Better Methods, Better Solutions: Developments in School-Based Behavioral Assessment

By Merrell, Kenneth W. | School Psychology Review, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Better Methods, Better Solutions: Developments in School-Based Behavioral Assessment


Merrell, Kenneth W., School Psychology Review


Since the measuring device has been constructed by the observer ... we have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. (From Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science, Werner Karl Heisenberg, 1958.)

From phrenology to functional behavior assessment, assessment of children's behavioral and emotional characteristics is an enterprise with a rich (although admittedly checkered) history. If we get it right, the impressive slate of accomplishments to date will lead to a promising future in our efforts to help children and their schools. As I read through the articles offered in this special series, I found myself not only enthusiastic about some of the new developments and research that are detailed, but also struck with the thought that this area has evolved considerably during my professional lifetime, and in the right direction as far as I am concerned.

As the introductory quote from Heisenberg illustrates, our methods of assessment can be both a necessary bridge to capturing children's behavioral, social, and emotional status, and a subtle impediment. We often forget that any assessment data we gather--regardless of our attempts to gather dynamic information in real time and in naturalistic settings--are necessarily framed within the lens of the measuring devices we are using, as well as the questions we are asking. My previous work on this topic (e.g., Merrell, 2008) has argued that for the most part, all of our assessment endeavors in this domain will fit into one of the following six core methods: direct behavioral observation, third-party behavior rating scales, sociometric techniques, interviews, objective self-report measures, and projective-expressive techniques. Some emerging techniques (such direct behavior ratings) are probably hybrids of two methods that may result in a viable new method. But for now, existing methods vary (considerably, I would argue) with respect to their validity and overall promise of usefulness in school-based assessment.

Moving Behavioral Assessment Forward: Three Big Ideas

A "big idea" is a concept that gives meaning to discrete facts. With respect to behavioral assessment, the articles in this special issue offer several big ideas, and there is no need to go over each article and big idea in detail. Rather, I believe it may be useful to propose a small number of big ideas that represent some commonalities across this diverse scholarship, as well as my own views on where I think the field needs to move to achieve its full promise in school-based behavioral and social-emotional assessment. The three big ideas I have selected include (1) universal screening for behavioral and mental health, (2) assessing student strengths, and (3) linking assessment to intervention.

The Promise of Universal Screening

My colleagues, McIntosh, Reinke, and Herman (2010), recently commented on the need for school psychologists to move out of outdated and reactive professional roles to focus on proactive roles that will support prevention and early intervention: "The traditional role of school psychology is a passive one. It used to be that universal behavior screening meant checking one's mailbox at the district office for new referrals" (p. 135). Fortunately, we now have better models for professional practice in the area of universal screening, including better technology. However, one of the nagging issues in developing universal behavior screening procedures is that to be truly universal, these procedures need to be not only effective, but also brief, easy to use, and relatively inexpensive. An otherwise superb universal screener for behavioral and emotional concerns that is time-consuming or complicated to use will ultimately fail the test of helping students and schools, because next to no one will use it. The article by Kamphaus, DiStefano, Dowdy, Eklund, and Dunn (2010) details an impressive effort to develop and validate a brief teacher screener for student behavioral, social, and emotional concerns. …

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