By Stephanie D. Davis, Ellie L. Young, Susan Hardman, and Rebecca Winters

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Josie, a ninth grader, is failing two of her classes and getting Cs and Ds in her other classes. She has been suspended for fighting with another girl in the hall. She consistently talks back to teachers and gets three or four office discipline referrals each month. Sometimes Josie sleeps in class; at other times she is withdrawn and sullen. Independently, teachers work to try help Josie experience success in the classroom. You and other administrators have provided disciplinary consequences but without much effect. You have tried to meet with Josie’s mother, but because she works two jobs, she can’t often come to school to address problems.

As principal, you are concerned about Josie but realize that she is only one student who fits a similar pattern. Two teachers have requested a meeting to discuss a handful of students who are disrupting class, making it difficult for their classmates to focus. Basic classroom and disciplinary interventions have not worked. The teachers are frustrated and some parents are getting upset. You recognize the need to identify Josie and other students with behavior problems early so that staff members can employ the most effective interventions before severe problems occur.

Schoolwide screening for emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) results in early identification and timely, responsive intervention for at-risk youth. Students who are at risk for EBD have difficulty with learning, social relationships, depression, and anxiety and exhibit inappropriate behaviors. School administrators tend to be aware of those students because they usually require a great deal of support and a variety of resources to appropriately participate in school.

Early identification of students who are at risk helps school teams provide timely intervention and support to address problem behaviors before they become entrenched and difficult, if not impossible, to manage. Although students who are at risk for EBD may display only some of the core characteristics and with less frequency or intensity than those who are actually identified as having EBD, early identification and intervention can lead to improved educational outcomes.

Characteristics of Students With EBD

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Compared with students who have other educational disabilities, students with EBD experience the lowest levels of academic success. A total of 51% of those identified with EBD drop out of school (U.S. Department of Education, 2002), and only one in five will attend a postsecondary school (Wagner, Kutash, Duchnowski, Epstein, & Sumi, 2005).

After high school, people with EBD experience instability in employment and challenges with their mental health. Social alienation for students is highly related to anxiety, depression, and conduct problems, and students who are at risk for EBD may be seen as lonely, unlikable, provoking, and lacking in social competency. These negative characteristics and outcomes may be avoided or minimized with early identification and intervention.

Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors
EBD is often identified in internalizing or externalizing categories. Internalizing behaviors are associated with problematic internal feelings, such as anxiety, sadness, reticence, fearfulness, and oversensitivity. Students with externalizing behaviors tend to show outward behavioral problems that include aggression, unruliness, forcefulness, and oppositional behaviors. A few students may display both internalizing and externalizing behaviors (e.g., a student with aggressive behaviors who also displays some depressive or anxious feelings), but usually students can be identified as primarily externalizing or internalizing.

Screening for both internalizing and externalizing behaviors is important because students with internalizing problems are easily overlooked: they typically create few discipline problems and maintain good grades, although some may have attendance problems. Teachers who are aware of students who are withdrawn, anxious, fearful, and unassertive can help school teams identify them so that early interventions can be put in place.

Students with externalizing tendencies are more readily noticed by teachers. Such behaviors as getting out of one’s seat, provoking peers, acting aggressive, and refusing to stay on task occur frequently in students with EBD, and those behaviors often require the teacher’s attention or disciplinary actions. Students with EBD tend to have high numbers of office referrals for behavioral offenses. Students who commit one to three behavioral offenses in sixth grade are more likely to have continued behavior problems in eighth grade and are less likely to be on track for high school graduation (Tobin & Sugai, 1999).

Academic Skills

A Quick Glance at EBD

Most students at risk for EBD have significant academic deficits from the beginning of their school careers. Between 1961 and 2000, about 91% of studies examining the academic status of students with EBD found significant educational deficits (Trout, Nordness, Pierce, & Epstein, 2003). Those deficits are found on general achievement tests that broadly measure reading, writing, and math competence. Even when students with EBD perform at an academic level similar to that of students with learning disabilities, teachers rate the academic competence of students with EBD to be significantly lower (Lane, Carter, Pierson, & Glaeser, 2006). Students with EBD also have low attendance at school, which would contribute to poor academic performance, but attempting to help them learn through grade retention is ineffective (Anderson, Kutash, & Duchnowski, 2001). Because students with EBD have difficulties with academics, screening helps identify those who are at risk so that they can receive focused help, rather than simply be retained.

