Putting Research to Work - 2

A case study of how one school converted behavior improvement research to practice, using expert advice and six really smart moves.
by Melissa D. Patschke
Principal, March/April 2012
Web Resources
 
Every principal and teacher in every K-8 school in the country knows that children who struggle with difficult social, emotional, or behavioral issues also have difficulty learning. What we don’t always know is how to help these students. What are best practices in this area, and how can a principal and his or her staff implement them? As is so often the case in elementary education, answers to such questions lie with building and nurturing support and expertise among peers.
 
My school, Upper Providence Elementary, part of the Spring-Ford Area School District (SFASD) in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania, is fortunate to have a two-teacher team that staffs our Emotional Support (ES) program. Once or twice a month, our ES teachers provide expertise for their district colleagues who are struggling to help a child exhibiting social, emotional, or behavioral concerns. Their support varies widely from lending a sympathetic ear in a confidential conversation to affirming a colleague’s observations to facilitating meetings and practicing difficult discussions.
 
This outreach has proved to be very successful. It typically lowers the teacher’s anxiety, helps the child, and bolsters a positive classroom culture—everyone wins. Our challenge was to take the support to the next level by developing a peer-collaborative and research-based approach to addressing challenging student behaviors in the district’s seven elementary schools.

ES teacher Mark Matthews worked with key SFASD administrators and staff, including district curriculum director Johnna Weller, to create a systems approach using Behavioral Support Teams (BST). For this complicated concept—develop, train, and integrate full teams for seven different schools—to work, we needed to create a strong foundation, one based on research-proven practices. Materials needed to be authentic, practices had to be credible, and resources had to be available to meet a variety of needs. We drew upon the online resources offered by Doing What Works (see “A Ticket for Success,” Principal, November/December 2011). Specifically, we incorporated the practice labeled Reducing Behavioral Problems in Elementary School Classrooms, which is one component of the overarching
topic, Comprehensive Support. Not only was the extensive material solidly research based, but it also was free! The successes of the BSTs are due, in part, to the following key factors—our “smart moves.”

Smart Move #1
The Right Team Matters

Just as Jim Collins noted in his 2001 blockbuster book, From Good to Great, getting the right team members in place makes all the difference. For us, it ensured the success of initial training, the buy in of teaching staff for the entire project, and our strengthened ability to sustain the program after implementation.
 
Typically, our BSTs consist of the principal, a guidance counselor, a primary teacher, an intermediate-level teacher, and a special education teacher. We recognized from the outset that the active participation of the principal and the counselor throughout the project was critical to its successful completion. Just as important, it was the primary factor in determining if each school is prepared to support the BST beyond the initial implementation. The selection of other team members was informed by what worked best for kids: The behaviors and attitudes of elementary-aged children are influenced by distinct developmental factors. Thus, it was important to ensure that primary and intermediate teachers were represented on the BSTs. We also required a special education teacher, knowing that their unique experiences would positively and significantly contribute to the team’s actions and decisions.

A third critical element for creating effective BSTs was including experienced and peer-respected teachers who could form strong collegial supports within the constraints of the resources available to the schools.

Each school needed the flexibility to recommend the team most appropriate for its specific culture. While five members were suggested as the optimal size for the teams, three of the schools added an additional member.

Smart Move #2
Know What Already Works

Recognizing “what’s right” in existing practice is a critical factor for any team-based venture. No matter the goal or the need for change, good people are already invested in their current reality. As noted writer and educator Phillip C. Schlechty cautions in Leading for Learning: How to Transform Schools into Learning Organizations, changes that move forward blindly without understanding previous successes is a cultural no-no.
 
The project team focused time and energy on understanding what practices already worked and how to preserve—even build on—those successes and power within. We used such tools as focus groups, interviews, and school climate surveys to collect data during the evaluation component of the process.
 
Early in the development of the BST training, we also allowed time for each team to analyze the culture and practices in its respective school and to compare those existing practices with the recommended Doing What Works (DWW) practices in addressing student behavioral concerns. What could they build on? What could be modified? How could practices be integrated?
 
Each BST was asked to review the vision and mission statements of its school; to understand and codify (if necessary) school-based collaboration efforts, such as special-education teaching groups or grade-level teams; to identify pro-social and character-education programs that promote positive school climates; and to examine unique elements in the school community that encourage student motivation and parental partnerships. All of these efforts have a significant impact on the success of the BSTs and, more important, on the success of practices that support children with behavior issues that disrupt their ability to learn.
 
