NYC is asking teachers to screen their students’ social-emotional health. Many feel ill-equipped to do so.

A person in a white shirt stands in front of a white board in a classroom. Students sit in desks in front of the person.

Brooklyn elementary school teacher Andrea Castellano was initially happy about New York City’s plan to screen students for their social-emotional health. She thought it was important to understand how children were faring, as they returned to classrooms full-time after two school years in a pandemic marked with illness, death and isolation. 

But Castellano quickly changed her mind when she saw examples of the 43 questions that teachers would be expected to answer about their students just two months into the school year: During the past four weeks, how often did a student think before they acted? Stay calm when faced with a challenge? Learn from experience? 

The answers, ranging from “never” to “very frequently,” are supposed to help determine what sort of extra support students might need to improve certain social skills, such as decision making, self awareness, and personal responsibility.

“There’s no opportunity for the teacher to qualify that statement or evaluation — it’s just a check on a box,” Castellano said, adding that it’s hard to know what a student is thinking and that teachers could project their own biases in the responses. 

Other teachers share Castellano’s concerns about whether they could accurately answer questions on the screening tool, known as the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment, or DESSA. Some feel they don’t know their students well enough yet to fill out the questionnaire. Others worry their answers or their colleagues’ could be implicitly biased against certain students based on their race, ethnicity, or cultural norms, and in turn, could signal that some students need extra support when they may not.  

Moreover, educators say they don’t have a clear idea of how their schools will help the students once the screeners are completed. Teachers must hand in the forms by Dec. 4, but parents can opt their children out of the screening process.

“The only thing that I know is that we’re administering it again in the spring,” said Sarah Factor, a middle school teacher in Manhattan. “Outside of that, in terms of implementing something, I have no idea.”

$18 million contract

After announcing in December 2020 that schools would implement a screening tool this year, city officials approved a three-year, $18 million contract with Aperture, an education tech company that created an online platform for the DESSA screen, as well as tools to decide what extra support students may need. 

The screener is “not designed to label students or call out deficits” and has undergone “extensive testing” for bias, according to  Kristin Hinton, a spokesperson for Aperture. The education department also embedded content about mitigating bias into the trainings sessions, according to city officials.

“The DESSA questions ask about skills that have been shown to help students do well in and outside of school,” Hinton said. “This information is then used by teachers to guide instruction and support students in learning and developing these skills.” 

Officials have broadly explained that extra support could look like individual or group counseling, mentoring, small group social skill building, or creating behavior intervention plans for students. Parents will be able see the results and will be informed about any action the school is taking, city officials said.

Schools have been informing parents that they can opt their children out of the screeners, and some skeptical parents have seized the opportunity.

Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, who is president of the community education council for Manhattan’s District 4, covering East Harlem, has regularly opted her 10-year-old son out of academic assessments and did the same for the DESSA screener, just like roughly 14% of his peers at Central Park East 1 elementary school. 

Salas-Ramirez, a neuroscientist and assistant medical professor at the CUNY School of Medicine, didn’t find the questions “conducive in any way in terms of gaining any meaningful information about a child and where they’re at.”

What the research says

The education department has touted the “strengths-based” nature of this survey — meaning it asks questions about a student’s positive behaviors rather than focusing on what they lack. Officials have also pointed to positive research and reviews about the screener. One early review found it was “very effective” in identifying students with social, emotional and behavioral problems, but noted the amount of time needed to fill them out as a weakness.

“The social-emotional health of our young people has never been more important,” education department spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said. “Our educators were thoroughly trained on this tool, and a couple of minutes of time using a researched-back, culturally responsive screener is a small price to pay to quickly get every single student support, if needed.” 

Generally, a large body of research shows that the DESSA screener for grades kindergarten through eighth grade is a reliable tool for identifying these skills, but there’s less known about the newer high school survey, said Sara E. Rimm-Kauffman, professor at University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development who has studied how the social and psychological dynamics of a classroom influence child development.

