Identifying Students with Back-to-School Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs: How to Screen Without Screening

In Uncommon Times, Uncommon Sense is Best

Dear Colleagues,


   Since the full force of the Pandemic began in March—dramatically changing the educational landscape for students, parents, and educators—I have written two Blog articles each month, trying to provide common sense and science-to-practice directions and recommendations relative to effective school and schooling strategies.

   I have discussed the pandemic on personal and professional levels, focused on home and school issues, and directly addressed students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral experiences, status, and needs.

   At this point, it appears that the vast majority of schools across the country will be educating their students using either full-virtual or hybrid approaches this Fall.

   For those schools in full-virtual mode, we must—nowcomprehensively address the off-campus social, emotional, and behavioral needs of all of our students—going well past this Spring’s reactive (and necessary) focus on students with significant, immediate physical, security, psychological, and disability-related needs.

   While challenging, related service professionals (counselors, school psychologists, social workers, etc.) must be working full-time on providing multi-tiered services and supports to all students. For students still in need, this may have to include socially-distanced home or school visits.

   For those schools in hybrid mode, we must look, now and one more time, at how our school plans include the social, emotional, and behavioral re-entry needs of all students, and how we will identify, validate, and address the specific needs of some students.

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   In the Summary section of this article, I will review the social, emotional, and behavioral service and support recommendations from my most-recent (since March) Blogs.

   Today’s message, however, specifically focuses on how to screen (lower case) our students’ social, emotional, and behavioral status this Fall—regardless of a school’s virtual/stay-at-home, hybrid, or full-attendance model.

   Critically, unlike some of my colleagues, the popular press, and the test vendors (and some of their authors), I am not recommending that schools formally Screen (upper case—using some type of standardized assessment tool) students in the social-emotional areas during, at least, the first two months of the school year—whenever that starts for your students.

   If such “Screening” is done too early and too quickly, the results will largely be invalid, the needed treatment directions will be unclear (or incorrectly focused), the time will be wasted. . . . and worse, some students may be harmed by not getting or getting the wrong therapeutic services.

   Instead, I recommend “screening” activities (lower case s), and the use of your mental health team to pool the information from these activities to make sound, differentiated clinical decisions.

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How Does the “Normalcy Bias” Relate to Social-Emotional Screening?

   As many of you know, I read articles every day in a wide variety of educational, psychological, organizational, business, and current event areas. Last week, I read a business article in RealLeaders titled, “How Business Can Beat the Coronavirus: Confront the New Reality.”

   It discussed the impact of the Normalcy Bias, one of hundreds of cognitive biases that specifically leads people to disbelieve or minimize threat warnings. Typically applied to natural or situational disasters or catastrophes, a Normalcy Bias is a conscious or unconscious neuro-psychological process that can be applied to our current Pandemic conditions in a number of ways.

   For example, in a March 15, 2020 Psychology Today article, “How Psychological Biases Shaped My Response to This Pandemic,” Dr. Amie Gordon analyzed her initial under-reaction to COVID-19 in early March saying,

"One of the most relevant psychological biases is called the normalcy bias. This bias refers to our tendency to expect that things will continue to occur in the future the way they have typically occurred in the past (to continue to be “normal”), which can lead us to underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster occurring and how bad the disaster is when it does occur.

And apparently, I am among the 70 percent or so people thought to fall prey to this bias during a disaster. Even as I write about this bias, I can feel it playing in my mind. I feel myself thinking that yes, things are strange right now, but this is just temporary. It can’t really keep getting worse, right?

I have to keep reminding myself that my daughter’s school is closed for a month (remember, she was writing this in March) because that is certainly not part of my normal life. The world’s reaction to the novel coronavirus has made it clear that this is not a normal situation, but I must remind myself of it constantly to fight against what, in my mind, feels like a brief blip in our typical way of doing things."

   While I wonder if some people are “refusing” to wear masks in public not because of defiance, but because of their unconscious normalcy bias, let’s talk about how some may be making educational and psychoeducational recommendations based on their normalcy biases.

