From staffing shortages to the rise in the number of students experiencing anxiety and depression, schools face formidable challenges when it comes to delivering mental health support. A comprehensive multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) that includes a robust universal screener helps schools better assess and address the well-being of their student body throughout the year.

The pandemic exposed the underlying youth mental health crisis, but four years later, our students continue to struggle. We now know that one in five students experiences a mental health problem, and 70% of them report that anxiety and depression is a major problem for them or their friends. Teens are concerned about their physical and online safety, too.

According to the most recent Center for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey:

● The percentage of students who reported feeling hopeless rose a staggering 14 points in the last decade.

● 42% of high school students felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped doing their usual activities.

● 29% of high school students experienced poor mental health during the past 30 days.

● 16% of high school students were electronically bullied, including through texting, Instagram, Facebook, or other social media.

● 7% of high school students reported they had been threatened or injured with a weapon, such as a gun, knife, or club, on school property within the last year.

Understanding our student mental health crisis allows us to address it now. However, as schools look to hire additional school psychologists and counselors, they encounter significant staffing shortages nationwide. As such, educators must look at innovative ways to identify, address, and support student well-being to best allocate their mental health staff.

Many districts have already invested in MTSS models focusing on student mental health and well-being across Tiers 1, 2, and 3. However, it can be difficult to understand the factors contributing to student behaviors and poor academic outcomes without ongoing visibility into students' social and emotional needs. That’s why it’s critical for educators to look at student mental health at each tier, starting with a universal screening tool that can take a pulse on student well-being and measure changes over time.

The Pivotal Role of Universal Screening in an MTSS Model

Universal screening is foundational to assessing students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs. Schools can implement these screeners broadly or focus on particular groups. The goal is to proactively meet students' mental health needs by measuring their social and emotional skills and resilience and identifying the resources they have to support their resilience.

Universal screeners:

● Allow educators to identify at-risk students early, informing a more systematic, proactive approach to advanced tier supports and programming.

● Give schools the data to intentionally monitor students’ strengths and needs over time.

● Data allows schools to directly instruct/build protective factors via a targeted approach.

In a recent webinar, my colleague Brandy Samuell and Dr. Lisa Micou, partnership manager at Aperture Education, discussed the following screening best practices and implementation strategies with Cynthia Price, MSW, LCSW, a behavior specialist at Roswell Independent School District in New Mexico. They recommended educators consider the following when adopting universal screeners:

Establish clear screening processes: What are your goals, and what procedures will you follow in your screening initiative? Administrators should establish clear processes for collecting and monitoring data and identify and implement interventions based on those screening outcomes. Proper planning saves time and creates efficiency early on.

Select the appropriate tools: Adopt evidence-based screening tools that are aligned with your goals. The DESSA, for example, is an excellent strength-based tool that assesses students’ social-emotional competencies and offers insights that can guide Tier 2 and 3 interventions.

Train Your Staff: Train your staff to administer your screening tool and interpret the results. If your team lacks experience in this area, an MTSS services partner can support implementation and interpretation, especially for schools that face staff capacity challenges.

Analyze and Act on Data: Analyze screening results immediately to identify students who might require additional support. This analysis should help you identify student groups needing targeted interventions to address specific needs.

Monitor Progress: Invest in ongoing monitoring to measure the effectiveness of any interventions post-screening and make necessary adjustments. This lets you know that the programs and support in your Tier 2 and 3 programs are meeting students’ evolving needs.

Price said in the webinar that her district has now adopted the DESSA universal screener in grades K-8 after successfully piloting it with students last year and training staff. It’s helping inform which students need additional support.

“The DESSA data is helping our schools pinpoint areas of need for students and place them in correct interventions instead of having a blanket approach to our interventions,” she said. “It also helps us look at mental health and behavior from three perspectives: the building, classroom, and student-level perspectives. We can adapt universal interventions when we look at data from a building level and teacher training when we look at data from a classroom level. We can drive student-specific interventions when we look specifically at student data.”

Connecting Screening Results to the Rest of Your MTSS

By engaging in a thoughtful and comprehensive screening process, schools can give students targeted social and emotional supports when they need it—without overburdening teachers and staff. Using screener results as a guide, schools can strategically add Tier 1 supports, such as lessons that help districts meet social behavior skills gaps and schoolwide wellness objectives. Data might reveal a need for response-to-intervention programs focusing on specific skills development.

Aperture's DESSA MINI screener can quickly pinpoint, in just 60 seconds, with 95% accuracy, which students require extra support, without depending on negative behavioral indicators from students. This proactive approach means fewer out-of-class suspensions and a reduction in repeat instruction. The latest research shows promising results, including:

● A 79% reduction in out-of-school suspensions

● A 39% reduction in referrals

● A 39% reduction in in-school suspensions

With clear, ongoing visibility into students' needs, it's easier to determine how your district or school should align or adapt its programming and staffing models. An integrated MTSS solution with an effective universal screener can uncover your students’ strengths over time or identify warning signs—that, when caught early—can help educators change students’ lives.

About the author

Jeremy Glauser is the founder and CEO of eLuma, an end-to-end student services solution that addresses intervention needs for mental health and special education across a school district’s multi-tiered system of support (MTSS). He also serves as an advisory council member for school mental health on The Kennedy Forum, which aims to advance health equity by promoting evidence-based practices, policies, and programming related to mental health and substance use.