3-Step System to Identify Social, Emotional & Behavioral Issues Sooner

13 min. read

The primary purpose of schools is to educate. At times however, students display challenging behaviors or significant social-emotional concerns that interfere with their learning. In such cases, our goal as educators, counselors and service providers is to identify who those students are and match them to appropriate behavioral or social-emotional interventions. To do that, we need to build bridges across classrooms and roles – and an RTI/MTSS model can be a powerful way to meet this goal.

But for many schools, a major roadblock interferes with their ability to find and help students with behavior issues: the lack of timely, targeted, shared behavioral information across departments and specialties.

This 3-step approach (with examples) can help your school build a system that empowers educators, counselors and other specialists to efficiently collect and interpret behavioral data to find students who most need intervention:

  1. The school establishes an RTI/MTSS-Behavior Problem Solving Team
  2. Members of that Team develop a proactive, school-wide protocol for behavioral screening
  3. The Team adopts a regimen to analyze local behavioral ‘early warning’ data such as attendance and disciplinary referrals. Of course, this process requires close collaboration and communication among all staff.

Let’s break down each step into manageable pieces.

Step 1: Establish “Command and Control”Your RTI/MTSS-Behavior Problem-Solving Team

The initial step in developing a school-wide system to flag students who need behavioral supports is to establish an RTI/MTSS-Behavior Problem-Solving Team (RTI/MTSS Team). This multi-disciplinary group is composed primarily of school personnel who play a role in identifying and/or providing services for students at risk because of behavioral or social-emotional issues. RTI/MTSS Team membership might include (but is not restricted to):

  • School counselor
  • School psychologist
  • School social worker
  • Special education teacher
  • Administrator
  • School nurse

The RTI/MTSS Team should meet on a regular basis – ideally, weekly – to allow them to quickly schedule meetings for students in crisis who need customized intervention plans.

Although the chief function of the RTI/MTSS Team is to develop and monitor individual behavioral interventions, the Team is also the logical group to establish centralized ‘command and control’ over how student behavioral data is collected and used throughout the building. Specifically, the Team collectively has the expertise to design a school-wide behavioral ‘at-risk’ screening regimen (as explained in Step 2) and to develop a system to monitor building behavior data sources (e.g., attendance, Office Disciplinary Referrals) to find students eligible for Tier 2/3 services (as described in Step 3).

RTI/MTSS Behavior Scenario:

Work Avoidance: Alice often finds excuses to leave her math class and misses substantial amounts of instruction. Her math teacher, Mr. Garbarino, requires that students who leave the classroom during instruction for any reason must sign out and sign back in on return.

Reviewing these daily sign-out sheets one Friday, Mr. Garbarino notes Alice’s frequent absences during math lessons and decides to conference with the student to find out the reason. Alice is evasive in her responses, so her teacher then talks with her school counselor about Alice’s trips from the classroom. Based on the sign-out log documenting her classroom absences and a follow-up conversation between the counselor and Alice, the RTI/MTSS Team decides to place the student in a school-wide mentoring program to help Alice to increase her confidence and performance in math.


Step 2: Predict Risk School-Wide Behavioral Screening

A proactive approach to finding students who would benefit from Tier 2/3 behavioral supports is to screen the entire school population at several points during the school year (i.e., fall, winter, spring). The RTI/MTSS Team can be given responsibility to select methods for screening students and develop procedures to conduct these building-wide behavioral screenings. The two most frequently used sources of RTI/MTSS-behavior screening information, teacher nomination and behavioral screening tools, are described in the table below.

A signal advantage of a building-wide RTI/MTSS system to screen for at-risk learners is that it allows all appropriate school personnel to access the extensive repository of knowledge that teachers typically have of student behaviors. Tapping this teacher behavioral information can often result in at-risk individuals being flagged for Tier 2/3 behavioral support before their problem behaviors escalate to serious levels.

Behavioral/Social-Emotional Schoolwide Screening: Data Sources

Teacher Nomination. Teachers and other school staff are an important referral source for mental-health services. In the classroom, students are expected to engage in schoolwork, follow rules for appropriate conduct and get along with peers . Teachers are well-placed to identify those students who struggle in any of these areas of behavioral functioning. Schools can simply direct instructional staff to flag and refer students whose behavior is of concern. However, teachers can increase the reliability of their RTI/MTSS-behavior referrals when they are first trained to recognize internalizing (e.g., depression; anxiety) and externalizing (e.g., inattentive/hyperactive; non-compliant) behavior problems.

