Identifying Elementary School Students with Possible Behavioral Health Disorders

There are never enough behavioral health professionals working with and in elementary education. In positions as counselors and teachers as well as a wide variety of other roles, these professionals understand that the first step in helping a child with any behavioral health disorder starts with identification. With a goal of intervention and treatment before there are problems, they must work with teachers, administrators, parents and other healthcare professionals to identify these students.

Although statistics of elementary school students that are diagnosed with behavioral health issues are important on a number of levels, they do not inform parents and administrators on how best to identify students before problems occur. It is true that a significant percentage of these students have greater absences, truancy, and academic performance challenges.


Unfortunately these are all symptoms that are not always predictive of the problem as well as the challenge of their becoming apparent over time. Often by the time that teachers that are not trained in behavioral health see the problem, the child has acted out in other ways that are more serious.

Statistically, a very significant percentage of students with behavioral health disorders are not diagnosed, and therefore don’t receive professional treatment. Left untreated, these disorders can lead to more struggles over time.

Professionals in this field understand that early detection and treatment is the key to overcoming the behavioral health challenge more so than the child’s specific diagnosis. With most of the factors that contribute to these disorders occurring outside of the classroom, the first line of defense in assessing and identifying these students is through the parents.

With so many socio-economic factors at play in creating the foundation of many specific behavioral health issues, it is not uncommon for many parents to be unable or unwilling to play a strong role in providing detailed information or play an active role in assessment. Consequently, engaging them becomes a matter of general outreach that creates a blanket understanding of the warning signs that are appropriate to their child’s age.

It is imperative that schools create ongoing and periodic ways to reach out to parents. This includes approaches that are meant to engage those that are part of parent teacher conference interactions as well as those that are not. Behavioral health professionals must work with the school to create both written and verbal outreach programs that help explain that elementary students often display irritability, frequent crying, temper outbursts or aggression at home even before these symptoms appear in the classroom. Of course, the complete opposite can be true, depending on the child.

The goal is not to alarm parents but to get them to really begin to know their child so that they can recognize when something is wrong. By spending time with them every day, and talking with them in a non-confrontational way, parents can get a perspective on their child that can often only come from them. This allows the parents to reach out to behavioral health professionals associated with the school to help and further the assessment process for identifying the problem.

Of course, this can be an impossible scenario in many cases when parents are under the stress of too many of life’s problems and challenges to do more than they are already doing. That means that a comprehensive program of assessment and intervention must be put in place by the school with the help of behavioral health professionals.

A paper outlining effective means of identification and assessment of these students was published in conjunction with the National Association of School Psychologists several years ago, which is still effective today. Entitled, “Responding to the Mental Health Needs of Students,” the paper discusses how schools can create opportunities to regularly assess the mental health needs of students and the effectiveness of school-based services.

The paper first emphasizes informal approaches such as checking in with students of concern daily. More generally, teachers and administrators should be closely observing and listening to all student interactions in the lunchroom and hallways to determine how people are doing. This gathered information should be part of a more formalized leadership meeting that discusses the needs of students and their issues.

More formal methods include collecting data that examines the school climate on an aggregate as well as overall level. This should include class participation and attendance; the frequency, intensity, and duration of misconduct; and ongoing progress monitoring conducted as part of a response to intervention process.

Creating voluntary screening for depression or other mental health problems also can be a useful way to assess student needs. The paper emphasizes the creation of a connected network of faculty and administrators that knows the behavioral health professionals on the staff. This allows them to regularly interact and plan with the staff members to create these programs.

With so many schools lacking funding, full-time, dedicated behavioral health professionals are too few and far between. Even so, hiring faculty even on a temporary or substitute basis that have this experience can help in building a foundational plan for assessment and identification in the school.

As this paper and many others posit, today’s schools must emphasize the creation of school communities that “reach and teach the whole child.” This includes academic, behavioral, and social-emotional facets within their whole environment, which includes the family and the community as well as the school. The more behavioral health professionals with a passion to be part of creating this solution, the better off our schools and communities will be in the years to come.

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