Should I Assess for Behavior, Social-Emotional Learning, or Mental Health?

Schools are increasingly tasked to be providers of mental and behavioral health services while concurrently implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) curricula. But measuring both has proved to be a challenge. 

Universal screening is one such method that schools have used to provide timely data to inform early intervention efforts and schoolwide data to evaluate the efficacy of universal programming. However, some schools struggle with how to initiate universal screening and where to focus limited resources. Oftentimes, a primary barrier to beginning the screening process is agreeing upon the primary domain of interest. 

In other words, should schools be assessing behavior, mental health, SEL, or all three? 

Starting With the "How"

While somewhat counterintuitive, schools may first ask how their screening data will be used before identifying what they hope a universal screener will measure. For example, a school may be interested in measuring student strengths, but then not know how these data will be used to inform school programming or need for individual student intervention. This may lead to delays in how data are used, thus reducing the likelihood of quick and accurate problem solving. 

Another school could be interested in evaluating the efficacy of their schoolwide SEL curricula — the school team may define success as reduced emotional and social risk across the academic year. This school team knows what type of data are necessary to address their primary question of interest.

In both scenarios, how schools intend to use their data should drive what domains are measured. Put another way, agreeing on how data are used can help schools determine if they are assessing behavior, mental health or SEL.

Identifying the "What"

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Curricula

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is a process by which “children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Depending on the curricula selected, the goals and subsequent student outcomes of the SEL program may look different. For example, some SEL curricula focus on relationship skills while others teach emotional coping.

Social-Emotional and Behavioral (SEB) Screening

Traditionally mental health has been defined from a deficit viewpoint focusing on symptoms of psychopathology (e.g., withdrawal, aggression). However, modern conceptualizations of mental health incorporate a dual-factor model — that is, a mentally well individual does not display signs and symptoms of psychopathology and does display essential prosocial skills and subjective wellbeing.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defined mental health to include, “emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices.”

Sound familiar? 

This is not to say that SEL and mental (and behavioral) health are entirely equivalent. Behavior and mental health skill development (e.g., responsibility, organization, coping with loss) can be taught through a variety of frameworks such as Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS). SEL competencies may address important components of a dual-factor model of mental health (or at least the prosocial skills), yet may not be sufficient in providing specific strategies for symptom reduction. However, there is substantial overlap, thus it is essential that schools define the primary measurement domain of interest.

Increasingly, schools are using the umbrella term of social-emotional and behavioral (SEB) screening. The SEB terminology is more familiar and accessible to educators while recognizing the importance of measuring both risk as well as student strengths.

Download our eBook, Get the Whole Picture: Using Social, Emotional and Behavioral Assessments to Support Student Success, to learn more about using behavior screening within MTSS and how this data can be used to provide more targeted supports.

Download Now: Free SEB eBook 

If Not a Strength, Then a Weakness?

Strength-based assessments are recommended by many within the SEL community to identify specific and developmentally appropriate competencies. In other words, strength-based SEL assessments provide data on which SEL skills have been mastered; schools may use these data to evaluate the efficacy of their program in meeting skill development across domains.

Yet, these tools offer little guidance on identifying kids in need of specific intervention or remediation. For example, a student may not have mastered a specific relationship skill on a strength-based assessment — this does not necessarily indicate the student to be at risk for social behavior problems.  

Tools developed to identify only symptoms of psychopathology or problem behaviors rarely consider student strengths or competencies, therefore have limited utility in providing data to schools when evaluating SEL curricula. Assessments developed to measure strengths should do so reliably and efficiently — the same is true for tools designed to identify emotional and behavioral problems.

In sum, it is highly unlikely that one tool, particularly those used for universal screening purposes where efficiency is prioritized, will be sufficiently comprehensive to assess SEL competencies while concurrently identifying students in need of additional supports. 

Choosing the Right Screening Tools

School teams are often faced with a difficult decision in prioritizing assessment time and resources. With competing initiatives, schools may feel the need to assess either SEL/strengths or mental and behavioral health. Recognizing these challenges, a growing consensus has identified screening for social, emotional, and behavioral (SEB) indicators as aligned to the outcomes driven language familiar with most educators.

Modern screening tools, including the SAEBRS available in the FastBridge formative assessment system, are developed from a dual-factor model of mental health to determine students in need of supports while also recognizing the importance of student strengths. These tools give educators quick and timely information for all students, while recognizing that a more in depth and resource intensive assessment may be needed for some students.

Thus, when educators consider measuring SEL or behavior/mental health, they could select measures that provide a bit of both—and saving their time and in-depth assessment resources for only those students in need of additional problem solving.

The FastBridge formative assessment system is the first and only K-12 assessment system to include SEB screening and progress monitoring measures alongside measures for reading and math in a single, integrated system. Learn more about how FastBridge assessments can give you a better picture of the whole child. Contact us today to speak with a representative.

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Romer, N., von der Embse, N., Eklund, K., Kilgus, S., Perales, K., Splett, J. W., Sudlo, S., Wheeler, D., (2020). Best Practices in Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Screening: An Implementation Guide. Version 2.0. Retrieved from

Suldo, S. M., & Shaffer, E. J. (2008). Looking beyond psychopathology: The dual-factor model of mental health in youth. School Psychology Review, 37, 52–68.


SEB, Social Emotional Learning, social, emotional, and behavioral (SEB), SEL

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Dr. Nate Von Der Embse

Dr. Nate Von Der Embse

Nathaniel P. von der Embse, Ph.D., is an associate professor of school psychology at the University of South Florida. Dr. von der Embse serves as an associate editor for the Journal of School Psychology, and his research interests include universal screening for behavioral and mental health, teacher stress and student test anxiety, and training educators in population-based mental health services. He received the 2018 Lightner Witmer Award for early career scholarship from Division 16 of the American Psychological Association. He is one of the authors of the Social, Academic, and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener (SAEBRS) assessment suite and is an author and behavior team member with FastBridge.