Explain It Like I'm Nine: Low Substitute Fill Rates
Can’t find enough substitute teachers to cover teacher absences? Seems...
In my early years as a school psychologist, I worked at Thornland Elementary School (fictitious name). Thornland was an urban school with committed teachers, students eager to learn and a behavioral environment that approached…chaos. In fact, when I first arrived, documented disciplinary office referrals at this 500-student building hovered at around 1000 per year — with many additional classroom removals occurring that were never recorded.
Given this school’s potential as a place of learning, what went wrong? At Thornland, positive behaviors were not explicitly taught. Instead, teachers simply assumed that students already knew adults’ behavioral expectations and chose to misbehave anyway. Furthermore, each educator applied his or her own standards in judging appropriate behavior, with wide variation across settings. Unsurprisingly, students often struggled in these instructional environments. Teachers in different classrooms applied different behavioral standards. And instructors’ primary means to ‘teach’ those standards was highly reactive through use of punishments such as class removal. Behavior management at Thornland lurched from one seeming crisis to another, and staff morale was low.
In the years since I worked at Thornland, the RTI/MTSS movement has spread across the country, employing research findings to bring innovative solutions to seemingly intractable school problems. We now know that schools can turn around their behavioral climate by adopting an RTI/MTSS model in which staff works together to provide graduated positive support to general-education students to match their social-emotional or behavioral needs (Grosche & Volpe, 2013). (Of course, students classified with behavioral disorders receive positive behavioral support separately as overseen by an IEP Team or Section 504 Committee.)
This model includes a continuum of behavior-intervention services distributed across 3 levels or tiers. At Tier 1, the classroom teacher teaches behavioral expectations and has a toolkit of ideas to proactively manage class-wide behaviors. At Tier 2, the school sets up programs such as Check & Connect that link unmotivated learners to mentors who can provide coaching support and encouragement. At Tier 3, the Problem-Solving team has the capacity to complete Functional Behavioral Assessments (FBAs) and Behavior Intervention Plans (BIPs) for students with the most intense behavioral needs.
Building an RTI/MTSS model for behavior is not easy. It can require 3-5 years of sustained effort — an understandable timeline when one considers that schools often must make do with existing resources and can move forward only as quickly as their staff is able to assimilate changes to their professional practice. Nonetheless, implementing an RTI/MTSS model can truly transform a school, with problem behaviors no longer significantly interfering with student performance, classroom instruction and teacher job satisfaction.
RTI/MTSS for behavior provides a clear blue-print for action, with specific elements that schools implement over time. But the most important work for any school thinking about adopting RTI/MTSS to address behaviors happens before implementation even begins: At the outset, the school ensures that all stakeholders understand and accept a handful of fundamental principles of positive behavior intervention. When staff collectively believe in these principles, the odds for success with the RTI/MTSS behavior model is high. When staff are divided or fail to support these principles, failure is a virtual certainty.
An increasing number of schools are building an RTI/MTSS model that teaches and reinforces expected behaviors in general-education classrooms. It’s worth asking, however, why more educational settings have not adopted this positive approach to school-wide behavior management. One explanation is that teachers see that punishment works — at least in the short term. After all, classroom removal and related ‘zero-tolerance’ responses often do result in immediate reduction of problem behaviors (Maag, 2001). Over time, however, schools that over-rely on punishment produce students who are at increased risk of continuing problem behavior, disengagement with school and failure to graduate (Skiba et al., 2006 ).
In contrast, the promise of the RTI/MTSS positive-behavior paradigm is that it treats behavior as a transparent, open curriculum. School stakeholders define the kind of school community they wish to create and then teach and reinforce the behaviors that will make this community a reality. For schools like Thornland, the RTI/MTSS model for behavior presents a path to move from a climate of behavioral turmoil to orderly classrooms with engaged students.
Grosche, M., & Volpe, R. J. (2013). Response-to-intervention (RTI) as a model to facilitate inclusion for students with learning and behaviour problems. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 28, 254-269.
Leach, D., & Helf, S. (2016). Using a hierarchy of supportive consequences to address problem behaviors in the classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic, 52(1), 29-33.
Maag, J. W. (2001). Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 67(2), 173-186.
Skiba, R. J., Reynolds, C. R., Graham, S., Shera, P., Conoley, J. C., & Garcia-Vazquez, E. (2006). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. Report by the American Psychological Association of the Zero Tolerance Task Force. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/zero-tolerance.pdf.
Wright J. A. & Dusek, J. B. (1998). Compiling school base rates for disruptive behaviors from student disciplinary referral data. School Psychology Review. 27, 138–147.