Needs Assessments- The How To and Things to Think About

A “needs assessment” is a systematic set of procedures that are used to determine needs, examine their nature and causes, and set priorities for future action. A needs assessment is not looking at growth or how a program is working. That my friend is program evaluation. Rather, a needs assessment focuses on what students need in order to accomplish the goal at hand. In education, that is learning. For school counselors it is also career and personal social development.

Needs assessments are vital to any school counseling program. By giving your students a needs assessment, you will be able to collect data that will provide a blueprint for your comprehensive school counseling program. The data will determine how you should be spending your time as a school counselor such as what services you need to provide and what topics to address.

The Purpose 

First, establish a purpose for implementing a needs assessment. What is is that you want to know? What you want to know will depend on a number of factors including the development stage of the students you work with and the overall mission and vision of your school and school counseling program. For example, a needs assessment at the elementary level may largely focus on socio-emotional needs whereas a needs assessment at the high school may focus more on  high school graduation requirements or college and career readiness.

I have found it very helpful to collaborate with key stakeholders when developing the purpose of the needs assessments. Teachers, staff, administrators, and parents all have ideas of what information would be valuable in driving a school counseling program. Hear them out.

Develop a Research Question 

You must start with a “research question”. A research question helps you determine what you will focus on and how you will collect your data. For example, you may want to know “what percent of students need help in dealing with socio-emotional challenges?” or you may want to know “how have middle school students dealt with stress?” The question that drives my building-wide needs assessment is “How do middle school students need school counselors to support them?”

Determine a Target Audience 

Who do you want to answer you research question for? Do you want the data from all grade levels or are their certain grade levels you should be targeting? Do you need to survey everyone or can you survey a sample of the overall population?

In my building, we survey all students. We want to know to whom the need belongs to. And yes we ask for names. This way we can provide targeted services to our students. It helps us determine which students need support in which groups, referrals to mental health therapist, and basic need items.

Create Questions

Qualitative or Quantitative. When developing questions, there are some key components to consider. First, you want to determine whether you want to collect quantitative or qualitative data. Quantitative data is numerical and quantifiable data. This data can be translated into percents or numbers.  The questions come in the form of numerical scales (e.g. Likert Scales) or dichotomous answers (e.g. yes or no; zero or one). For example, “Do you need help making and keeping friends” with the answer choice or Yes or No. On the other hand, qualitative data is rich and thick descriptive data. This data often paints a picture or a story. Questions are usually open ended, allowing for answers that are between a few words and beyond. An example of a qualitative question would be, “Tell me about your experience making a friend this school year.”

There are pluses and minuses of each type of data. Obviously numerical data is much easier to analyze but qualitative data can paint a story you don’t get through numbers. In a needs assessment, you can use both types of questions depending on what you would like to know.

Number of Questions. The rule of thumb is no more than 15-20 question on a survey for middle school students. In all honesty, I think 10 is enough.  For elementary school students, I suggest giving far less questions. Five would be most appropriate.  Research has found that anything more than 15-20 questions for middle school students or 10 questions for elementary students means that the students are likely to get bored. And boredom means they start checking random boxes. Trust me, this is not good for your results.

Wording of Questions. When you create your needs assessment, you might ask yourself whether or not your target audience can understand your question. For middle school and high school, questions should not be above a 6th grade reading level. For middle school, I suggest a 3rd grade reading level to be on the safe side. And for elementary level you may need to consider using pictures or graphics for the little ones. A Likert scale with smiley faces and sad faces can be pretty epic.

I find it helpful to have a few different students from your target audience complete the survey ahead of time to check for understanding. It is very important to know how the question can be interpreted. You want to minimize multiple interpretations as much as possible or minimize students answering the question the way it was not intended to be answered. For example, I once included the statement “I need help dealing with the loss of a loved one”. Students could answer “yes” or “no”. I wanted to determine which students in my caseload needed grief support for the loss of someone close to them. The way this question is worded I had students grieving about pets and distant relatives. It is not what I was going for.

Meaningful and Focused Questions. Sometimes we want to add questions to needs assessments because we are curious as educators and school counselors. However, make sure that each question has a purpose. My rule of thumb is to only include questions that you can respond to in an appropriate time frame. For example, prior to having the Signs of Suicide Program in our building, I used to include a question about self-harm on the needs assessments for my middle school students. While this question was very informative and helped me identify students who were in need of help, I always made sure I had the proper resources to be able to respond to the results of this question- immediately! Each student needed to be talked to within a 24 hour time period. If you don’t have the power to be able to do this, do not include the question.

Culturally Competent Questions. Make sure your questions are culturally competent. Culturally competent questions are questions that are aware of multiple world views, cultural differences, and practices. They can be answered by people from various cultures. The terms used and the language is accessible.

