Wilton educators likely to implement mental health screening for students

The Wilton school district is planning a screening test designed to assess student mental health. It was discussed at the Nov. 19, 2020 Board of Education meeting.

The Wilton school district is planning a screening test designed to assess student mental health. It was discussed at the Nov. 19, 2020 Board of Education meeting.

Jarret Liotta / For Hearst Connecticut Media

WILTON — At its next meeting, Dec. 3, the Board of Education will likely approve a new universal screening test designed to assess student mental health.

Kimberly Zemo, the district’s safe school climate coordinator, gave a presentation to the board at its meeting on Thursday, Nov. 19, outlining the plan to implement use of the BASC-3 Behavioral and Emotional Screening System (BESS), put out by Pearson Education.

Owing to concerns relating to the pandemic, the district would target Wilton High School students first with the assessment, while teachers in kindergarten through eighth grade would try to collect mental health data through a separate observable checklist in an effort to quantify this area.

Zemo said that, while the initial plan of the Social-Emotional Learning Committee was to implement the 10-minute assessment only in grades three, six and nine, “COVID really changed our thinking around that currently, because we are really concerned about all of our students.”

Yet because it seemed like a huge undertaking to administer the test across the district, the committee decided to target high school students, who are currently judged as most at risk for problems relating to mental health.

“I think the consensus was starting at the high school to do an actual screener because we know that that population has been most impacted by the quarantine,” Zemo said.

“The biggest and greatest risk, we feel, is there at this time,” she said.

Once approved by the school board, parents would receive a notification letter providing details on the assessment, likely including sample questions. Zemo said permission for the district to administer the test would be passive — or inherent in notification — and that parents would need to contact the school if they wanted to opt out of having their children tested.

Yet she said pediatricians in Connecticut are already administering this or similar assessments to children in their routine exams, with questions geared toward the discovery of whether interventions for mental or emotional health are necessitated.

The BESS test asks students to rate how they feel with either “Often,” “Sometimes” or “Never” regarding a range of questions, including “I am lonely,” “I worry but I don’t know why,” “I’m happy with who I am,” “I worry about what is going to happen,” and “My parents like to be with me.”

Zemo said the observable checklist used by teachers for elementary and middle school students would include concerns about attendance, externalizing behaviors, class participation, changes in mood, social isolation and psychosomatic symptoms.

“We know our teachers already have an idea of some of those students, but this really gives a specific focus on looking at all students and quantifying it,” she said.

All parents would be notified of results. Checklists that indicated elevated concerns would receive follow-up by the school counselor over the following two weeks, while highly elevated concerns would get immediate notification and a request to parents to implement the BESS assessment.

“It’s critical right now,” Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle said, expressing particular concern about the athletes at the high school whose sports activities have been curtailed.

“It’s an awful impact on them,” he said.

“I think the need for the social and emotional check-ins are more important than ever,” Zemo agreed.

“There are never too many adults who can ask kids how they’re feeling,” said Andrea Leonardi, assistant superintendent for student services.

“I think the more adults kids have who can build a relationship and ask them how they feel and how they’re doing,” she said, the better. “I don’t think we can do that enough.”

“These days … to know that their school district is taking a minute to ask them how they are and then have follow-up plans, I think is critical,” she said.

Zemo said Sarah Heath, Wilton’s director of social services, has been reaching out to various local professionals on the district’s behalf to put a network in place for intervention help, if necessary.

Zemo said that part of the goal of implementing the assessment itself was to help normalize the issues of emotional and mental health for students and their families — sending a message that it’s safe to throw light on these areas of life.

“Just by simply screening we’re letting folks know that it’s OK not to feel OK,” she said.