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   Over the past week or so, I have read a number of articles, newsletters, or advertisements (framed to educators as “professional advice”) that recommend that we formally Screen all students’ social, emotional, and behavioral status as soon as they come back to school this Fall.

   By formally Screen, they are suggesting that we ask teachers (or others) to complete a standardized questionnaire, behavior rating scale, or clinical assessment tool on every student to determine if they are experiencing or at-risk for some social, emotional, or behavioral problem (for example, trauma, stress, anxiety, depression, anger, or aggression).

   These recommendations have come from test or book publishers (or their authors), companies marketing their on-line assessments or services, the educational media (for example, Education Week or different SmartBrief newsletters), and in the popular press.

   Some of these sources, quite honestly, are just trying to increase their “market share” of schools.

   Others are publishing the work of their contributing authors, but their editors “don’t know what they don’t know”—and end up publishing “bad science.”

   Still others are not adequately defining what they mean by “screening”—leaving it up to the (mis)interpretation of practicing school personnel.

   And others, finally, are incurring a Normalcy Bias—thinking that how we did social, emotional, and behavioral screening pre-pandemic is how we should still do it post-pandemic.

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Why We Should Not Screen Students with Social-Emotional Tests Immediately This School Year

   Under normal (pre-pandemic) circumstances, a psychometrically-sound screening-to-services process requires the use of (a) multiple assessment approaches or tools; (b) completed by multiple raters (including the student him or herself); (c) evaluating student behavior across multiple settings; (d) where the ratings, observations, and data are reliable and the results are valid; and all completed (e) within a multiple-gated process.

   With no disrespect to my educational colleagues, if the statement above (and explained below) does not make complete sense, please consult your school psychologist—typically, the best psychometrically science-to-practice expert in this area in your district.

   In this context, whether using a standardized questionnaire, behavior rating scale, or clinical assessment tool, a formal social-emotional Screening Test requires someone to complete the tool based on enough observation, interaction, and experience with a student that the ratings are reliable and valid.

   In schools, “enough observation, interaction, and experience” is typically defined as a minimum of six to eight weeks of “frequent” interactions that occur (as above) over time, in multiple settings, and across multiple circumstances.

   Stated less clinically, the person who is completing a social, emotional, or behavioral Screening Test needs to know the student.

   So why shouldn’t schools screen students with social-emotional questionnaires, scales, tools, or tests immediately this new school year?

  • If students have all new teachers this new school year, none of them will have enough interactional experiences with their students to (reliably—never mind validly) complete a screening tool until (depending on when students return) early- to mid-October at the earliest.

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  • If students have the same teachers as last year, too many social, emotional, or behavioral events have occurred between last March (when most schools closed) and now. . . that these teachers either are not privy to or have not directly observed under “typical” classroom conditions (noting that virtual instruction is different than on-site classroom instruction).

Thus, these teachers cannot assume that students’ pre-pandemic status is similar to their Fall school re-entry status (again, without the six to eight weeks noted above). Moreover, if these teachers rated their students immediately at the beginning of this new school year, their ratings would be based more on students’ pre-pandemic behavior than their re-entry behavior (another type of rating bias).

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  • When students return to school this Fall, we are fully expecting a social, emotional, and behavioral transition or re-entry process that is somewhat different than “normal.” While we can’t exactly predict how individual students will re-enter (hence the screening process outlined later in this Blog), we do expect different levels of social, emotional, and behavioral variability across students as a “normal” response. . . both to the medical, economic, educational, social, and/or other life condition effects of the pandemic, and to the racial bias and equity events triggered by the murder of George Floyd and others.

Thus, any social, emotional, or behavioral Screening Tests completed immediately at the beginning of the new school year will likely reflect the variability of the re-entry transition process for students, and not their more longstanding, “typical” behavior once the transition time has passed.

   Thus, as emphasized in the Introduction, we are recommending that schools do not formally Screen (upper case—using some type of standardized assessment tool) students in the social-emotional areas during, at least, the first two months of the school year—whenever that starts for your students.

   Instead, we are recommending “screening” activities (lower case s), and the use of your mental health team to pool the information from these activities to make sound, differentiated clinical decisions.