Other Columns of Data

Besides the questions you want to answer, your team needs to consider what other information is important to include on the survey. For example, do you want to know gender, whether the student is ELL or not, whether the student is on an IEP or not, students grade level, name, student number, or year of graduation. While you can later merge data by students numbers (if you include it) using data from your student information system it is far less complicated to just have the student check the box. Be sure to think about what other categorical information you want to know.


The format of the survey is important. First, you need to make a decision on whether to give a computer-based survey or a paper-and-pencil survey. A computer is more efficient because the students enter the data, it is easier to analyze data, and can easily allow you to collect open-response questions. On the other hand, computers are not always accessible to school counselors and they can potentially be challenging if a piece of technology goes wrong such as logging students in or a faulty survey. I am anti-paper and even have a paper-free counseling practice, thus I definitely use the most efficient method of survey collection- the online format. I think the paper-pencil method is outdated and I much rather have students share computers than enter all the data by hand.

One trick that I have found very helpful is having classroom teachers put the survey up on google classroom. In my building, google classroom is commonly used. That way, when I come into the classroom to deliver my presentation and to administer the survey the link is readily accessible. They literally click on the link and begin. I also ALWAYS have paper copies on hand. This is important because sometimes log-in can become a problem, especially since I do my needs assessments in the beginning of the school year at a time when the kinks are not yet all worked out.

Another formatting component to consider are the directions. Directions need to be given both in written and verbal format. It is imperative that the directions are clear and can be understood by all students. Think about students who need special accommodations such as English Language Learners or students with individualized education plans (IEPs). I have always given needs assessments to students by reading the directions and each statement out loud. That way I can be confident that the students could understand the statements. As a department, the school counseling team reviews each question and discusses what it means. That way if our students need further explanation, our responses are as consistent as possible across grade levels. It is important that the facilitators of the survey are consistent, otherwise the data will be inconsistent and therefore less meaningful.

Further, if using a paper-and-pencil format, the actual design of the survey should be checked for readability (e.g. font, font size) and organization.

Pilot the Needs Assessment 

Give the needs assessment to a sample of students to determine potential obstacles. Things to gather feedback on include language, assessment format, and timing logistics. If there are any data collection challenges use this as an opportunity to improve the survey.  While this may seem like an extra step, it is very important especially the first time you give the survey. When you use the survey in the future, this step will be far less intense.

Example Needs Assessment

This is an example of the needs assessment I used in my building for the 2018-2019 school year. This is the paper-copy version which we only have kids fill out if there is a problem with them accessing technology. We included 13 dichotomous numerical questions and 1 open ended question. The purpose of the open-ended question was for the school counselors to learn something special about each of our students. And they are so fun to read!


  1. It is hard for me to make friends. This questions helps us determine which students need to be in a lunch group to improve friendship making skills. Lunch groups are designed to build social skills and confidence around making and keeping friends.
  2. I need help with my anger. Students who indicate “yes” will be invited to participate in a mindfulness or cognitive behavioral group.
  3. I need help with my sadness. This question is an indicator of students who may potentially be experiencing depression. We follow up with these students in one-on-one counseling.
  4. I need help with my stress. Students who indicate “yes” will be invited to participate in a mindfulness or cognitive behavioral group or one on one counseling. The high number of students who are experiencing stress has also called for us to advocate for mindfulness lessons in all grade levels.
  5. I need help with my school work. Students who indicate “yes” are referred to our after school homework help program.
  6. I have lost someone close to me and I am still sad. This is a question to determine if there is a large enough group of students in which a grief group may be necessary. The part “I am still sad” is important to indicate that they are still most likely experiencing symptoms of trauma.
  7. I need help dealing with the separation for divorce of my parents. This is a question to determine if there is a large enough group of students who need help with changing families.
  8. I need help with organization. We have an after school program for homework help and organization. Students who check yes in this category will be referred.
  9. My family does not have money to buy me new school clothes. All students who need help with clothing will be invited to Clothes for Kids and Operation School Bell, two non-profit organizations that help with basic school clothes.
  10. My family needs help with buying food. All students who need help with food will be involved with our holiday meal programs.
  11. I am being bullied. Students will be worked with one on one to determine a plan. We also hope to see this statistic improve in time as we amp up our anti-bullying work.
  12. I plan to go to college. This is a question to see trends from year to year as we implement various college and career units.
  13. I feel safe at home. This is a screener question to determine if there are any red flags at home that would be helpful for school counselors to know about.

Timeline and Calendaring 

While developing the needs assessment, consider how you will integrate the needs assessment into your schedule. Start by mapping out the timeline of your data collection. Some needs assessments will require you to give it to all students. Others will require only a sample of the population you are interested in. Some needs assessments will be given by you, others may be in an online format given by their homeroom teacher or another teacher in the building. Either way, determine the time it will take to start and finish the data collection.

