Special Report
Every Student Succeeds Act

Tackling School Climate, Student Behavior as a Route to Improvement

By Christina A. Samuels — September 27, 2016 7 min read
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School administrators often look at school climate and behavior issues as part of a comprehensive approach to fixing low-performing schools.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, it turns out, specifically cites a framework that officials can use to build their efforts—multitiered systems of support.

The actual text of the law mentions multitiered systems of support only briefly, and in the context of helping students with disabilities and English-language learners have access to the challenging academic standards. But supporters of this framework say it can be used to help all students, by providing them the individual academic and social support they need to succeed.

A multitiered system allows teams of school staff members to make decisions that are informed by actual data on the way children are learning and behaving. Those decisions could be on what to do with a flare-up of misbehavior on a school bus, for example, or about how to help a student who is struggling with early-reading skills.

Intensity of Service

The tiers refer to increasingly intensive services for a student based on that child’s needs: an isolated incident of misbehavior needs a different approach from continued disruption, for example.

And the interventions are intended to be research-based and driven by data on the problem, not on guesses or hypotheses about what might be able to help. In a multi-tiered support system, school staff are also supposed to closely monitor students, to make sure that the interventions are really working.

“The emphasis on data-driven processes is going to be very important,” said Teri Marx, who is on the technical-assistance team at the National Center On Intensive Intervention, a federally funded center that helps schools devise programs for students with severe and persistent learning and behavioral needs. The American Institutes of Research manages the center.

Even though the federal government is suggesting strongly that states and districts should look at student data, it’s not telling schools exactly what that data should be or what should trigger a certain intervention. That’s up to the locals.

“The benefit of using [multitiered systems of support] is that it really does support ESSA’s underlying theme that there’s more control at the local level,” Marx said.

Special Education Value

The comprehensive nature of these improvement efforts is important for all students. Plus, the individualized approach is particularly appealing compared to what some considered to be the one-size-fits-all approach that was a part of the No Child Left Behind Act, the predecessor to the Every Student Succeeds Act.

A Tool To Share

When school leaders look to boost outcomes for the student body as a whole, they may find some strategies particularly useful for specific groups of students—such as those with disabilities. That’s been the case with a method known as positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS. It’s a way for school personnel to organize evidence-based practices meant to improve social behaviors schoolwide. The term was introduced in the 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and it’s specifically mentioned in the Every Student Succeeds Act as a strategy eligible for the use of federal funds.

PBIS generally is organized into three tiers: universal supports, targeted supports, and individual supports.

Individual supports are a personalized approach that may be necessary for some students who have dangerous or highly disruptive behaviors. Students at this level are provided with programs tailored to meeting their individual needs.

Targeted supports are intended for students who are not responding to the universal supports. These students may need more focused support, such as a behavior plan or a social-skills club.

Universal supports are rules, routines, and physical arrangements—such as in classrooms—meant to prevent initial occurrence of inappropriate behaviors. These are used for the entire student body.

Source: Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

For example, without a set plan to address an entire school climate and a process for dealing with problem behavior, school leaders may find themselves jumping to suspension or expulsion to deal with challenging students. Research shows that students subjected to exclusion are less likely to be engaged in the classroom and more likely to drop out of school. The U.S. Department of Education has been promoting other methods of dealing with school climate, such as instituting positive school behavior models or instructing teachers in effective classroom-management techniques.

ESSA asks states to be mindful of the “overuse of discipline practices that remove students from the classroom.” Districts are also required to report on several school-climate-related factors, such as chronic absenteeism, suspensions and expulsions, and incidences of bullying and harassment—all concerns that practitioners say can be addressed through a multitiered system of supports.

The term itself is often used to encompass two other tiered intervention models: response to intervention, or RTI, and positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS.

Response to intervention generally focuses on academic issues; in many schools, it is used for early literacy. For example, all students in a response to intervention framework are supposed to be receiving research-based literacy instruction. That level is referred to as tier one.

Students still having academic problems despite receiving strong tier-one instruction are referred to a second tier. That level is intended to provide more focused interventions targeted at a student’s particular need. And a student who still does not respond to those interventions can be moved to a third tier for even more individualized work or referred for a more extensive evaluation for special education.

Behavioral Issues

The positive behavioral intervention and supports model follows the same process, except it focuses on behavioral issues. All students are supposed to receive behavior support, but those who show that they need extra help are supposed to be quickly referred to interventions that meet their specific needs.

Often, behavior issues and learning struggles go hand in hand, so addressing one problem tends to help with another. And many states, districts, and schools were working on multi-tiered systems of support well before the passage of ESSA last year.

But for all their potential power, multitiered systems can be challenging to put into place.

Michigan’s Integrated Behavior and Learning Support Initiative, for example, helps schools support student reading and behavior at the same time. More than 500 elementary and middle schools implemented the program between 2004 and 2013, and the schools that followed the program closely saw both higher reading scores and lower incidences of behavior-related office referrals.

But Michigan’s results also suggested that it may be difficult for some schools to stick to the evidence-based practices for a long time. After initially adopting the methods and practices, many schools stopped reporting their self-assessment data to the initiative, the program noted in a 2014 report.

It’s not clear if the schools were still using the methods and just not reporting their data, or if the lack of reporting itself meant that the energy behind the project had flagged. But the findings foreshadow an issue that states will have to consider if they choose to implement their own multitiered models. In the words of the report, “sustained support must be provided to expect sustained implementation.”

The Martin County school district, in eastern Kentucky near the West Virginia border, wrestles with poverty and high unemployment rates with the decline of the coal-mining industry. The county is losing population, and 75 percent of its 2,000 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

In 2014, the county was awarded a $310,000 federal school-climate-improvement grants, which it used to start a multitiered behavioral-support system.

Paul Baker, the lead school psychologist for the district, said that the school system is approaching the problem from several directions. It hired two more school psychologists, so that they’d be available to provide more counseling to students who need it. The district also forged robust ties with county agencies that are able to provide additional support.

In addition, the school system created a team-based model that allowed it to pinpoint behavior problems more accurately and to more quickly devise a plan for fixing them.

Flagging Problems

For example, the behavior-monitoring system flagged that most middle school discipline problems were happening on the bus, specifically the middle school bus that brought children to the county’s high school in the morning as a central drop-off point. The students were then bused to the middle school.

Baker said the bus was overcrowded and sometimes students sat three to a seat; adding a new bus helped alleviate some friction.

Overall, Martin County has adopted the idea that teaching social skills is as much a part of its job as teaching academics, Baker said.

“A school’s role is to help mold a child into a productive member of society,” he said. “We’re trying to teach them how you can shake off what’s going on [outside school]. That’s a skill that has to be taught.”

How states may write multitiered systems into their state ESSA plans is yet to be determined. States are still in the process of reaching out to various interested parties as they draft their plans, and the plans will not go into effect until the 2017-18 school year.

States also need to take care how they implement them. A federal evaluation of 20,000 students in 13 states using response to intervention showed that students who received targeted interventions under the framework did worse than their peers who were getting just regular classroom instruction. Evaluators said that schools may need more precise screening tools to identify struggling students, as well as more effective interventions.

But Howard M. Knoff, the director of Project Achieve, a school improvement program used nationally, says the new law gives states and districts a chance to set aside ineffective practices.

“We need to.... make sure we comprehensively rethink, re-tailor, and retrofit the process of education in our local schools and districts,” Knoff wrote in a recent post on his blog.

A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2016 edition of Education Week as Tackling Climate, Behavior to Make Gains


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