   These screening activities are outlined below—first from a process perspective and then from a data-collection perspective.

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The Recommended Pandemic-Sensitive Screening Process

   As noted above, a psychometrically-sound social, emotional, and behavioral screening-to-services process requires the use of (a) multiple assessment approaches or tools; (b) completed by multiple raters (including the student him or herself); (c) evaluating student behavior across multiple settings; (d) where the ratings, observations, and data are reliable and the results are valid; and all completed (e) within a multiple-gated process.

   For a school, the multiple-gated process includes the following steps:

  • Step 1. Gathering (right now), the school’s Multi-Tiered Services Team (Child Study Team, Student Services Team, Student Assistance Team, or whatever the official name), including (if they are not on the team) the school’s administrative and multi-disciplinary mental health and related services staff.

This Team needs to meet as soon as possible to decide what social, emotional, and behavioral information and data are available for analysis right now (see the Data-Collection section below), what data need to be collected before the school year begins, and what information can wait until after the school year starts.

For example, before the school year begins, the Team can analyze last year’s student data from the school’s Information Management System (e.g., discipline data, and report card or other documented comments), and review existing IEPs and mental health staff case load records. The Team also can survey parents to discover any medical, social, emotional, and behavior concerns (if any) that they have had about their children since March, and then interview those parents who report significant concerns.

At the recommended meeting, the Team also needs to decide who will be involved in the data collection and analysis, what social service or other community partners need to be involved, who will take on additional responsibilities, and when the before-school information and data need to be collected by.

Finally, the Team needs to decide what data need to be collected and analyzed after the year formally begins, individualizing this process to the school’s virtual, hybrid, or full-attendance format.

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  • Step 2. All of the before school year information and data need to be collected, synthesized, validated, analyzed, and discussed by the Team.

The Team then can use the data to organize students into three groups: Get-Go, At-Risk, and Check-In students, respectively.

Get-Go Students either need immediate services, supports, or interventions right now, or they will need services, supports, or interventions ready for them on the first day of the school year.

At-Risk Students are likely to come back to school with social, emotional, or behavioral needs or challenges. Appropriate staff need to be briefed, before the school year, on the “early warning” indicators that validate the actual existence of these challenges, and that indicate a need for further observation, attention, and discussion.

Check-In Students simply need someone to “check-in” with them during the first days of the school year to see, for example, how the transition back to school is going, if they have food or other support needs at home, or whether they have enough supplies for the school year.

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  • Step 3. Returning staff need to be briefed on the social, emotional, and behavioral issues that are expected as students return to school this year, and to the variability of behavior discussed earlier in this Blog. They also need to be trained on the “early warning indicators” that some students may demonstrate “above and beyond” the expected variability, and with whom to share this information.

These briefings will most likely be presented by one or two members of the Multi-Tiered Building-level Team, and one or two members of that Team will probably be designated as the “go-to” people when teachers or other staff are concerned about individual students.

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  • Step 4. The Multi-Tiered Building-level Team needs to set up (a) a process, during the first six to eight weeks of the school year, whereby staff are periodically surveyed to determine the social, emotional, and behavioral status of students as the transition into the new school year proceeds; (b) a “safety net” so that students who are masking their needs are not missed; and (c) an assessment continuum such that students who need formal assessments receive those assessments (and, as determined, services and supports) in a timely way.

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  • Step 5. If, in addition to the Steps above, the school still believes that a formal Social-Emotional Screening Test should be administered on all students after the first six to eight weeks of the school year, this should be organized and implemented.

If this is done, a separate multiple-gated process is required involving (a) the identification of false-positive and false-negative students after the screening is completed; (b) the completion of more formal assessments for “red-flag” students to isolate their prevailing problems and root causes; (c) and the linking of the assessment results to effectively implemented strategic or intensive services, supports, strategies, or interventions.

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The Recommended Data-Collection Elements

   Relative to screening or a more formal assessment of a student’s social, emotional, and behavioral status, there are many ways to collect important data. Ultimately, these data must be reliable and valid (this is a required psychometric principle), and they need to identify and differentiate among specific, legitimate concerns.

