In its call for social-emotional learning curricula to be integral to every public-school student’s education, federal IDEA legislation, and subsequently ESSA, mandate multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) to meet the needs of all students, academically, socially, and emotionally. This embrace of a response to intervention (RTI) systems-approach is one that many school districts comply with through adoption of school-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). In fact, PBIS is mentioned in legislative language as an exemplar, albeit states and local districts are free to choose their methodology from a host of frameworks, systems, curricula, and programs.
PBIS has enjoyed prominence in academic literature and in applied settings of more than 20,000 U.S. schools in the past two decades. With foundational research and practices relative to teaching behavioral expectations with positive language, easy to remember community rules, and differentiated levels of supports, PBIS is based on the public health model of universal prevention and education, secondary supports and differentiation, and tertiary interventions for those with intensive risk factors.
There is much in the way of qualitative recommendations for implementation of layered continuum approaches in the body of research; however, opportunities abound for applied knowledge to be explored and analyzed relative to how to create and sustain effective systems of support for all learners when all three tiers are in motion.
One of the most challenging aspects of adopting a layered continuum, systems-approach is maintaining fidelity and consistency when moving from the initial implementation of Tier 1, for instance, to the next steps of adding Tier 2, and then Tier 3. It is crucial to sustain the diligence and consistency with universal instruction for behavioral expectations, when the intervention team moves to utilizing secondary supports, such as small-group role playing and mentoring.
Through universal and secondary tiers, research shows approximately 95 percent or more of students will respond appropriately to behavioral expectations. Reaching this benchmark with implementation fidelity is critical to avoid having an overabundance of student identified for more restrictive interventions solely because of a poor intervention model in a less-restrictive tier. Not only does it do a disservice to the student, as his or her needs are not being met authentically, it also adds substantial wear and tear on interventionists whose case loads end up being larger than they should be.
It is the 2-5 percent of students who experience difficulties with risk factors such as poor mental health, homelessness, food anxiety, or parental instability, among many others, who usurp the time and energy resources of intervention teams, teachers, and school administrators. Aside from individual challenges central to an at-risk student, other concerns include disrupted instructional time, anxiety and fear over personal safety on the part of students, staff, and parents, and a decline in positive school climate elements.
Obviously, this issue is complex and includes facets that are individualized for each student and each school team, who set out to address the needs of these students and the school culture at large. In my research on principal leadership of school-wide PBIS Tier 3 implementations, published here, two key constants came to light: consistency in implementation and the need for high-quality, on-going professional development at all stages. The literature is clear on the need for uniform application and attention to school-wide rules, established classroom community norms, and functioning of acknowledgements for compliance to stated behavioral expectations.
The participants in the study, all elementary principals, agreed that the principal is the person responsible for modeling expected language and how to address student non-compliance in accordance with a positive behavioral approach. They readily accepted leadership of creating a vision of meeting the needs of all students, sustaining that vision through intentional communication to all stakeholders, and using a guiding school-wide PBIS team to gain staff buy-in, distribute and build leadership capacity in others, and implement facets of the tiered interventions with fidelity.
The importance of implementation fidelity, or consistency, was a primary finding of this study, as was the need for on-going, high-quality professional development. An undertaking of the magnitude of school-wide PBIS requires multiple opportunities for varying facets of training, as well as more informal times for discussion about what is going right, problem-solving, shared practices, mentoring, and working through frustrations. While school-wide PBIS recommends a coaching model to support implementation, there is little time within a typical school day for a faculty member, who is serving also as a PBIS coach, to spend in pursuit of adequately supporting his or her colleagues who face challenging behaviors or in social-emotional lesson plan development. Knowing this, principals and school administrators must be diligent in their efforts to carve out formal and informal professional learning time for teachers and staff, or else, fidelity is unlikely to be achieved or maintained.
Without the explicit and sustained participation of the principal in a school-wide PBIS implementation, it has little hope of succeeding. Administrators set meeting agenda topics, allocate resources, and determine professional development foci. For principals, this means they must “walk the walk and talk the talk” at all times. Planning time during monthly faculty meetings to highlight a school-wide PBIS topic, even for 5 minutes, keeps the dialog fresh and germane.
As a new school year approaches, encourage your teachers to set professional practice goals that center on social-emotional learning and utilizing more positive behavioral supports to create learning environments that work for all students.
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