Education professor develops mental health screening tool for public schools

Education professor Stephen Kilgus has worked to develop a survey assessment for middle and high school students regarding their own emotions and reactions.
MU education professor Stephen Kilgus was on the research team responsible for creating the Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener. Courtesy of MU College of Education

Education professor Stephen Kilgus has developed a screening tool that is designed to assist teachers in identifying potential mental health problems in students.

Kilgus’ research has involved analyzing how students respond to a self-assessment survey, the Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener, that includes questions and statements based on emotions and reactions.

Nathaniel von der Embse, assistant professor of school psychology at the University of South Florida, collaborated with Kilgus on the project.

Most educational institutions, especially adolescent public schools, have teachers assess each student individually using a tool similar to SAEBRS, von der Embse said. This can be a problem due to the fact that one teacher with up to hundreds of students each day can’t always accurately evaluate each student.

“It’s easier for students to think for themselves as opposed to teachers thinking for their kids,” Kilgus said.

With this realization, von der Embse and Kilgus decided a version of this tool that the students fill out themselves was necessary and created the self-assessment survey.

For example, in this version, one statement on the assessment is “I feel worried.” The students then select a numerical value from zero to three, zero being “never” and three being “always.”

“So often it is the case in public schools that they don’t have a reliable way to convey students’ needs considering behavioral, social and emotional realms,” von der Embse said.

Von der Embse said he wants a more proactive approach to the state of mental health among young students as opposed to addressing the issues later on. Students with potential mental health problems are often not recognized with early onset behavior and instead disciplined due to a lack of knowledge, he said.

For example, a student with aggressive behavior may get punished for starting fights, but the underlying problem could be a mental health issue.

Kilgus said allowing students to self-report their own moods and emotions allows for less “guesswork” among teachers and administrators. Older students in middle and high school tend to know themselves more and are able to respond honestly, he said.

“Research suggests that as kids get older, they have better information about themselves,” Kilgus said.

Von der Embse said since SAEBRS was established in 2014, the tool has been used in 23 different states, and it’s estimated that it’s been given over 2 million times.

The main goal of the SAEBRS tool is to identify risks at a broader level, von der Embse said. So instead of only focusing on the more noticeable and external problematic behavior expressed by students, administration and teachers are able to also get a look into internalized behavior that may not be as overt.

With the information received using SAEBRS, the school system is able to handle the situation in different ways, Kilgus said. Most will provide services within the building, such as a counselor or social worker that assists the student in working through their behavior, Kilgus said. Additionally, some schools may provide group- or individual-based interventions or will refer the student out to more intensive services for more at-risk circumstances.

Kilgus and von der Embse first introduced the assessment as a pilot to two middle schools in suburban Pennsylvania, where they examined student responses and looked into how schools use the data and information from the surveys.

The survey is typically administered three times a year, at the beginning of the fall, winter and spring quarters. This is because students can react differently to a change in the weather and schedule, von der Embse said.

Kilgus said he hopes more schools use the SAEBRS tool to help their students. The team’s next goal is to distribute the assessment to additional schools across the country. Most recently, Kilgus said he’s worked with a school district in Illinois that plans to use the survey for its students.

Edited by Olivia Garrett |

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