Behavioral Questionnaires. Schools can purchase brief mental-health screening questionnaires that teachers can complete for all students. Depending on the product, these questionnaires may be print-based or computer-administered. While the majority of such RTI/MTSS-behavior screening tools are to be completed by instructional staff, versions also exist for student self-report and even parent report. Schools can review a range of potential behavior screeners listed on the National Center on Intensive Intervention behavioral screener and behavioral progress-monitoring tools chart pages.

A strength of these norm-referenced rating instruments is that any student’s results can be compared to published norms to determine whether that student is at elevated risk for social-emotional and/or behavior problems. One potential drawback of universal screening with these instruments is that teachers find themselves completing questionnaires for many students about whom they have no concerns.

Multi-Gate Screening: Teacher Nomination and Questionnaires. An approach that can substantially reduce teacher effort while still realizing the full benefit of school-wide behavioral screening is to combine teacher nomination and clinical questionnaires in a multi-step/“multi-gate” process.

In the first step (gate 1), every teacher is asked to nominate up to 3 students in their class/section with possible internalizing and up to 3 with possible externalizing behavior concerns. In the next step (gate 2), teachers complete brief, clinical behavior-rating questionnaires for only those students they previously nominated. In the final step (gate 3), mental-health staff (e.g., counselors, psychologists) complete classroom observations of those students scoring in the significant range on the behavioral questionnaire, both to verify the need for Tier 2/3 supports and to match these students to appropriate services.

RTI/MTSS Behavior Scenario:

Non-Compliance: Jake is a ‘frequent flier’ in the in-school Suspension Room. His school runs a report every 5 weeks summarizing student Office Disciplinary Referrals (ODRs) throughout the building. On the most recent ODR report, Jake is identified as presenting significant challenging behaviors.

An analysis of teacher comments on his ODRs shows that Jake fails to comply with teacher requests or complete work across multiple classrooms, a pattern confirmed in conversations with his instructors. On the strength of both his frequent ODRs and teacher feedback, Jake is referred to the RTI/MTSS Team, which coaches his instructors to use positive-communication tools to increase Jake’s compliance and academic engagement.

Step 3: Look for Patterns – Archival Behavioral Data

In addition to school-wide screenings, the RTI/MTSS Team has another option to locate students in need of behavioral interventions: they can monitor an ongoing stream of local, building-level, archival data that can reliably identify individuals with emerging social-emotional or behavioral problems1. These data sources (Office Disciplinary Referrals, attendance, non-ODR classroom removals) are described in the table below.

Archival Behavioral Information: Data Sources

Attendance. A student’s record of attendance is not a direct behavioral measure. However, frequent absences may correlate with academic underperformance and can be a red flag for social-emotional concerns such as school avoidance or lack of academic engagement. Ideally, schools have the capacity to record absences or late arrivals (skips and tardies) by class period, as well as full-day absences.

Office Disciplinary Referrals. In most schools, when a student is sent from the classroom for disciplinary reasons, the teacher also writes up an accompanying Office Disciplinary Referral (ODR) . The ODR is a form completed electronically or by hand that provides specific information about the behavioral incident resulting in the student being removed to be disciplined.

Schools can increase the quality of the behavioral data supplied by ODRs by including prompts on the ODR form for the referring educator to describe factors related to the problem-behavior incident such as possible triggering events, duration of the problem situation, steps taken by the teacher to deescalate the situation, etc.

Important factors that impact the quality of ODR data are the reliability of staff in completing ODRs for each significant disciplinary incident and the school’s ability rapidly to enter ODRs into an electronic database to allow these records to be easily reviewed, sorted and analyzed.

Non-ODR Class Removals/Absences. Although ODRs document when students are sent from the classroom for disciplinary reasons, it often happens in schools that other types of classroom removal or absence occur quite frequently yet are not reliably documented.

Examples include students who are sent to a neighboring classroom or to stand in the hall for a short time-out, directed to visit a counselor to calm down after an emotional outburst, or fail to return to class after a restroom break.

Students with a high number of classroom removals or self-initiated absences are more likely than peers to have social-emotional or behavior problems — and may also be at increased risk for academic failure because they are missing large amounts of instruction. One way that schools can track incidents of classroom removal/absence is by having students sign themselves out when leaving the classroom in mid-session and sign back in when returning to the room. (For younger children, adults can sign students out from and back into the classroom.)

The RTI/MTSS Team can harness the archival data sources presented here to serve as the equivalent of a local behavioral screener by creating an Archival Data Behavior Response Matrix:

The figure Archival Data Example: RTI/MTSS Behavior Response Matrix for ODRs in shows how disciplinary referrals can be used to identify and respond to students at risk.

