Children’s social and emotional development and health is the foundation for their ability to learn and thrive in school. Screenings can be helpful in identifying when children might need further evaluation and help in this area. When a child has 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 is included in Illinois Public Law 099-0927, which calls for screenings in the other domains of development, as well as health screenings. The bill states that social/emotional screenings can be done by a child’s primary care provider, but may also be done by an appropriately trained professional in their school setting.
The Children’s Committee of the Psychotherapy Action Network, or PsiAN, would like to offer information to you as an educator regarding social/emotional screening, how to understand children’s mental health needs and services, and how to support both children and parents through this process. To that end, 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 a standardized screening checklist or questionnaire with scores that can point to a level of difficulty that need to be better understood. Screenings can be carried out by a variety of professionals when they are appropriately trained. Some screening tools are designed to be completed by parents, but this should only happen in the context of a program of support for understanding the results, and opportunities for follow up.
- An evaluation involves a more in-depth gathering of information by a qualified professional. An assessment of a child’s social/emotional development can be part of a psychological or psychoeducational evaluation that looks at the child’s overall development, or it can be the sole focus of a mental health evaluation. It should include the child’s developmental course, school performance, family relationships, experiences and history, medical status, and any trauma history, as well as clinical observations. Evaluations can also include standardized instruments and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
- Parents can have many feelings and anxieties about how their children are doing, even when all seems to be going well but especially when it is not. Providing parents with support to have a voice and to be understood themselves throughout the process of screening, evaluation, and involvement in interventions is essential.
What is a diagnosis?
- A mental health diagnosis can only be determined through evaluation by a qualified mental health professional. Screenings can never provide a child with a diagnosis.
- A diagnosis is given when an evaluation has determined that a child has symptoms and behaviors which fall into a particular identifiable category, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), 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 a child’s development may play in what might look like a mental health issue.
- Receiving a mental health or developmental diagnosis can help 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, a child may fit the criteria for ADHD, but their symptoms might be the result of trauma experiences and not something innate to the child, or a child might be having difficulty focusing or is acting out in class because he or she is struggling with a learning disability that has not been identified. Neither a mental health nor a developmental diagnosis is a substitute for a full understanding of the child’s development, social and emotional needs, or what is happening in that 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. They need to be offered opportunities to express these feelings and to be understood.
When and how are mental health interventions recommended?
- Again, 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 the child and has worked together with the child’s parents to identify what kind of intervention 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. Regardless of whether the child has received an evaluation or diagnosis, parents should always have the option to seek support for their child and for themselves in supporting their child. The reality though is that access to quality mental health services can be quite limited.
- The kind of mental health intervention recommended can depend on how intense the child’s needs are and what the source of the child’s difficulties is. As an educator you are familiar with the kinds of services offered to children with IEPs in your school setting. Here are some categories of mental health intervention available to children outside of the school setting:
- 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:
How can I support a child’s resiliency as an educator?
- Mental health interventions can also be seen broadly, and not necessarily limited to what a mental health professional can do. As an educator, you get to know each child in your class very well. Emotional warmth, structured expectations, encouragement and caring are all vital functions of a teacher that support a child’s mental health. Individualizing to meet a child’s needs is another form of mental health support in the classroom, and teachers often find creative and unique ways to do that. Providing curriculum to address the social and emotional needs of all children in your class is another way of providing mental health intervention to specific children, as is ensuring that children have spaces and structures to build positive relationships with each other and work through the inevitable conflicts they have with each other. Connecting with and partnering with the child’s parents is also a powerful way to provide that child with mental health support. While it can be helpful for a teacher to know the outcome of a child’s evaluation, to understand what might be going on at home, or to receive input from a child’s therapist, you don’t have to wait for that to intervene as an educator in ways that are going to help that child.