Teachers are quick to respond that one of the biggest challenges they face today in the classroom is when “behaviors get in the way of their teaching.” These behavioral challenges seem easily categorized as respect issues, responsibility issues, and organizational issues. Educators often qualify students as disrespectful, disorganized, and lazy. Typical rhetoric laments how kids are different these days, parents don’t care, and the world has changed. Truthfully, many students exhibit characteristics which look disrespectful, they struggle organizationally, and might not value the work which we hold them accountable to in the classroom; however, this does not personify them as a student. Yet schools must recognize these challenges or they can lead to further issues related to teacher morale and building climate, which ultimately impacts students.
Increased teacher frustration can lead to problem admiration rather than problem solving, focusing on things which we have little or no influence, such as conditions in the home and ineffective consequence-based classroom management. There certainly is relevance in the notion that many students entering our schools are ill-prepared socially and emotionally to developmentally function at a level to meet the demands and standards of accountability we expect from students today, and there clearly appears to be a need to focus efforts on helping students become regulated and exhibit pro-social behaviors. School leaders can respond to increasing teacher efficacy and assisting students in benefitting from instruction by creating a school culture in which behaviors do not have a negative connotation.
A first step in re-shaping a school culture with a readiness to teach behavioral skills instruction is to recognize and accept that teachers are often frustrated by behaviors, at times feel ineffective, and want help but may feel inadequate asking. Although recognition is important, it is critical to not languish in and admire problems – take action instead. Action is obtained by creating a problem solving team which uses a problem solving process to address students’ behavioral challenges. Leverage and recruit you best staff to form a team. Special education teachers, school social workers, school psychologists, classroom teachers and really any staff who has strong management skills and works well with challenging students are great candidates to become part of a problem solving team.
Focus the work of the team in defining the core behavioral issue through a protocol which largely mirrors a functional behavior assessment and supports a four-step process: Problem Identification, Problem Analysis, Plan Implementation, and Plan Evaluation. It is paramount that the protocol is time-bound and tightly followed. Keep discussion centered on the protocol, or else energy is spent outside your circle of influence and time is spent on stories of frustration and “the acorn that didn’t fall far from the tree.” Be sure to remove any barriers that might keep teachers from participating such as requiring them to bring data, or to fill out pages of paperwork. A huge caution is that this is a very tempting pitfall for teams. In fact, I suggest asking teachers to just show up, nothing more. Let the protocol do the work, or if necessary, have team members obtain some key information in advance.
Using the protocol, once your team has arrived at a hypothesis for the behavior, it is time to create a plan that the teacher can enact. The plan must be realistic, and the teacher must be able to carry it out. For instance, a first grader who may blurt incessantly during instruction may have sensory issues, or may be attention seeking. The student is not an engaged learner and requires strategies and tools, along with direct instruction in how to use the tools and strategies to lessen the blurting, increase student engagement, and decrease class disruptions. The teacher, or perhaps another team member may provide initial and ongoing instruction in a strategy to use when the student feels like blurting, or the child may take a quick sensory break. This direct skills instruction is then paired with quick and easy daily data collection based on a teacher ratings scale, which is brought to the next scheduled problem solving team meeting.
At the next problem solving meeting the plan is reviewed, data is examined, and next steps are determined. Next steps may involve no change to the plan, or changes to the plan such as increased direct skills instruction, the pairing of a behavior modification plan, or it may result in a celebration through determination that the student no longer exhibits the initial behavior. During the follow-up meeting, it is critical to know that the plan was enacted with fidelity and that data was collected. If not, the initial plan should be maintained and reviewed, along with data, at the next meeting.
Although organizing a problem solving team and getting it off the ground takes time, energy, and perseverance the dividends in increased teacher efficacy and student success can be powerful. Allow the process time to take root and grow, which happens as solid plans are developed and students become successful. Keep it easy and remove barriers such as unnecessary or laborious paperwork that keep teachers from coming to the problem solving table. Over time, embedding an effective problem solving process in your school can result in teachers developing student plans on their own. They feel empowered, supported, and effective, and can develop the skills and resilience needed to take on almost any challenge.
As this culture shifts and permeates the school, conditions become ripe to do work around defining core behavioral values that are often the tenants of character education, Multi-Tiered System of Supports structures, and are even listed on report cards. Things such as respect, responsibility, kindness, and fairness can be delineated and paired down to teachable outcomes which can be delivered in the core classroom. Behaviors are no longer synonymous with “naughty” kids but are defined and taught through core instruction and supported through structures and systems much like math and reading. As students benefit from behavioral instruction they become more engaged, teachers feel empowered, and overall the building benefits from more satisfied students, parents and staff.
Blog Post by:
Brendan Bogart, Principal
Lincoln Elementary School (K-5)
Alexandria Public Schools