Special Education Initial Mental Health Evaluations

Initial evaluations for Special Education include assessments from a wide variety of stakeholders. In this post, we will discuss the role of the social worker, types of assessments for initial mental health evaluations and common concerns requiring mental health support.

Assess in scrabble letters.
Assessing for mental health concerns is key

Role of the Social Worker in Initial Evaluations

The role of the social worker in special education evaluations can vary based on school/ district guidance, as well as the concerns the student is presenting.

In a previous district, the guidance was that social/ emotional assessments were only needed for initial evaluations if there were current social/ emotional/ behavior concerns. In other districts, the mental health provider has conducted at least some informal assessments (see below for more description) for every initial evaluation.

WISE Tip: The school psychologist (or district evaluation team psychologist) will conduct a cognitive assessment for initial evaluations. The cognitive assessments are not part of social workers’ training.

What Concerns Lead to Special Education Evaluations for Mental Health Support?

One of the most common conversations I have with parents whose children are “average” or even “intelligent,” (i.e. no academic concerns) is around how their child’s mental health is affecting their academics.

When the team is evaluating to determine whether a student qualifies for an IEP or not, they need to determine academic impact. This is an important distinction for many students who are average intellectually, or for those who have outside diagnoses.

While there are several reasons mental health evaluations may be conducted, here are some of the most common concerns:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • ADHD or executive functioning concerns
  • Selective Mutism
  • Developmental delays

Types of Mental Health Evaluations

There are essentially two types of evaluations for mental health: formal and informal assessments. What constitutes formal vs. informal can sometimes get a little gray. Our school had an ongoing debate about whether any new data means formal assessments have been completed.

Here are some general rules of thumb for each category of assessment.


Informal assessments might include informal observations or conversations with teachers. Informal assessments would also be any information obtained from a records review. Here are some important things to look for in a records review:

  • Discipline data
  • Previous records of self-harm or suicidal ideation disclosed at school
  • Social concerns (i.e. was the student bullied or were they a bully? Was there issues with one particular student or several students?)

When I’m conducting a records review, I also look to see if they have similar concerns across several years or if the concerns they are presenting with is more recent.

Checklist for initial special education evaluations.
Checklist for initial special education evaluations


Formal assessments are usually evidence-based specific assessments completed by parents, students and staff. Formal mental health assessments can vary greatly depending on several factors. Some of these factors could include:

  • District or school level guidance around evaluations
  • Availability of certain assessment protocols
  • Student-specific factors (such as being unable to complete a formal observation due to student absences)
  • Student’s presenting concerns
  • Data from the informal measures

It is best to check with your specific district on any guidance for completing formal assessments. However, because there are so many questions around best assessments for specific disability categories, I would like to do some additional posts to go more in-depth on a specific disability category. Let me know if you have any specific evaluation questions!

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