In my building, each grade level counselor is responsible for the data collection of their grade. We go into every classroom in the beginning of the year and introduce ourselves and then administer the survey. As a part of the introduction we talk about the role of the school counselor, how to sign up to see us, and the role of confidentiality in our practice. It sets the stage for the administration of the needs assessments. I give my teachers a few weeks notice and schedule their classroom at a time that is convenient for the both of us.

There are many ways to save time and resources if getting into the classrooms as a school counselor is just not possible. I have observed other schools use videos to give clear and consistent directions about how to take the needs assessments and then have the teachers administer it. The possibilities are endless.

Include Stakeholders 

Another piece advice, is to invite all stakeholders to participate in the process and the results. Include administration, teachers, parents, teachers, other certificate specialists, and consider community stakeholders. The more you include these stakeholders the more they have a buy-in to the process and the results of the assessment. One of the number way ways that I have earned buy-in was to have them give me feedback about the survey. They want their input heard.

Google Forms

I have found over the years that the best way to collect data is through Google Forms. I love google forms because it (1) allows you to collect maximum 1,000 responses, (2) automatically creates charts with your data, and (3) allows you to upload all of your data into excel. This allows you to easily manipulate and turn your data into counts and percents within Excel, which you may not need to do because these are also provided in your google output. If you are collecting data from more than 1,000 cases you may consider have two of the same surveys but one for each grade level. You can later merge the two surveys in Excel. Further, if you are unfamiliar with google forms you may see if anyone in your building is a google expert. Ask them for help and support ahead of time.

I do understand that not everyone has access to computers like we do in my district in order for students to take electronic surveys. Prior to having access to computers for electronic surveys, I had all students do the survey in a paper-pencil format. I am not going to lie, this takes forever to enter the data into the computer. I had to rely heavily on paraprofessionals, interns, or other volunteers who fall under the umbrella of confidentiality. Most schools have some computers. I suggest finding a creative way to keep the data electronically. Partner with stakeholders in your building who have access to computers who could also benefit form the survey. Maybe they take the survey in the library during book check. Maybe you could add a question to the survey that benefits the librarian. There are so many options!

Analyze the Data

At this point, start with the most basic analysis in Excel by creating percents and counts for each quantifiable question and looking for themes in the open-ended questions. Then put them into a readable format such as a table.

There are so many other advanced ways to analyze the data by manipulating categories and looking for correlations or causations. If you want more information on how to do this I suggest checking out Discovering Statistics.

But keep it simple. I love Google Forms because it automatically creates charts for you! And its so simple.

PLAn Of Action

As a team, consider how the results will be used. In our building we have used the results each year to develop and implement our comprehensive school counseling program. This data determines which groups we run, our classroom guidance lessons, what basic need supports we should have available, individual counseling, mental health referrals, programming, and community groups.

Some of the data shows the same trends and patterns from previous years such as a high percent of students who need help with food and school clothes as well as a high percent of students who are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety. As a result, we have programming in place to respond to these needs each year such as our Signs of Suicide Program, Mental Health Counseling, and Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools for anxiety.

On the other hand, we have new data each year that is different from the past. For example, last year the needs assessment data taught me that there were eight students who lost a parent or sibling in the past 1.5 years to death and were still experiencing traumatic symptoms as a result of the loss. It became obvious that I would need to run a grief group, which I am currently doing.  Last year, we added a health and wellness program called Girls on the Run due to the reports that self-esteem was a big challenge for many of our girls.

Additionally, the data has been used for bargaining purposes and school counseling advocacy. In my first few years of implementing a needs assessment I used the data to show our school board what our students were up against and how the school counseling team was able to respond to these needs. With this data we were able to get an additional .5 counselor for our building, which turned into a 1.0 the following school year. My caseload went from 450 to 300. This is data at its best. Further, this data can help advocate to your administrators. I think some of you are tired of the question, “what do you really do?” Well, show them!

Share Your Results

There are so many people who are interested in your results. The administration, staff, district officials, bargaining organization, counselor advisory board, PTA/PTA, community stakeholders, parents, and mental health partnerships. Put together a flyer or newsletter and market the results to your audience. Tell them what the school counseling action plan is and how your comprehensive school counseling program is going to chip away at student needs. Down the road when your admin asks you to pick up bus duty you may be able to say “well yes I can but then I would have to give up my grief group which would largely effect 8 impacted kids”. And if your admin doesn’t hear you get the parents involved! They don’t want a competent counselor like you doing work anyone could do. Trust me. Those parents have loud voices.

Take Away

Every year your needs assessment will just get better. Your logistics will improve and as a result the data you collect will improve too. Sometimes thinking about needs assessments may feel overwhelming but I challenge you to just start small. Do not attempt to do needs assessments for the whole school your first year. Start with a small group and then grow each year. The trick it to just get started and try!

For more information or help feel free to reach out to me @iloveschoolcounseling on Instagram and Facebook.

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