The 2021-2022 school year began full of promise. Students, families, and educators were ready to get back to pre-pandemic learning routines. Almost no one was prepared for how the landscape had changed – many educators had left the profession, staffing needs were at an all-time high, and students were engaging in more frequent and more severe challenging behaviors.
The disruption wreaked by Covid dramatically impacted our students, especially those who were at-risk or experiencing behavior challenges prior to the pandemic. School leadership often struggled to meet the training needs of their staff–many of whom were brand new–especially needs related to behavior support.
The influx of staffing issues coupled with the uptick in challenging behaviors highlights the need for dedicated, integrated behavior support systems that are proactive, responsive to students’ individual needs, and grounded in evidence-based practices proven to increase prosocial behaviors.
Systems are what support staff behaviors and include training, ongoing coaching and performance feedback, efficient data collection processes, and opportunities for professional development. Models like schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports (SWPBIS) provide a framework for creating sustainable systems that can be brought to scale.
Practices support student behavior. Practices that increase the likelihood of prosocial behaviors include clearly established and operationally defined expectations, explicit teaching and prompting related to those expectations across all school routines, reinforcement of behaviors that meet those expectations, and reteaching and restorative practices when behavior errors occur.
Clearly Establishing and Operationally Defining Expectations
Most positive behavioral support models begin with identifying three to five broad expectations (e.g., “Be Safe,” “Be Respectful,” and “Be Responsible”). These broad expectations are defined across all routines that students encounter during the day; for example, school staff would define what “being safe” looks and sounds like during arrival, dismissal, in the hallway, in the restroom, while in class, and for any other setting where students are expected to be safe. Operationally defining these expected behaviors includes stating exactly what the behavior looks and sounds like and ensuring that the behavior is positively communicated: telling students what we want them to do, rather than what we don’t want them to do. Meaning, “being safe” in the hallways could look and sound like “keeping hands and feet to self,” “walk,” and “go directly to your destination,” instead of “don’t run” or “don’t linger.”
Teaching and Prompting for Expected Behaviors
Once we’ve established and defined our expected behaviors, we explicitly teach and prompt for the expected behaviors. We teach social behaviors like we teach academics: using a model, lead, test format with multiple opportunities for practice and feedback. We provide review and booster sessions as needed (e.g., after a long break; during the pandemic, many booster sessions have been required!) and prompt for expected behaviors before the student is expected to demonstrate the behavior. For instance, we say, “remember to walk in the hallway” before a transition, rather than waiting until students speed up a little and then saying, “slow down!”
Reinforcing Behaviors that Meet Expectations
Now, more than ever, we need to focus on what’s going well and acknowledge students’ appropriate behavior. There’s a good chance that students’ prosocial behaviors – like their academic skills – have not made steady upward progress over the last two years. In many cases, they’ve plateaued, or even deteriorated. One of the fundamental mechanisms of behavioral science is “behavior followed by pleasant outcomes for the learner tends to be repeated” (i.e., the principle of reinforcement), so we must set up the environment to increase the likelihood of behaviors that meet our expectations and provide acknowledgement and reinforcement of those behaviors when they occur. The first response should be behavior-specific praise (e.g., “great job reading this article so far!”), which consists of a positive statement that includes the behavior being praised. Behavior-specific praise helps form the contingency between the prosocial behavior and a positive outcome for the student, reminds all others within earshot of the expected behavior, and provides direct and personal attention for the student (which is often reinforcing). In addition to behavior-specific praise, school staff may employ more overt reinforcement practices, including token economies or group-based contingencies.
Responding to Behaviors that Don’t Meet Expectations
When students make behavioral errors, staff should respond similarly to how they react to academic errors: provide feedback and a reminder of what to do, offer the opportunity to try again, and assist if needed. This kind of specific error correction allows the student a chance to practice and receive feedback on the appropriate behavior and prevents teachers from relying on reprimands to correct behavior. In addition, if staff members remain supportive and helpful, behaviors are much less likely to escalate. When students make more serious behavior errors that cause harm to others or to the environment, responses should include a restorative conversation that includes a chance for the student to describe what happened, how they felt about their behavior and the harm caused, how they can make different decisions next time, and what supports they need to be successful. Students may also complete restorative tasks to repair harm done, as appropriate. Behavior mistakes provide opportunities for reteaching and growth.
During uncertain times, having an educational environment where expectations are clearly established, taught, and reinforced regularly will contribute to a consistent, positive experience for students – and consistency and positivity are in high demand right now. In addition, building a solid foundation of evidence-based practices makes for more efficient differentiation when students have varying needs. Building durable systems ensures predictability and comfort for both staff and students.
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