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Top Ten Questions about Universal Screening:

1.  What is universal screening?

One aspect of a comprehensive assessment system in the context of a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) is universal screening.  Universal screening involves the collection and review of multiple measures to assess the academic and behavioral health of all students.  Screening data simply indicates there is a potential problem with a student, class, grade or school that warrants a closer a look.

Click the image from our friends at Midwest PBIS to see how universal screening fits into the overall purpose of data in your MTSS.


2.  Why should we engage in universal screening?

  • In our schools, approximately one in five children experience socio emotional and behavioral health (SEB) needs, including externalizing (e.g. impulsivity) and internalizing (e.g. anxiety and depression) problems.
  • Students with internalizing symptoms often withdraw and/or over-perform in school making their needs harder to identify because adults are more likely to notice needs that interfere with school activities.
  • Incorporating an SEB tool into existing screening and referral practices provides an opportunity for prevention and early intervention services to students who may otherwise go unnoticed.  In fact, recent research has shown:
    • Adding a universal mental health screening tool will increase identified students in particular (see: https://doi.org/10.1177/0198742918761339):
      • Females
      • Students with higher grades
      • Older students
      • Students with internalizing symptoms
      • Elevated but less extreme impairment
    • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors have been found to be most prevalent in student demographics often underserved in existing school based supports (see: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.01.177):
      • Females
      • Lower classmen (freshman and sophmores)
      • Hispanic and multi-race
      • Sexual minority youth 
      • Limited English proficiency

For an on-going review of recent data trends in universal screening please see:
Data Trends in SEB Screening Google Slides

For more information about improving your MTSS to support students with internalizing emotional and behavioral problems see:  https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1098300717753832


3.  What about the data we already collect… is that part of our screening process?

Yes, districts and schools already have or collect data to help answer various types of questions.  In the context of implementing a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) teams should consider four types of data sources to inform systems and practices for all, some and a few students:

Screening: to identify potential problems that warrant a closer look
Diagnostic: to understand root causes of identified problems
Progress Monitoring: to inform adjustments/enhancements to existing interventions
Outcome: to determine if instructional changes were effective for systems decisions

4.  Why can’t we just wait for an educator or parent to request help?

A comprehensive universal screening process should proactively capture the full range of behavioral and mental health problems seen in our schools in order to identify youth in need of intervention and inform universal, group and individual interventions.  While typical referral pathways such as requests for assistance are an effective way to find students with more significant needs, additional data sources can help teams intervene earlier.

A comprehensive screening process will include:

  • School-wide data such as attendance, office discipline referrals and course grades
  • Nominations/Recommendations such as teacher, parent or student requests for assistance
  • Brief research-based screeners that align with the prioritized prosocial behaviors or emotional and behavioral risk factors of the school or district (Dowdy, Raines, James-Furlong and Kamphaus, 2015).

5.  I did not realize school-wide data was part of our screening process… how should we be using it?

First, use your existing school-wide data such as attendance rates, ODRs, assessment data, grades etc. to determine the current overall response to your Tier 1 system.  To do this, your team should establish what is considered proficient in your school for existing school-wide data to generate a base rate (or percentage of students) showing risk across measures.  You can compare this information to the expected base rates in the tiered intervention model (80%, 15%, 5%) to differentiate and/or intensify Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 support.  Typically students identified as at risk or high risk are considered for targeted or individual interventions but teams may find the percentage of students in these categories indicate a need for school, grade or classroom level problem solving.  

Sample: levels of risk using existing school data from PBISmissouri:

schoolwide data risk

For more information about team based problem solving  please see the following DE-PBS presentation slides: Data-based Decision-Making Process and problem solving template and example


6.  How will we support all the student needs identified by all this data?

Recent research has shown that schools who engage in comprehensive universal SEB screening will increase the percentage of students identified as in need of support.  However, remember:

  1. Screening data should never be used to label students.  Instead, universal screening data is a warning sign that a problem might exist that is not being addressed in the existing school-wide context.  It signals that more information (not necessarily more intervention) is needed to understand and support your staff and students. 
  2. Teams should establish a plan for reviewing the ALL sources of screening data.  This plan will inform the appropriate level of problem solving for your context.  Remember,  If a high percentage of students show risk you may have a universal/tier 1 need versus a targeted or individual student support need.

7. I’ve heard the new Delaware MTSS regulations require our school teams to screen students within the first few weeks of school. Is that true?

The regulations require school teams to engage in a screening process within the first few weeks of school to inform programmatic decisions at the school, grade, classroom and student level.  The regulations do not require school teams to purchase and utilize a commercial SEB screening tool.  

It is recommended school teams work on developing a comprehensive screening process via schoolwide data rather than purchasing a new tool within the first few weeks of school.  Ideally, district leadership teams (not school teams) should engage in a process to select and install any new universal screening measure to ensure contextual fit and resource allocation (e.g. coaching support).


8. Our district isn’t ready to adopt a screening measure. What do you recommend at the school level?

First, we always recommend schools establish systems to review school-wide data prior to considering additional data sources.  However, there are informal data measures that are relatively easy to integrate into your existing screening processes. The selection of a tool will depend on the priorities of your MTSS team.  For example, teams wishing to measure teacher-student relationships and identify disconnected students can use a Connection Survey.  Or,  if you wish to identify students who are non-responsive to your universal SEB supports, you might consider using your school-wide expectations as behavioral screening.


9. What should we look for in a screening measure? Or how do I know which data can be used as part of our screening process?

Universal screening measures range from district developed surveys to standardized tools for specific types of skills.  However, to ensure the tool is a screener and not a diagnostic measure the following characteristics should be considered:

  • Leads to proactive decision making
  • Is aligned with the school or district’s core (school-wide) instructional focus
  • Uncovers or highlights a potential problem at one point in time 
  • Leads to conversations about who and how many may benefit from support
  • Can be universally administered to an entire classroom/grade/school/district 
  • Is time efficient and cost effective
  • Is administered, scored and interpreted the same way

10. Our district leadership team is ready to install a formal screening tool.  Where do we start?

Great!  it is highly recommended that a district level MTSS leadership team engages in a process, inclusive of exploring existing data sources, to select and implement a screener that supports the mission and vision of the larger district.  District support is especially important, because adopting a screener requires stakeholder support, legal guidance, financial resources and coaching.

Our team at the DE-PBS Project is working with partner districts through the Project DelAWARE grant to develop a process for district leadership teams interested in selecting and installing a screening measure.

We have developed a screener installation coaching guide to help your leadership team as you progress through the process.  

You may also find this resource for school leaders helpful as you begin to engage with administrators across the district!


Coming soon!  Interested in Learning More?

Presentations:  Universal screening webinars and presentations presented by the DE-PBS Project

Exploration Tools:  Tools and resources to determine if adopting a screening tool is right for your district/school teams and how to select a screening tool in ways that ensure stakeholder support

Installation Tools:  Tools and resources to prepare to implement a new screening measure

Implementation Tools:   Tools and resources to support teams to use screening data for data-based decision making

Additional Resources:  Research related to universal behavioral health screening in schools