   The different ways to collect social, emotional, and behavioral screening data can be summarized in the acronym RIOTS. This acronym is operationalized below along with just a few specific examples of screening-specific data collection approaches.

  • (R) Review. Every school has records, files, computer spreadsheets, and other documents on every student. There are (a) “official” records—like electronic and paper Cumulative Folders; (b) instructional folders—like work sample folders collected by teachers; (c) clinical files—like case notes written and kept by counselors when students are attending therapeutic groups or are being evaluated through the school’s pre-referral, multi-tiered services process; and (d) plan-related documents—like Behavioral Intervention, 504, and Individual Education Plans.

Right now, the Multi-Tiered Services Team can review these records to identify students who were receiving—or may have benefitted from—social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health services.

Students who need immediate services—or services on the first day of the new school year (e.g., students on the “Plans” above)—should be identified as “Get-Go” students, and outreach to parents and students should occur now (unless the students with disabilities are on Extended Year Plans already).

Other students, based on the record review, may be identified as either “At-Risk” or “Check-In” students.

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  • (I) Interview. While experiences and perceptions of students may differ, when educators have common concerns about the social, emotional, and behavioral status of different students, these concerns merge to the degree that the Multi-Tiered Services Team needs to take action. The “problem” is that some school staff get together so infrequently that they do not realize that their individual concerns about a specific student are actually shared.

This “collaboration gap” is even more pronounced now as the pandemic has forced educators home—where they are co-mingling personal and professional responsibilities, and as professional meetings (e.g., conference calls, on Zoom) are (a) less frequent, (b) less “personal”—because they are virtual, and (c) less data-based—because our direct student interactions have been more limited since March.

Similarly, the “routine,” and often face-to-face, contacts that we had with parents before March—especially related to students’ social, emotional, and behavioral issues in school—have decreased and changed, once again, given the need for more “distanced” interactions (e.g., on Zoom, the telephone, or by text).

Multi-Tiered Services Teams, perhaps through their Administrators, need to directly reach out now to all parents to see if they have social, emotional, or behavioral concerns about their children.

Each school’s Team also must communicate with all school staff to see if they, in their interactions with different students since March, also have student concerns—that parents may not have, or that have not been (as above) merged across individual staff.

Finally, with Memoranda of Understanding in place relative to HIPAA and confidentiality, selected Team members need to reach out to social service, mental health, and other community agencies or organizations to determine if they have student-related concerns.

As a result of pooling these “informal interviews,” more formal interviews can follow—again, as part of a screening process that identifies Get-Go, At-Risk, and Check-In students.

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  • (O) Observe. Clearly, our student observations since March have become more distant and virtual, and less frequent and rich. But observational data are real, and they contribute significantly to the screening process.

This contribution will be most felt when students return to school, and as teachers and others observe their transitions and interactions. When staff are trained (as recommended earlier in this piece) to accurately recognize students’ social, emotional, and behavioral challenges, they become the essential data-collection “eyes and ears” that substitute for a Social-Emotional Screening Test at the beginning of the new school year.

Thus, the Multi-Tiered Services Team needs to develop reliable, valid, systematic, and ongoing ways to collect, combine, and consider these observational data from teachers and other staff.

As an additional benefit, if a school does use a formal Social-Emotional Screening Test in October, the results of these tests will be more accurate given teachers’ more-informed (due to training) observations during the first two months of school.

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  • (T) Test. In the context of this discussion, here is where Social-Emotional Screening Tests fit in. Referencing everything in this Blog article thus far, Multi-Tiered Services Teams need to make sure that they select psychometrically sound instruments that become part of a multi-instrument, multi-respondent, multi-setting, multiple-gated process.

We strongly recommend that the test, tool, or instrument selected (a) screen for multiple social, emotional, and behavioral possibilities, rather than narrow areas of functioning (e.g., trauma, depression, anxiety); (b) assess for students’ strengths and competencies, rather than just problems or deficits; and (c) be administered in ways that minimize subjectivity, bias, and fatigue—the latter due to one professional needing to complete an excessive number of tools in a short period of time.

