Children’s social and emotional development and mental health are the foundations for their ability to learn and thrive. Screenings can be helpful in identifying when children might need further evaluation and help. When children have the social and emotional support they need, they are better able to use their potential in all areas of their development.
A call for screening for social and emotional difficulties for school-age children is included in Illinois PL 099-0927, a new law which calls for screenings in health and other areas of development. The law states that social/emotional screenings can be done by a child’s primary care provider or an appropriately trained professional in the school setting.
The law asks parents to inform their child’s school about any social/emotional screenings performed, but parents retain the right to keep the results of screenings confidential and not disclose them to the school. The law also states that parents have the right to refuse social/emotional screenings. It is up to parents to decide how much or how little they would like their child’s teachers to know about any evaluations or mental health services their child might receive outside of school.
The Children’s Committee of the Psychotherapy Action Network (PsiAN) would like to offer information to parents regarding social/emotional screening, how to understand children’s mental health and developmental services, and how to advocate for their children’s and own needs for support. To help, here are answers to some frequently asked questions:
What is the difference between a social/emotional screening and an evaluation?
- A screening is a brief assessment that seeks to determine whether concerns are present that should be further evaluated. Screenings typically include standardized checklists or questionnaires with scores that point to different levels of difficulty. Social/emotional screenings typically include questions about a child’s mood, how he or she gets along with other children and adults, and how he or she behaves in different settings. Screenings can be administered by a variety of trained professionals. Some screening assessments are designed to be completed by parents, and should include explanations of the results and recommendations for next steps.
- If your child’s screening results show that your child is struggling in some areas, an evaluation may be recommended. An evaluation involves a more in-depth gathering of information by a qualified professional. Information gathered for an evaluation should include your child’s developmental course, school performance, how his or her family relationships and experiences affect him or her, any notable medical conditions or history, and any history of traumatic experiences. The evaluator should ask you how you see your child’s needs and strengths, and what concerns you might have. The evaluation will consist of observations of your child, standardized tests and may result in a diagnosis based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). For younger children, play-based evaluations and interactions with the evaluator may also be included. Evaluations can only happen with the consent of a custodial parent – no one can mandate that your child receive an evaluation.
- As a parent, you may have many feelings or anxieties about how your child is doing and what screenings might uncover, whether or not your child appears to have difficulties. Your child’s evaluator should provide you with support and a place to air your concerns throughout the process of screening, evaluation, and thinking through what interventions will be most helpful.
What is a diagnosis?
- A mental health diagnosis can only be determined through evaluation by a qualified mental health professional. Screenings can never be used to diagnose a child. No screener should ever tell you that your child has a specific diagnosis.
- A diagnosis is given when an evaluation has determined that a child has symptoms and behaviors which fall into a particular category, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autistic Spectrum Disorder, as defined by the DSM.
- A child’s social, emotional or behavioral difficulties can also be due to developmental issues and a mental health evaluation should always investigate the role your child’s development may play in what might look like a mental health issue.
- Receiving a mental health or developmental diagnosis can provide a child with eligibility that allows access to needed services.
- Diagnoses provide a short-hand way of understanding what is happening with a child, but they never tell the whole story. For example, your child may fit criteria for ADHD, but his or her symptoms indicate other underlying difficulties. They could result from trauma or an unrecognized learning disability. Neither a mental health nor a developmental diagnosis is a substitute for a full understanding of your child’s development, social and emotional needs, or what is happening in your child’s life.
- Parents often have difficult feelings around the idea that their child meets the criteria for a diagnosis, even when they know that their child needs help. If your child receives a diagnosis, you need to be offered opportunities to express these feelings, ask questions, and be understood.
When and how are mental health interventions recommended?
- Social/emotional screenings should only lead to further evaluation, not recommendations for intervention. Recommendations for mental health intervention should come from a qualified mental health professional who has evaluated your child and has worked together with you to identify what kind of interventions will be most helpful.
What kinds of mental health interventions are available for children?
- PsiAN’s position is that children should always have access to mental health interventions when they are experiencing mental distress. Even if your child has not received an evaluation or diagnosis, you should always have the option to seek mental health support for your child and yourself.
- The kind of mental health intervention recommended by an evaluation can depend on where your child is evaluated, the intensity of your child’s needs, the sources of your child’s difficulties, and the needs of the family. If your child is evaluated in his or her school and receives an Individual Educational Plan (IEP), your school will provide services to support your child’s ability to learn. Different school systems provide different levels of support, and your child’s school can let you know what is available. Parents have the right to disagree with a school’s recommendations and ask for the services they feel are most appropriate for their child.
- Mental health interventions are also available to children outside of the school setting. They include the types of therapies listed below. PsiAN’s fact sheet, Mental Health Interventions for Children and Adolescents, contains more detailed descriptions of each.
- Individual child psychotherapy
- DIR or ABA therapy for children with autism:
- Child-parent psychotherapy:
- Bereavement therapy:
- Group child psychotherapy:
- Family therapy:
- Domestic violence mental health services for children and families:
- Psychopharmacological intervention by a child psychiatrist:
- Intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, or inpatient child psychiatry:
- Residential treatment:
- It is important for parents to be included as active participants in treatment, to have their points of view respected and understood, and to feel comfort and trust with the professionals working with them. You should feel that you can partner with your child’s therapist, express all your ideas and feelings, and resolve disagreements you might have.
How can I support my child’s mental health and resiliency as a parent?
- Mental health interventions take a lot of different forms. They are not limited to what mental health professionals can do for your child. As a parent, you know and love your child more than anyone. Emotional warmth, encouragement, and intense caring from you provide the most important foundations for your child’s mental health. Connecting with and partnering with your child’s teacher is also a powerful way to help your child. Parents are often surprised by how much their child’s teacher wants to help, and how many ways teachers can help when they know what is happening with a child or family. Finally, one of the best ways to support your child’s mental health is to take care of your own. Make sure you have a good “village” around you. Reach out to other parents and people who can be there to provide you with the help and support your family needs.