Within a school setting, teachers and administrators typically can observe children struggling with emotional or behavioral challenges or receive that information from parents or caregivers. Early identification can help ensure children receive the appropriate support and interventions; however, their needs are not always obvious.
“Our hope is to pick up those kids who might fall through the cracks, particularly those with early risk for anxiety and depression,” says Bridget Dever, professor of school psychology.
Dever partners with schools to administer a “screener” to all students, typically twice per year. The screening tool, designed to identify individual risk factors and symptoms, includes Likert scale questions such as ‘Do you worry?’ and ‘Do you feel lonely?’ with possible answers ranging from “never” to “almost always.” Teachers complete the screener for students in kindergarten through second grade; third through 12th graders complete it independently.
Although the screener is not diagnostic, it can help teachers and administrators recognize when a child might have early signs of behavioral and emotional challenges, identifying those who might not yet be on the school’s radar, but would benefit from prevention and intervention efforts. The school receives a list of individual at-risk students and administrators determine next steps.
“The screener is good at picking up those kids with internalizing problems… the students who tend to be the surprises [for the school],” says Dever. “They're sad, they're feeling lonely, but they're excelling in the classroom. They're the ones who are volunteering to help the teacher. They’re super engaged in the classroom, so they would have fallen through the cracks otherwise.”
Dever compiles and analyzes the data at the aggregate level, examining different symptoms across grade level by sex and looking for patterns. She then determines which intervention or prevention supports might be most useful at the school- or grade-level, such as integrating more social-emotional activities into lessons or selecting books that prompt discussions about feelings.
Years of this work has enabled Dever to build large datasets from schools across multiple states, allowing her to broadly examine the development of behavioral and emotional risk over time, and “what it might look like at different ages, what might look different in adolescence versus kindergarten.” She has also linked behavioral and emotional risk to different outcomes related and unrelated to academics, including student motivation.
In a study currently under review, Dever and her colleagues examined data for middle school students to determine how emotional risk is linked to teacher-student relationships, defined by a student’s perception of how much a teacher cared for them.
Dever and her colleagues asked students questions such as whether their teacher was fair and if they thought their teacher supported them.
“We wanted to see whether or not those perceptions would predict the types of achievement goals students set,” says Dever. In addition, they wanted to know whether these goals predict behavioral and emotional risk.
Students set goals based on mastery or performance, Dever explains. A mastery goal is one in which a student strives to learn and improve independently of others, whereas a performance goal drives students to compete to earn a certain grade or outperform others. The team found that the stronger the teacher-student relationship, the more students endorsed both mastery and performance goals. However, the relationship was stronger with mastery goals, which also predicted lower behavioral and emotional risk symptoms. Performance goals predicted higher behavioral and emotional risk.
“It's pretty interesting to look at the role of the teacher and how much the student perceives the teacher as caring about them, and how that can affect not only motivation, but also behavioral and emotional symptoms through the process of motivation,” Dever says. “What you do in the classroom can influence the student's type of motivation, which then has an impact on both their academics and their behavior.”
Bridget Dever’s research focuses on the identification of risk and the contextual and individual-level variables that support educational resilience. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.