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  • (S) Self-Report. The social, emotional, and behavioral screening process should include opportunities whereby students can formally or informally “report” their own concerns or needs for themselves.

To accomplish this, students need to know that this is possible and encouraged—even during the summer or as classes are conducted virtually. Moreover, as developmentally appropriate, they need to know the “early warning signs” of a possible concern, and who they can contact within both the school and the community.

While some Screening Tests also have clinical self-evaluations, the Multi-Tiered Services Team needs to discuss their use—especially when students are off-campus and there are fewer professional interactions with them. For example, the items on a Self-Report tool may distress a specific student, and reporting and addressing this distress when a student is off-campus may create a tenuous situation.

When students return to school, they need to immediately know what social, emotional, and behavioral resources are available. While staff can encourage students to use those services, staff are still responsible to refer students with clear or suspected needs to the Multi-Tiered Services Team even in the absence of a student self-report or self-referral.

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   Brief Summary. The goal of this section is to help colleagues recognize that there are many information and data sources available to complete a sound social, emotional, and behavioral screening process for all of the students in a school. If our recommendation to not do a formal Social-Emotional Screening Test immediately at the beginning of the school year is heeded, data collected within the other RIOTS areas can—with Multi-Tiered Services Team planning—efficiently and effectively be used. In fact, the Team and school may realize that collecting these other data now may preempt the need for a later Screening Test.

   The critical issue is planning. Once again, now is the time for the Multi-Tiered Services Team to act.

   If a school is using any school-opening model that involves students’ physical presence in their classrooms, this action is essential to a smooth social, emotional, and behavioral transition.

   If the new year will start virtually, the school (and the Team) are still responsible for the social, emotional, and behavioral status of its students. We are now past the “reactive period” that began last March. We now need to be fully serving all of our students as part our comprehensive educational mandate.

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Summary and Reviewing Our Previous Re-Entry Recommendations

   In multiple ways and contexts, these are not normal times.

   And yet, we all experience—even momentarily—times when our normalcy bias leads us to disbelieve or minimize the impact of the current pandemic.

   On a professional level, we need to be careful about using past practices—that were appropriate in a non-pandemic world—before considering whether they are appropriate now.

   This means that we need to continually “test” the validity of our potential normalcy biases—especially when they impact students’ social, emotional, and behavioral status, progress, and needs.

   Said a different way: We need to use Uncommon Sense for these Uncommon Times.

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   In this Blog, we applied the normalcy bias to squelch others’ recommendations that schools formally screen— through standardized questionnaires, behavior rating scales, or clinical assessment tools—students’ social, emotional, and behavioral status immediately at the beginning of the new school year.

   Instead, we recommended the collection of screening information and data through the use of different screening approaches that are coordinated through a school’s Multi-Tiered Services Team.

   We then outlined a recommended sequence of screening activities, and identified different data collection approaches, organized by the acronym RIOTS.

   In all, we especially emphasized the importance of using a psychometrically-sound screening-to-services process requires the use of (a) multiple assessment approaches or tools; (b) completed by multiple raters (including the student him or herself); (c) evaluating student behavior across multiple settings; (d) where the ratings, observations, and data are reliable and the results are valid; and all completed (e) within a multiple-gated process.

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A Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Summary Bonus

   Since March, virtually all of my Blog articles have focused explicitly on how districts and schools should address the academic and social, emotional, and behavioral service-delivery challenges related to the pandemic. These have all been organized and integrated into a monograph:

Planning Your Post-Pandemic Re-Opening of School: Addressing Students’ Academic & Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs

   The monograph is over 130 pages, it is delivered electronically as a pdf, and because of the importance of the topic, we have priced it under $10.

[CLICK HERE To Review This Monograph]

   Below is a brief summary of five of the social, emotional, and behaviorally-related “Take-Aways” discussed in the Monograph.

