Screening

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A new open access paper by Australian researchers has been released analysing how and why teachers support their students. It’s worth a read. The data shows some gaps in our understanding of intervention. However, the phrasing might annoy you at times.

You probably work in a school that has an hypothesis-led approach to intervention. A child misbehaves in class and so you might intervene. A parent calls and says their daughter is being isolated by her peers at lunchtime and so you might intervene. Essentially, something bad happens and then you try and figure out what to do about it.

There is an alternative. One of the reasons I am in favour of the phonics screening check used in England and South Australia is that I am in favour of screening checks more generally. While I do not believe in mantras such as ‘all behaviour is communication‘, I find it plausible that a child who cannot read will find lessons in which he or she is expected to read to be challenging and one way this may manifest is through poor behaviour. If we have reading screens and behaviour screens and screens for other constructs that could indicate something relevant – such as self-reports on peer interactions – and if we have a system in place that joins these dots, we have a chance of making these connections and of intervening more effectively.

I am not claiming to know what all such screens would look like. Some may even be counterproductive – as is the case with some medical screens that cause more problems in terms of false positives than they fix. But I think that with enough refinement, we could build valid-enough and useful-enough screens.

Moreover, hypothesis-led intervention systems tend to be good for picking up externalising behaviours such as classroom disruption, violence or theft, but they are not so good for identifying the child who turns in on themselves and withdraws, or who goes home anxious, both of which could be caused by the same kinds of underlying factors as externalising behaviours. In addition, the better we become at designing robust, whole-school approaches to behaviour management, the less likely we will be to notice even the externalising behaviours.

If you put objective screens in place, on a predetermined calendar and with predetermined criteria, you are likely to throw up a larger population of students with whom you need to intervene.

That’s the first problem for any advocate of screening. Hypothesis-led systems cost less because you have to do less intervention in total. That counts against screens in the calculus of limited resources.

And if you are convinced of the need for a screening system, how do you go about embedding one? There are two main considerations. First, you need to win the hearts and minds of teachers. Education is notorious for the fact that promising initiatives often fail at scale because teachers do not implement them with fidelity. In most schools, teachers still have a great deal of automony and so there is no alternative but to get them on side.

Secondly, you must provide teachers with practical solutions. It’s no use waving your finger at them and saying, “international human rights legislation states that you must do this thing that you don’t know how to do and that I have only described in abstract terms”. Instead, we must develop practices that teachers find plausible to implement in the situations they experience everyday i.e. in the context of one teacher and 25+ students.

Screening has a lot of potential. As a project, it needs teachers and researchers to work together.

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2 thoughts on “Screening

  1. Mike says:

    I would worry that such a system could, like so many other things in schools, eventually be gamed by the privileged and well-connected. There’s already a cottage industry involving parents (mostly, though not exclusively, in private schools) getting compliant GPs to issue flimsily-based diagnoses in order to obtain a desired result from the child’s school – usually special provisions in an exam setting, or some such. If the screens are to be conducted by the individual schools (which is surely the only practical way to go about it), and the parents are keen on special treatment for the child in class, or more one-on-one attention, etc., in practical terms it might be hard to maintain the objectivity, let’s say.

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