Plymouth State Engages New Hampshire Educators with Universal Screening Tool

PLYMOUTH – For decades, elementary school children have been tested on their math and language knowledge; the results indicate their academic strengths and weaknesses so teachers can address areas for improvement. Now, education professionals are asking, what if you evaluated those same students for their abilities in empathy, controlling stress, negotiating with others and personal responsibility? Would these social-emotional learning (SEL) competencies help them become better students and citizens? That’s the basis for a new assessment tool PSU’s Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology is using as part of a $2.2 million Human Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) federal grant.

The Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA; LeBuffe, Shapiro, & Naglieri, 2009) screening tool has been used in thousands of K-8 classrooms nationwide. Its proponents say the assessment provides a more sophisticated view of students’ social, emotional and communication skills, allowing schools to address problems before they become acute.

PSU hosted a conference in Concord, N.H., on June 12 that featured one of the DESSA creators. Jack Naglieri, PhD is a renowned author and school psychologist who believes universal screening is a proactive approach to identifying students who need additional support.

“What we’re trying to do is help students maximize their social and emotional competencies,” said Naglieri. “Some children need assistance; the benefit of this screening is it doesn’t wait for a child to exhibit a problem, it identifies children likely to exhibit a problem. We’re helping people understand the importance of good social interaction and how to do that in a way that’s good for the individual, good for the family and good for society.”

What is the DESSA?

The DESSA is a standardized measure of social-emotional competencies of children in kindergarten through the eighth grade. Its main use is to identify children at risk of developing social-emotional problems and assess skills related to social-emotional competence, resilience and academic success. Several New Hampshire schools sent teams of professionals to learn about how they could implement the assessment to better serve students. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, without early diagnosis and treatment, children with social and emotional health issues often have problems at home and in school that can continue into adulthood.

“We know that social and emotional learning directly impacts education,” said Christina Flanders, a faculty member in PSU’s Department of Counselor Education and School Psychology. “Children with strong SEL skills have been shown to excel in school, both socially and academically.”

Educators weigh in

Nearly 50 school counselors, school psychologists, special education administrators, special education teachers and PSU graduate students attended the conference. Using the HRSA grants, PSU hopes to support schools in implementing the DESSA screening and corresponding evidence-based interventions.

“I see this as a great new tool for early intervention, providing insight so we can help students and make their experience in upper grades more successful,” said Melissa Minery ’14G, a school counselor at Paul Smith Elementary School in Franklin. “This will help the students directly and the Franklin community as a whole.”

New Hampshire Mental Health Commissioner Nicholas Toumpas agrees, saying the assessment and interventions will help address issues in a child’s life before crises arise.

“If we don’t deal with it at an early age, what happens is the child may end up in a system they really don’t belong in—like the juvenile justice system, the corrections system or have substance abuse issues. We need to be able to identify students earlier to help them,” Toumpas said.

“It’s easy to use, it doesn’t take much time and student outcomes based on the data have really borne out their accuracy over time,” said Tyler Seidenberg ’14, a master’s degree candidate in PSU’s School Counseling program.

“I’m glad Plymouth State is offering this skill-set,” added Lauryn Barton, a graduate assistant and master’s degree candidate in PSU’s School Psychology program. “This is a great professional development tool and I’m looking forward to using it in a classroom.”

Cynthia Waltman, PSU’s School Psychology program coordinator, says that implementation of the DESSA screening will begin in several N.H. schools in September 2015.

For more information…

For more information about PSU’s CAGS programs in school psychology, school counseling, and clinical mental health counseling, visit or contact the Counselor Education and School Psychology Department at (603) 535-3119.

For more information about this release, contact Bruce Lyndes, PSU Media Relations Mgr., (603) 535-2775 or