Additional Considerations

Gender Issues
Most students identified as at risk for or as having EBD are male. Surprisingly this prevalence occurs in both the external and internal categories, although male students are more likely to display external behaviors than internal ones. This may be seen when adolescent males express depressive feelings externally through negative interpersonal interactions. Females are identified as being at risk less frequently, but when they are identified, they are more commonly identified as internalizers. Because males are much more likely to be identified as EBD or as at risk for EBD, teachers and administrators must be sure that they are not overlooking the needs and behaviors of adolescent females in the screening process (Young, Sabbah, Young, Reiser, & Rich-ardson, 2010).

Environmental Factors
Teachers often notice environmental factors. When students appear hungry or tired, teachers may view them as being at risk. In addition, teachers notice students who appear to have less-involved parents or familial stress. One group of researchers determined that nontraditional family structure, low socioeconomic status, multiple school changes, urban school atmosphere, and parental dissatisfaction with the school were all predictors of school exclusion (expulsions and suspensions) for students with EBD (Achilles, McLaughlin, & Croninger, 2007). Those findings suggest that heightened EBD indicators as measured by school exclusion may be influenced by a student’s environment.

Quality of life issues or other environmental factors may influence the manifestation of EBD. When students completed a quality of life survey, those identified as having EBD demonstrated lower feelings of selfcompetence and reported negative relationships with others. These quality of life scores did not differ significantly across ages or between the sexes of students with EBD (Sacks & Kern, 2008). By considering the aspects of a student’s environment, a school team may increase its ability to intervene early and help support a young person who is at risk before he or she develops maladaptive behavioral patterns that are resistant to interventions.

Screening Processes

Screening processes should be efficient, practical, evidencebased, and effective. Unfortunately, few have been specifically designed to identify at-risk secondary students with either externalizing or internalizing behaviors. Some recent research efforts (Caldarella, Young, Richardson, Young, & Young, 2008; Young et al., 2010) have used a teacher nomination process to identify at-risk students. Researchers used the Systematic Screening for Behavior Disorders (SSBD), which was developed by Walker and Severson (1992) for use in elementary schools. Preliminary evidence has supported its use—with caution—in secondary schools. Those researchers used the teacher nomination form to generate a list of students about whom teachers expressed concern, then followed up with assessments to better identify student needs.

Three screening measures have been designed for use in secondary settings: the Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ; Goodman, 1997); the Behavior Assessment System for Children, Behavioral and Emotional Screening System (BASC-2 BESS; Kamphaus & Reynolds, 2007); and the Student Risk Screening Scale (SRSS; Drummond, 1994). The SDQ contains 25 questions and can be completed by a parent, teacher, or student in approximately five minutes. The BASC-2 BESS has 25–30 items and can be completed by a parent, a teacher, or a student in approximately five minutes. It was developed as a screening version of the BASC-2, a 139- to 176-question instrument that indicates the severity of EBD symptoms within different categories of concern (Reynolds & Kamphaus, 2004).

Using the BASC-2 BESS or the SDQ as an initial screening test could be quite cumbersome because they require 5–10 minutes per student to complete: having the teacher complete the instrument for all students is probably unrealistic, and having students, parents, or teachers complete the form for students who are clearly not at risk would be inefficient. Using a teacher nomination form that is similar to the SSBD could help teachers, administrators, and other staff members identify students who are potentially at risk, and then the risk status could be confirmed with a standardized instrument, such as the BASC-2 BESS or the SDQ.

The SRSS lists the names of all students in a class and then asks the teacher to check which of seven behaviors (if any) are characteristic of each student. Most teachers can screen an entire class in about 10–15 minutes, but the SRSS only identifies students with externalizing problems. The SRSS is available at no cost at [doc].

