Universal, broader screenings of students needed

Approach would support social-emotional learning efforts

THE OPIOID LEGISLATION taken up by the House this week excludes a controversial provision from the Senate bill requiring public schools to screen all students in grades 7 through 10 for substance abuse problems. As the bill moves to conference committee, an opening remains to build on the spirit of the Senate’s screening provision with a superior and less contentious approach.

As reported by the Boston Globe this week, schools all across the state are increasingly working to nurture the social-emotional development of students. This new focus is driven by concern over school bullying, gun violence, substance abuse, and other behavioral health disorders, but it is also very much rooted in a growing body of research suggesting that social-emotional skills have at least equal, if not greater, influence on life-long success than academic skills.

A broader screening of all students each year is very much at the core of a comprehensive approach to supporting social-emotional growth. These so-called universal screenings help educators understand a student’s individual strengths, which can be built upon to increase positive self-identify and resilience. The screenings may also reveal areas of personal development that may need additional support at varying levels of intensity: for some, getting involved in a positive afterschool activity may do; others may need an adult mentor or professional counseling.

Compared with the limited substance-abuse screening provision in the Senate bill, increasing the practice of universal screening with an aim toward successfully implementing whole-school social-emotional development models will have far more impact in preventing substance abuse disorders. These conditions typically take hold during the transition from late-adolescence to early adulthood. Building social-emotional skills provides a very heavy dose of prevention.

Given the growing interest in creating learning environments that promote social-emotional skill development, a legislative requirement for universal screening is unnecessary. In fact, it would probably be counter-productive. As the organization Teachers21 notes (backed by solid research), successful implementation requires a school-wide approach, where all staff fundamentally buy-in and contribute to the effort, modeling consistent values and norms and working together in teams to promote social-emotional development with varied learning opportunities. This kind of embrace can’t be mandated.

However, if the legislature wants to support the expansion of these efforts, the opioid legislation could contain provisions to help schools establish the infrastructure to effectively perform universal screening. A recent MassINC-UMass Donahue Institute report on efforts to build social-emotional support systems in Gateway City districts revealed that communities struggle to implement universal screening, particularly in high schools. With relatively modest resources, the Legislature could help districts replicate evidence-based models, such as the approach used in Boston and Springfield by City Connects, an initiative led by researchers at Boston College.

Short of directing funds to help improve and expand universal screening, the Legislature could provide the Safe and Supportive Schools Commission with a small line item to hire consultants to examine current screening protocols and offer recommendations to improve the practice. Created by the Legislature in 2014, the commission is charged with exploring strategies to build learning environments that promote positive social-emotional development.

With funds to contract for consulting services, the commission could examine the evolving range of screening protocols currently in place. For instance, while universal screening is uncommon in high schools, many communities are moving to weekly advisory periods in which high school students work with faculty members to build Individual Learning Plans (ILPs). While these plans mostly outline milestones toward college and career goals, in some schools they also incorporate elements of social-emotional development. Efforts to help detect risk factors for substance abuse disorders and to monitor the extent to which resources are in place to serve students would be a productive step forward in response to the current crisis.

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

For years, Massachusetts residents have exhibited above average rates of substance abuse problems. Diagnosing and treating those with the disorder will help, but ending the epidemic will ultimately require a much heavier dose of prevention. With opioid legislation, public health leaders have a unique opportunity to harness the power of the growing social-emotional learning movement.

Ben Forman is the research director at MassINC, which owns CommonWealth.