Ask any teacher and they will tell you their students’ ability to self-regulate, resolve conflict, and manage emotions is markedly different from students 10 to 15 years ago. There are many reasons why kids are different—access to Internet and electronic devices, working parents, and trauma, to name a few. The bottom line is students are not likely to change and schools need to teach social emotional learning (SEL) just like academics.

I remember when Response to Intervention (RTI) first came out 15 years ago and screening students and intervening early for reading and math was a novel practice. Once schools became familiar with academic screeners and prevention practices, it was clear the wait to fail model was in education’s past.

However, we now know that academic screening alone is not enough to improve school outcomes. More schools are considering the use of evidence-based screeners for student social emotional well-being. Social emotional learning screeners are designed to help schools assess all students and determine who is at risk for developing mental health or behavioral problems quickly and efficiently. Screeners can also help schools sort students by problem area (e.g. attention, conflict resolution, organization).

I frequently hear the use of SEL screeners will set schools up for failure since they do not have the necessary resources to support student well-being. Others argue that it is beyond the purview of schools to provide social emotional support to students. Both arguments fall flat in the face of what educators face today. One in four students will be diagnosed with a mental illness and suicide is the second leading cause of death for our youth. Schools are the logical place to screen and support student social emotional learning and prevent the devastating effects of ignoring student mental health needs. Furthermore, improving student SEL can increase achievement, career readiness, and graduation rates.

What Schools Can Do Now

  1. Develop the resources necessary to support the whole child by moving from a scattershot approach to student mental health to a strategic deployment of resources based on needs identified by SEL screeners.
  2. Carefully examine current practices in student mental health. Are all staff working in the school utilizing evidence-based practices designed to address identified student needs?

Help is On the Way

The Center for Rural School Mental Health will begin a research project in Montana, Virginia, and Missouri to support rural schools in the use of the Early Identification System (EIS) and Intervention Hub in the fall of 2021. This landmark project will offer schools professional development and support in the use of SEL screeners and interventions that are specifically designed for rural communities. Project schools will be able to work with leading experts in the field to refine these tools so they work in rural communities and capitalize on local resources and support. If your school or district is interested in participating in this project, contact:

Carol Ewen, MA, EdS
Director of School Mental Health Programs
Center for Children, Families and Workforce Development
University of Montana | College of Health
[email protected]

Lou Ann Tanner-Jones, PhD, NCSP
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology
Boone County Schools Mental Health Coalition | National Center for Rural School Mental Health
[email protected]

Amanda J. Nguyen, PhD
Research Assistant Professor
Youth-Nex | Center to Promote Effective Youth Development
University of Virginia | Curry School of Education and Human Development
[email protected]

About the Authors

Jeff Folsom

Jeff Folsom
Licensed Social Worker and Attorney

I have spent my 40-year career working at the intersection of mental health and state policy. In my current position as the Director of Policy and Special Projects at the Center for Children, Family and Workforce Development (CCFWD), I work with state and national government agencies and lawmakers to develop systems that support effective mental health and health services for youth.

Carol Ewen

Carol Ewen
Licensed School Psychologist

I have worked at the local and state level developing and implementing school mental health interventions for the past 23 years. I am currently the Director of School Mental Health Programs at the University of Montana’s Center for Children, Families, and Workforce Development.

The current Early Identification System model includes:

teacher and student-report assessment tools
A dashboard system in which
these data are shared with schools and linked to a menu of evidence-based interventions that schools can choose from to implement
A dashboard system in
which these data are shared with schools and linked to a menu of evidence-based interventions that schools can choose from to implement

Web-based professional development and coaching to support the implementation of selected interventions

Tools to monitor
the progress and effectiveness of interventions selected