The skills that the DESSA looks for “are mostly universal strengths,” but children may show those strengths in different ways based on their cultural norms — such as “acting respectfully in a game or competition,” Rimm-Kauffman said. 

“The actual behaviors that students might use to show respect may vary depending on cultural differences in ways of showing respect,” she said.

The screener may become harder to fill out in middle and high school, if teachers are responsible for dozens of students, so it can be helpful to also let students in those grades directly assess themselves, Rimm-Kauffman said. 

But things are different on the elementary school level, when teachers are generally responsible for a single classroom. 

“Elementary school children, where a teacher has been with a kid for four weeks, my hope is that a teacher would know enough about the child,” Rimm-Kauffman said. “If teachers are so stressed and so burned out that they’re not able to answer these questions, it signals that teachers are totally overloaded and because of everything they’re doing, they’re not able to be well-attuned to children in their classroom.”

Teacher burnout

One Bronx principal, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution, likes the DESSA screener because she believes schools need concrete data in order to build a curriculum that bolsters kids’ social-emotional skills. But after spending the first several weeks of school on academic assessments, many of her teachers are burned out and “ready to jump ship,” she said. 

Teachers can use up to four extra hours during the school day, during their “professional development” or planning period, to complete the screening forms, plus another 50 minutes to complete the training, according to an Oct. 29 bargaining agreement between the city teachers union and City Hall. They can also complete the screener outside of school. 

Factor, the Manhattan middle school teacher, recently completed the one-hour training that teachers are supposed to take before they fill out the screener and was “infuriated” by the potential questions and whether she was qualified to know what influences their decision making. 

“While I can probably answer these questions for the students I teach to some degree, should I be?” she questioned. “Maybe they can’t resolve a problem in my classroom but they can somewhere else.”

She wished the $18 million was instead used on lowering class sizes or bringing even more social workers into schools, especially as she’s noticed more conflicts among students and referrals to the school’s newly full-time social worker. (The education department planned to hire 500 new social workers and launch a pilot at 75 schools to reduce class sizes.) 

At the least, Factor wishes the education department had introduced the screener questions to teachers by the first day of school so they could spend the next few weeks looking out for some of these characteristics.

The Bronx principal also felt the education department should have at least trained teachers on this in September so that they knew what to look for as they got to know their students. 

“Our school, the whole first month, was working on social-emotional learning awareness and getting to know each other and building community — that would have been the perfect time to roll it out,” the principal said. 

Teachers should alert their administrators if don’t feel they can accurately fill out the screeners, city officials said.

What happens with the results?

The Aperture tool suggests lessons and resources for teachers, but officials have said that schools won’t be required to use them. One example of a sample lesson offered by Aperture called “The Meltdown,” offers meditation meant for improving self-awareness, according to a lesson a teacher shared with Chalkbeat. Students are supposed to spread out and meditate on the classroom floor as they “pay attention to how we are feeling in our minds and our bodies.”

Schools must choose specific staffers to help teachers across the grades analyze the screening results and decide what sort of extra support they’ll provide for children. 

Those staffers, designated as social-emotional learning (SEL) leads, are required to take a 13-hour training for which they’re paid overtime, per the union agreement. Those “leads” will have access to each student’s results, but each teacher will only have access to data for the students they assessed. 

Castellano, the Brooklyn elementary school teacher who has long been interested in social-emotional learning, is one of the SEL leads at her school. She’s unsure what’s ahead except that her team — which includes another teacher and a social worker —  is supposed to provide professional development to her colleagues and help them with whatever “interventions” they choose for their students.

She worries that it may be too much for teachers to take on. They could turn to social workers, but those staffers already have caseloads of students in need, including students with disabilities. 

“Our principal will most likely be giving us the time and the space in order to do that, but there isn’t, as of right now, a plan beyond what the city has in place,” Castellano said. “We’re learning it, taking it one step at a time. It’s a huge undertaking, it’s a lot of information, it’s a lot of work we’ve never done before around this topic.”

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