Other possible screening processes could include reviewing the data that are routinely kept by schools, such as office discipline referrals (ODRs), suspensions, attendance, and grades. Some school teams can easily identify students who are failing two or more classes at midterm and provide intervention and support to help them come up to passing grades before the end of the term. Monitoring students who have less than 80% attendance and developing timely interventions is another way to proactively intervene. Similarly, teams can identify students who have numerous ODRs and give them opportunities to learn social skills or develop other proactive strategies to promote positive behaviors.

Practical Issues

School teams should determine who might manage the screening process and summarize its results. Further, schools should also consider what resources are available for intervention. If they have inadequate resources, screening may be inadvisable; identifying students who are at risk but not providing the reasonable interventions could be considered an impractical and inappropriate use of resources.

Another important issue to consider is what permissions are needed to conduct schoolwide screening. Typically parents must grant permission for their child to complete a survey or any type of measure that could identify him or her as being at risk. But if a teacher completes a measure, such as a teacher nomination form, it could be considered a typical Child Find activity—a normal educational process. If the teacher completes an individualized form (i.e., the SDQ or BASC-2 BESS) for all students, parental permission is probably needed.

Consulting with district administrators and attorneys about this issue is prudent. Confidentiality, including how the data will be stored and who will have access to the data, must be discussed before screening takes place (Young, Caldarella, Richardson, & Young, in press).


Screening in secondary schools can be a valuable process for identifying students before problems become so troublesome that many resources are needed to intervene. Students who are troubled with emotional and behavioral concerns can easily fall through the cracks, and then school teams must scramble to identify needs and find the means to support those students who eventually slide into crisis. Providing services in a timely manner helps prevent crises from developing so that students can be successful. PL


  • Achilles, G. M., McLaughlin, M. J., & Croninger, R. G. (2007). Sociocultural correlates of disciplinary exclusion among students with emotional, behavioral, and learning disabilities in the SEELS national dataset. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 15(1), 33–45.
  • Anderson, J. A., Kutash, K., & Duchnowski, A. J. (2001). A comparison of the academic progress of students with EBD and students with LD. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 9(2), 106–115.
  • Caldarella, P., Young, E. L., Richardson, M. J., Young, B. J, & Young, K. R. (2008). Validation of the systematic screening for behavior disorders in middle and junior high school. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 16(2), 105–117.
  • Drummond, T. (1994). The student risk screening scale (SRSS). Grants Pass, OR: Josephine County Mental Health Program.
  • Goodman, R. (1997). The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire: A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 38(5), 581–586.
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  • Lane, K. L., Carter, E. W., Pierson, M. R., & Glaeser, B. C. (2006). Academic, social, and behavioral characteristics of high school students with emotional disturbances or learning disabilities. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 14(2), 108–117.
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  • Tobin, T. J., & Sugai, G. M. (1999). Using sixth-grade school records to predict school violence, chronic discipline problems, and high school outcomes. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 7(1), 48–53.
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  • Young, E. L., Sabbah, H., Young, B. J., Reiser, M., & Richardson, M. (2010). Gender differences and similarities in a screening process for emotional and behavioral risk in secondary schools. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 18(4), 225–235.

Stephanie D. Davis is a doctoral student in counseling psychology at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT.

Ellie L. Young is an associate professor in counseling psychology and special education at Brigham Young.

Susan Hardman is an educational specialist student in school psychology at Brigham Young. Rebecca Winters is a bachelor’s student in psychology at Brigham Young.

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Next Steps
  • Meet with school personnel (e.g., the school psychologist, counselors, administrators, and teachers) to discuss how a schoolwide screening process could be implemented.
  • Review available screening strategies to determine the process that is the best fit for your school.
  • Align screening processes with available interventions at your school. For example, if your school has several intervention programs, such as positive behavior interventions and supports, the process should screen for students who are good candidates for available services.
  • Plan for confidentiality and determine whether parents and guardians must grant permission for students to be screened.


A Quick Glance at EBD

Internalizing Behavioral Concerns
Social withdrawal

Externalizing Behavioral Concerns
Office discipline referrals

Academic Concerns
Low academic success
Low or sporadic attendance at school

Gender Issues
Boys often are external
Girls often are internal
Boys are more represented in both categories

Environmental Factors
Unstable family support
Socioeconomic stress
Lack of proper food or sleep