The RTI/MTSS Team assembles the Matrix in 3 stages:

  1. Decide on Frequency of Analysis. The RTI/MTSS Team agrees to analyze each data source at a fixed frequency during the school year (a recommended frequency is every 5 instructional weeks).
  2. Set a Risk Threshold. For each data source, the Team sets a threshold that defines a student as being at risk. For example, the Team may decide that any student receiving 3 or more ODRs in a 5-week period should receive RTI/MTSS attention.
  3. Select the Appropriate RTI/MTSS Actions. The RTI/MTSS Team decides on the appropriate action(s) to take when a student is flagged as at-risk using local data. For example, when a student is identified as having exceeded the threshold of ODRs during the first 5-week check-up period of the school year, the RTI/MTSS ‘next step’ may be to convene a problem-solving conference with the student. If the same student is flagged again in the next 5-week check-up, the school may arrange a parent-student conference. If the same student is identified yet a third time in succession for ODRs, the school may decide that the RTI/MTSS Team will hold a problem-solving meeting and invite student and parent.

The goal of the RTI/MTSS Team is to efficiently monitor in ‘real time’ current levels of student attendance, ODRs and additional classroom removals/absences across the school, and to then respond appropriately as outlined in the Response Matrix. By monitoring and positively responding to behavioral archival data, the Team is more likely to note and effectively address emerging behavior problems before they cascade out of control.

RTI/MTSS Behavior Scenario:

Anxiety: Leroy’s anxiety about classwork undermines his academic performance, especially on tests. Three times during the school year, Leroy’s school asks teachers to identify any students who display concerning levels of problem behavior or social/emotional difficulties. Both his English and chemistry teachers flag Leroy because of his observed anxious behavior and the student’s comments about how anxiety interferes with test-taking. To assess the magnitude of Leroy’s anxiety symptoms, these two teachers are then asked to complete a brief questionnaire rating the severity of his behaviors. According to both teachers, Leroy falls within the ‘clinically significant’ range on this rating form.

Additionally, the school nurse confirms that Leroy has stopped by her office at several times during the school year to report an upset stomach, which she believes to be related to his anxiety. Based on teacher identification, results of the behavior-rating questionnaire, and corroborating information from the nurse, the RTI/MTSS Team decides to place the student in brief (6-session) counseling with the school psychologist to work on reducing and managing his anxiety on high-stakes tests.

Transform Your RTI/MTSS-Behavior System: The Power of Data

The most pressing objective for schools is to develop sources of behavioral data that will quickly and accurately identify students in need of intervention support. Over time however, the RTI/MTSS Team is also likely to discover that school-wide behavioral screenings and local archival data provide a positive-feedback loop with the potential to make that Team’s behavioral service delivery increasingly efficient, targeted and effective. For example, repeated analysis of building-wide behavioral data can give schools the new-found ability to spot emerging negative trends (e.g., individual classrooms with high rates of office referrals, significant numbers of students with serious anxiety issues) and to put supports in place to reverse those trends.

When an RTI/MTSS Team builds a system that delivers timely and targeted behavioral data on at-risk students, the results over time can be truly transformative.

Imagine having one place to document all visits/encounters a student has with nurses, counselors and mental health staff? Then be able to access real-time data and insights to make informed decisions about student care. See what’s possible with Healthmaster, now part of Frontline Education. .

[1] McIntosh, K., Chard, D. J., Bolan, J. B., & Horner, R. H. (2006). Demonstration of combined efforts in school-wide academic and behavioral systems and incidence of reading and behavior challenges in early elementary grades. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 8(3), 146-154.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] McIntosh, K., Chard, D. J., Bolan, J. B., & Horner, R. H. (2006). Demonstration of combined efforts in school-wide academic and behavioral systems and incidence of reading and behavior challenges in early elementary grades. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 8(3), 146-154.

[5] McIntosh, K., Chard, D. J., Bolan, J. B., & Horner, R. H. (2006). Demonstration of combined efforts in school-wide academic and behavioral systems and incidence of reading and behavior challenges in early elementary grades. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 8(3), 146-154.

Jim Wright

Jim Wright is a highly-acclaimed national presenter, trainer and author on topics that cover the essentials and beyond of Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered System of Supports. He has worked for 17 years in public education as a school psychologist and school administrator. Jim has published "The RTI Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Schools" and is the creator of the InterventionCentral.org website.

Similar Tags