Understanding SEBD: Assessment & Intervention for Social, Emotional and Behavioral Difficulties in Schools

I entered the field of school psychology because of my interest in children’s mental health. During my studies, I worked at a residential treatment facility for children and adolescents with significant social, emotional and behavioral difficulties (SEBD). It was an experience I’ll never forget; I saw firsthand just how challenging their lives could be. Many of these children had been dealt a very difficult hand in life, and it felt like many people had given up on them. It was no easier on the teachers and staff, who often didn’t have the proper resources or training to adequately support them.

I knew that there had to be a better way to support these students, and I saw a tremendous opportunity. Today at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, I’m proud to be working on research that will help both identify SEBD in school-aged children and help create intervention techniques and resources to help educators support these student the best that they can.

Studying SEBD in the Classroom

SEBD is a term that represents a wide range of problems. Students with SEBD exhibit a variety of challenges—from mildly disruptive behavior to severe incidents. Other children will become extremely quiet, disengaged or withdrawn in class—behavior that’s more difficult for busy teachers to notice.

For many years, we didn’t take a prevention-focused approach in schools for children with SEBD. We focused only on those children with the most severe needs—often those with a diagnosable mental health disorder or educational disability. While these students need our support, students with mild difficulties were often overlooked. We know that early identification and intervention can have powerful impacts on long-term outcomes, so catching these challenges early and intervening is important. We also relied on harsh discipline policies and exclusionary practices, particularly for our students with behavioral difficulties. Thankfully, that has shifted in recent years. People are beginning to see the importance of supporting all students in this way—and the benefit to taking a positive, proactive approach to identifying and treating SEBD. Our social, emotional, and behavioral skills are essential to our lifelong success and happiness. I believe as educators we have a responsibility to support students’ academic skills and SEB skills. Just as we support struggling readers in schools, we need to take the same approach with children who struggle with SEBD. There’s an emerging body of research on prevention of SEBD, including evidence-based interventions, and my research team is working to make meaningful contributions to the field.

Three Paths for Progress in SEBD

The work we do at my research lab is generally focused on three “strands” of research. The first is gathering valid data about SEBD, particularly for identifying students at-risk (screening) and evaluating progress in response to an intervention (progress monitoring). Unless our interventions, progress-tracking and support systems are backed up by reliable and valid data on our students—and, most importantly, what works—everything falls apart.

My research team has been working on validating a screening and progress monitoring tool called Direct Behavior Rating – Single Item Scales. We ask teachers to observe students in their classroom, then evaluate their behavior with a standardized form using a brief rating-scale format. This provides us with validated measures of student behavior that can be used to make decisions about supports.

The second strand of my research builds on the first. Once we have validated assessments, we can begin to look at which SEBD identification and intervention practices are most effective. For example, one area of interest for me is how often students should be screened for SEBD. It’s a question that has yet to be answered by the existing research literature.

The third strand ties it all together: linking assessment and intervention with multi-tiered systems of support. Based on my work in schools, this is a huge area of need. Once students are identified as being at-risk for SEBD, there’s often not a systematic process for determining which interventions students should receive. Too often we see a “one size fits all” approach where students are funneled into one intervention without thought to the nuances of their needs. Or a trial-and-error approach is attempted, which has the potential to waste essential time and resources delivering an intervention that is not well-aligned to the student’s needs. One of my goals is to engage in research that better links assessment data to intervention decisions to make the process more streamlined and effective.

Working Towards SEBD Solutions

I’m currently conducting a couple of projects at my lab at CEHD. One is evaluating the effectiveness of annual, bi-annual and tri-annual screening schedules for SEBD. We’re analyzing screening data from a large-scale, multi-site investigation to examine how changes in scores and risk status can be evaluated to develop optimal SEBD screening schedules.

We’re also beginning a smaller pilot study here in Minnesota that I’m very excited about. I developed a collaborative partnership with a local elementary school, and we submitted a grant to the American Psychological Association earlier this year. The school was one of only two schools selected across the country to receive the award. We’ll be helping the school implement the Coping Power program, a preventative intervention delivered to at-risk children in late elementary grades. It is designed to reduce aggressive behavior and improve social problem solving and self-regulation. In addition to providing consultative support, we’ll also evaluate its effectiveness over time.

Tips for Dealing with SEBD in the Classroom

As we continue to better understand the nature of SEBD and best practices in identification and intervention, our approaches will continue to improve. However, here are some guidelines for teachers and support personnel that can aid in helping students with SEBD today.

Take time to observe all of the students in your class. Teachers often focus their attention and efforts on students who are disruptive and interrupt their instruction. I would encourage teachers to also look out for children who appear withdrawn, unengaged, or who exhibit social issues like being rejected by their peers. These children often fly under the radar but could likely benefit from support as well.

Create school support systems. If your school isn’t already screening for SEBD, please consider adding this to your multi-tiered system of support. This is our best chance to identify students in need of additional support and provide them with early intervention. The earlier we catch these issues, the more open they tend to be to change. That being said, make sure your school has the resources to then intervene with those students identified.

Buy-in and acceptability are essential. You can have the most effective intervention in the world, but if it’s not acceptable, feasible and valued by the key stakeholders (parents, children and teachers) it has little chance of success.

Use online resources. Although some schools lack the funding and structures to optimally support students with SEBD, there are places to go for help. The Direct Behavior Ratings (DBR) website is a great resource for understanding how DBR can be used for assessment and intervention, and it’s available for free. There are also several websites like EBI Network, NCII, and SAMHSA’s National Registry that can help school-based professionals select evidence-based interventions to support students with SEBD.

Fight the stigma surrounding mental health. This is advice for all of us, not just teachers. There’s long been a stigma surrounding mental health in America, but we know from epidemiological studies that issues related to mental health are incredibly prevalent and pervasive. Do your part to help to reduce stigma and judgment and promote compassion and understanding. Be an advocate. By encouraging open conversations, we can help make parents, students and educators more comfortable in supporting students with SEBD.

Faith Miller, Ph.D.

About the Author

Faith Miller, Ph.D.

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