Smart Move #3
Aim High

Veteran educators Howard J. Bultinck and Lynn H. Bush write in 99 Ways to Lead & Succeed that educators need to “think beyond today.” We set goals for our project and planned ways to make them happen. In addition to identifying existing school-based practices, we relied on the DWW materials to support our teaching staff in ways that exceeded initial expectations.
 
In effect, we had a “silent partner” online for all trainings that provided teachers with immediate take-aways and reflection tools. Each DWW best practice features expert advice from practitioners and researchers, and methodologies are supported with actual, school-based examples that focus on implementation strategies.
In many ways, the DWW materials were like having additional professional development trainers on the implementation team.
 
Smart Move #4
You and Improved

Including all stakeholders in the development of an initiative is a powerful method to encourage buy in. In Getting Started: Re-culturing Schools to Become Professional Learning Communities, Robert Eaker, Richard DuFour, and Rebecca DuFour confirm the importance of shared vision, collective commitments, and common goals.
 
As the teams began their work, we invested time and energy in ensuring that everyone’s feedback was welcomed, everyone was heard, and everyone was on the same page. Consequently, BST members were able to focus on how their existing practices could be enhanced by new practices. For example, the BST at Upper Providence Elementary ultimately used DWW’s five recommended practices listed on the DWW website under the broader category titled Reducing Behavioral
Problems in Elementary School Classrooms. The five practices follow.
  • Describe Behavior: Identify the specifics of the problem behavior and the conditions that prompt and reinforce it.
  • Modify Environment: Modify the classroom learning environment to decrease problem behavior.
  • Teach Skills: Teach and reinforce skills to promote appropriate behavior.
  • Collaborative Relationships: Draw on relationships with professional colleagues and students’ families for continued guidance and support.
  • Schoolwide Approach: Implement schoolwide strategies that are evidence-based and aligned with school needs and goals.
The team took materials from the practice pages and applied them directly to the school environment. Teams created discrete products after each professional development training session, which were later incorporated into presentations to each school’s faculty.
 
Time was allocated for BST collaboration, discussion, planning, and sharing of ideas among different schools. These discussions led to many team-based improvements, including using the school intranet to house a teacher-resource folder, which contains such materials as the products developed during BST training sessions and school-specific tools and information.
 
In addition, the principals from the seven schools appreciated the opportunity to work with a select group of their own staff to explore the DWW materials and develop a community behavioral approach specific for their schools.
 
Smart Move #5
Teacher Leadership Is Contagious

Asking principals for help can be difficult for teachers who feel that such a request is an admission that they can’t manage their classrooms. More effective, say some researchers, is to set up processes that connect teachers with each other. As Marge Scherer notes in Keeping Good Teachers, teacher leadership, enhanced through peer collaboration and mentoring, can be a more comfortable avenue for providing teachers with support when compared with a traditional administrative
evaluation model, and teacher-to-teacher partnerships afford more comfortable exchanges. With credible, trained peer leadership, trust can be developed and high teacher efficacy will be achieved.
 
This certainly proved to be the case with the BSTs. Each has developed to the point that they are able to create effective procedures tailored to the culture and needs of each school.

In addition, the teacher-led BSTs designed and delivered school-level workshops, shared recommended practices with the entire faculty, and led their peers through discussion and activities to initiate schoolwide approaches to teaching and promoting appropriate student behavior.
 
Since the training, teachers have reported an increase in effective data collection for student behavior and have also noted an increase in their general understanding of positive behavioral supports and interventions. In addition, to further facilitate teacher-to-teacher collaboration, we developed a technology based community of practice (wiki site) to which all involved teachers had access.
 
Smart Move #6
Reflect and Interject

There is immense value in reviewing a project, evaluating its impact, and moving forward with improvements or adjustments. Olaf Jorgenson writes in A Reflective Planning Journal for School Leaders that reflective evaluation is integral to effective instructional leadership. We applied these theories to our work. We took great care to elicit participant feedback to improve all aspects of the project. As a result, BST participants made important modifications, including revisiting their current methodology for dealing with classroom behavior and proposing significant changes to those practices. As the trainings for BST participants progressed, we also built in more time for team members to discuss and formulate implementation changes.
 
These guiding principles—and many other factors too numerous to recount in this brief article—made all the difference in our ability to put the DWW research into practice. Our collaborative approach worked. The research-based practices provided us with a solid platform for supporting teachers and implementing effective
approaches, and most important—children received the help they need to learn to their greatest potential.
 
Melissa (Missie) D. Patschke is principal of Upper Providence Elementary School in Royersfield, Pennsylvania.
 
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