Research Corner – The DESSA-Mini: An efficient and accurate tool for prevention practice

By Elisa Ugarte, Center for Prevention Research in Social Welfare, Berkeley, CA

Summary of the original article:

Shapiro, V.B., Kim, B.K.E., Robitaille, J.L., & LeBuffe, P.A. (2016). Protective factor screening for prevention practice: Sensitivity and specificity of the DESSA-Mini. School Psychology Quarterly, 31(4), X-X.

Nearly 20% of school-aged children and youth in the United States have a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder that interferes with learning (Doll, 1996; O’Connell, Boat, & Warner, 2009). Students need social-emotional competence in order to avoid these problems and achieve school success (Domitrovich, Cortes, & Greenberg, 2007, Greenberg et al., 2003; Payton et al., 2008). Research has demonstrated that high-quality, well implemented, social-emotional learning (SEL) programs build social-emotional competence, reduce mental, emotional, and behavioral problems, and promote academic achievement (Durlak, Dymnicki, Taylor, Weissberg, & Schellinger, 2011).

Effective SEL programs, however, are not as widely used in schools as one might expect (Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 2002; Ringwalt et al., 2011). When SEL programs are being used in schools, they are most often selected, implemented, and monitored in haphazard and uncoordinated ways that may thwart their success (Elias et al., 2015). An infrastructure is needed to support the delivery of SEL programs that includes the routine, systematic assessment of social-emotional competence to guide the implementation of effective prevention programs (Fagan, Hawkins, & Shapiro, 2015). This could help each child receive the type of prevention that is needed, given constrained resources and classroom time, and therefore help all children become college and career ready.

The Center for Prevention Research in Social Welfare at UC Berkeley, in collaboration with the Devereux Center for Resilient Children, recently analyzed data collected with the DESSA-Mini (Naglieri, LeBuffe, & Shapiro, 2011). The DESSA-Mini is an entirely strength-based tool that takes only 1-minute to complete per child. Researchers sought to determine if a brief and easy to administer screening tool could achieve technical accuracy in routine practice.

Researchers analyzed a sample of 1,875 students in K-8th grade with DESSA and DESSA-Mini ratings provided by teachers in a large, urban school district.  The tools were used to determine which students had social-emotional strengths, which students were typically developing, and which students had a need for more intensive social-emotional instruction. The vast majority of the students were consistently classified by the DESSA-Mini (8 items) and the DESSA (72 items).

Sensitivity is a determination of the extent to which a screening instrument correctly identifies those who are actually at risk, so that children who need services are identified to receive them. The DESSA-Mini exceeded professional standards for sensitivity (Glascoe, 2005). Specificity is a determination of the extent to which a screening instrument correctly identifies those who are not actually at risk, as to not unnecessarily risk stigmatizing students. The DESSA-Mini also exceeded professional standards for specificity (Glascoe, 2005). Finally, researchers found that students who were identified through the DESSA-Mini as having a “Need for Instruction” at the beginning of the year were 4.5 times more likely to have record of a serious infraction by the end of the academic year.

Researchers concluded that the DESSA-Mini meets standards for technical accuracy. The DESSA-Mini provides teachers with an efficient and accurate tool for proactively identifying students at risk of mental, emotional, and behavioral problems, which can guide the implementation of social and emotional learning programs and prevent undesirable problems from emerging.



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