles and traumatic family circumstances with them to the classroom from the time formal education began. 

It’s fortunate that awareness levels are much higher today, but “to test or not to test” is a question shaped not only by the context of every student, but limited financial or staffing resources. But kids who receive mental health assessments go on to benefit from Educationally Related Mental Health Services (ERHMS) that can improve both their comfort levels with school as well as their academic performance. 

First, let’s introduce just a few basic facts about this critical aspect of psychoeducational evaluations.

“The why”: Why is it important to perform mental health assessments? 

Best educational practices, as well as the landscape of federal and state laws, mandate that assessors identify all suspected areas of need that may be holding back a student’s development in and outside of the classroom. Specific state regulations may vary, and some states will have statutes that provide additional assessment requirements and protections.

There’s frequently more than meets the eye to situations like a student presenting with behavior challenges, or being completely unwilling to come to school. As opposed to identifying them in ways that are punitive or dismissive of a possible underlying cause, it will be more effective in the long-term to rule out mental health challenges or employ a trauma-informed approach that considers the role played by things going on outside of school.

“The when”: At what point should assessments be done?

Our guidance at Psyched Services is to follow your gut after identifying the student’s current level of functioning. This includes the academic context, the social-emotional context, and behavior. You should be prepared to review previous interventions in both home and school environments, consider past evaluations and identified needs, look at relative strengths and weaknesses, as well as cognitive and learning profiles.

If a student has an IEP or 504 plan already in place, or if counseling activities of some kind are already being performed, are there any spaces where things are missing? And if progress on a focus area is simply not being attained, could a mental health explanation, whether it’s any such explanation or a diagnosis never considered before, be at play?

To put it simply, if a student is demonstrating below average achievement or demonstrating concerning behaviors at school, it might be time to consider a mental health assessment. 

“The how”: Once you suspect it’s warranted, how do you go about it? 

It’s appropriate to propose a mental health evaluation, and then obtain parental consent for it. 

During the evaluation itself, there should be a complete profile of observations, parental input, teacher or educator input, plus an interview yielding the perspective of the student themselves. Once a determination of eligibility is reached, specific supports and solutions can be conceived, put in place, and subsequently adjusted as needed.

Check out our course to learn more 

For directors and psychs who want to know where to get started, our Learn.Do platform features an invaluable course, Mastering Mental Health Assessments

This course covers the legal requirements for mental health assessments related to the IDEA and IEP process, as well as best practices for assessment and support in educational settings. It empowers school psychs to effectively advocate for students’ mental health needs with improved assessment and intervention skills. 

In the meantime, you can also download our free, Mental Health Assessment Plan worksheet complete with rating scales and prompts that can help get you started with an assessment plan. 

learn more about Psyched Services' mental health assessment plan