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Take-Away #1. Primary Principles of Pandemic Planning

   In a recent Education Week article, Dr. Kathleen Minke, the Executive Director of the National Association of School Psychologists recommended the following principles for districts planning for the Fall school re-entry of their students:

  • Develop a long-term recovery plan.
  • Assess, don’t assume.
  • Develop a resource map.
  • Provide professional development and emotional care for adults.

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Take-Away #2. Primary Practices in the Student Re-Entry Process

   As our students return to school this Fall (whether virtual, hybrid, or full-attendance), their educators need to:

  • Plan from a strength-based perspective that recognizes and utilizes students’ social, emotional, and behavioral strengths.
  • Recognize the importance of creating immediate and sustained safe and supportive climates.
  • Allow students to discuss and debrief the pandemic’s past and present effects on their lives, to socially and emotionally re-connect with their peers and staff, and to (re-)establish supportive interpersonal and academic routines.
  • Realize that we will still be living in the shadow and context of the pandemic, that students (and staff) will need ongoing understanding and support, and that everyone has their own “timeline” relative to emotional response, recovery, and “normalization;”
  • Prepare to formally or informally screen students for social, emotional, and/or behavioral distress.
  • Have a continuum of in-school and community-based social, emotional, and behavioral services, supports, strategies, and interventions prepared for students in need.
  • Understand that this “new normal” post-pandemic school and schooling world includes a “new normal” relative to the social, emotional, and behavioral status and needs of students (and staff).

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Take-Away #3. Establish Stress-Informed not Trauma-Informed School Climates and Practices

   Pragmatically and clinically, more students have stressors that impact their social, emotional, and behavioral interactions than students—especially from a clinical perspective—with traumatic disorders.

   Thus, it follows that educators need to be prepared more broadly with Stress-Informed knowledge and practices, rather than with trauma-related approaches that typically require psychological training.

   Districts and schools need to recognize that there are no single or “packaged” (social, emotional, behavioral, or SEL) programs to purchase or download that will adequately and accurately address the unique and individual needs within each district and its community.

   Success here will require planning and implementing effective practices that are individualized to the students, staff, and families in each district or school.

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Take-Away #4. What to Include in Your Post-Pandemic Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Plan

   Districts and schools need to be prepared to implement a series of essential activities on the first days and weeks of the school year when staff and students physically return to school.

   They also need to prepare for a “second wave” of activities for the second and third months of the re-entry process.

   In order to accomplish some of these activities, the district needs to (a) have memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with agencies that have support personnel to help provide continuous social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health services; (b) systematically review data from its data management tracking system; (c) continue to provide both individual and group services and interventions so that students can process and share their experiences in appropriate and supportive formats and settings; and (d) maintain effective communications with individual and groups of parents and other community leaders.

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Take-Away #5. How to Talk with Students About the Pandemic and Help Them Cope

   Districts and schools need to prepare how and who will discuss relevant social, emotional, and behavioral issues relative to the pandemic and school and schooling processes. These discussions will evolve over time, they may be individualized to different groups of students, and they may involve a continuum from teachers to administrators to mental health professionals in the school.

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   Once again, all five of these Take-Aways are extensively discussed in the Planning Your Post-Pandemic Re-Opening of School monograph

[CLICK HERE To Review This Monograph]

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   Meanwhile, I hope that this Blog essay has been helpful to you. As an underlying theme, I want to emphasize that, while we need to prepare for this social, emotional, and behavioral transition on behalf of our students, we need to take an objective, developmentally-sensitive, and data-based perspective in how we plan and eventually respond to the real behaviors and needs that our students exhibit.

   Related to this is an emphasis that districts and schools need to prepare and implement effective, locally-sensitive, and student-focused practices. . . not global, canned, untested, or heavily marketed and frameworks or programs. And, once again, that the planning needs to occur now. . . so that the resources, preparation, and training can occur before our students come back.

   As always, I appreciate the time that you invest in reading these Blogs, and your dedication to your students, your colleagues, and effective school and schooling practices—especially in the face of the challenges and competing priorities that we all are experiencing.

   Please feel free to send me your thoughts and questions. 

   And please know that I am always available to you through Zoom calls. . . if and when you need me. Contact me at any time.