Nurturing Skills Through Relationships

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According to personal experience and considerable research, strong teacher-student relationships lead to greater student outcomes (Allen et al., 2013; Baker, 2006; Battistich, Schaps, & Wilson, 2004; Berry & O’Connor, 2009; Hughes, Cavell, & Wilson, 2001; Klem & Connell, 2004; Liew, Chen, & Hughes, 2010; O’Connor & McCartney, 2007; Reddy, Rhodes, & Mulhall, 2003; Wentzel, 1997). But how do we build, nurture, and sustain positive relationships within learning environments?


  • Let students get to know you: Pedagogies and strategies matter, but students work hard for teachers they like. And they like teachers they know. Share a little about yourself—nothing too personal, of course, but appropriate and interesting facts about your family, your pets, and your hobbies. Incorporate this information into lesson and unit openers. Make learning relevant by connecting new content to your life. Educators typically really like what they teach, and we all have interests and passions outside of school. Share your enthusiasms with students, making connections to learning to strengthen
  • Teach students how to respectfully and productively cooperate and collaborate: Students will always talk in class; the question is whether they will talk about what we want them to talk about or not. So, prepare students for meaningful collaboration by teaching them to have positive relationships. Give them sentence stems and starters for pairing with a partner and for working within teams, and practice these interactions. In my experiences, even students who want to talk with their group partners aren’t sure what to say. Stems may include providing students with language, such as:
    • What I am saying is …
    • I would like to say more about …
    • I would like to clarify my statement, what I mean is …
    • An example is …
    • What I said was … I would like to add …
    • What I hear you saying is .
    • Can you please repeat what name said, to help me better understand ?
    • I heard name say …, which connects to name thinking because ….
    • I agree/disagree about…my rationale is ….
    • I would like to explain why I think name came up with that answer, I think …
    • I support/oppose this idea. My reasoning is …


We cannot and should expect students to know how to work with others in academic situations, and devoting time to modeling and teaching the ins and outs of empathetic exchanges will pay off. Student-to-student relationships are as critical to classroom and student success as staff-to-student relationships (Jacobs, Power, & Loh, 2002; Johnson & Johnson, & Holubec, 2013; Kohn, 1992).


  • Get to know students: Show them that you are interested. Listen. Hold them accountable—it shows you If and when you administer interest and preference surveys (and I recommend that you do this), use this information to prime both your academic and social interactions with each student. Play to student interests when designing lessons, writing tasks, and constructing questions. When greeting or privately sharing a fifteen-second exchange with students (see the following), follow-up with a question about a club, sport, or hobby that the interest surveys mention. And, of course, use information from these surveys to differentiate teaching and learning.
  • Ensure that every student receives a verbal message from you every day, or very nearly every day (and keep track): There are students who can go weeks without adults at school noticing them—although many students like it that way. There is often one administrator for every five hundred students; one counselor (if there are counselors at all) for every three hundred students; and in secondary schools, a teacher can see well over one hundred students, perhaps closer to two hundred students, a day. Adopt techniques to interact with every student regularly: greeting students at the door with a handshake, high-five, or hello; interacting during fifteen-second quick-checks of last night’s homework while students complete a warm-up; or by facilitating small-group learning opportunities within class. And keep track of these interactions to make sure that no student falls through the cracks. Maintain a check-off sheet that simply records that all students have received a verbal
  • Initiate, re-dedicate, or revitalize advisory sessions, classrooms meetings, restorative justice circles, or some combination, to building relationships: Many schools have periods within their day when a primary focus of the time is as social as it is academic. This may be carpet or calendar time in early elementary grades, classroom meetings in the middle grades, or advisory periods within secondary schools. Make relationships an explicit goal of these
  • Respect students’ space and remember what it’s like to be a student: Active efforts on the part of adults matter, but sometimes students need space. And if we pay attention, we can tell when students are having a bad day. Nonverbal interactions matter, too. Eye contact, a nod, or a pat on the arm communicates to students that we understand and that we


What we say can enhance or compromise relationships. Our words to students sometimes unintentionally erode students’ self-image, sense of efficacy, and mindset (Curwin, 2015; Curwin & Mendler, 1999). Students exhibit behaviors of all kinds, and educators expect positive behaviors, all day long across schools. No matter where the student learns, with whom, or at which time of day, we expect students to display appropriate and productive behaviors. Let’s contribute to their success (and our success in serving students) by agreeing to nurture consistent expectations. The specific nature of a subject area or that the preferences of a staff member rarely outweigh the value of consistently defined and reinforced behaviors.

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Student Behavior: Follow Up and Follow Through

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I would to share a specific technique that my colleagues and I have used at the high school, middle school, and elementary school levels to respond to assessment information, provide feedback, and differentiate behavioral supports for all students. We call this strategy follow up and follow through.

A prerequisite for this technique is a redefinition of the uses of, and reasons for, a behavior documentation form. This form is not synonymous with an office referral, which represents assessment data that are too late. When a student comes to the office with a referral, it limits our chances of proactively supporting him or her. A BDF, on the other hand, is typically completed when minor incidents occur. Students are not sent to the office when a BDF is completed (unless the misbehavior was of the major variety, which, after implementing behavioral RTI, we have found to be rare); instead, the teacher brings the form to the office at a convenient time once he or she completes it. Teachers may complete a few of these a day. The idea of follow up and follow through is that staff provide frequent, timely information on minor infractions and that administrative staff actively respond to the information within the BDF in a timely manner.

A Note on Sending Students to the Office: In matters of safety, a student leaving the instructional environment is totally appropriate. When safety is not a concern, the matter is complex, to say the least. The function of the student’s behavior may be to escape or avoid whatever is occurring in the classroom. Leaving the classroom reinforces, even rewards, the misbehavior and makes it more likely to occur in the future. Moreover, this response teaches neither the misbehaving student or other students in the class how to self-regulate. There are no easy answers, but there are answers. Differentiation, de-escalation, and restorative practice strategies offer alternatives.

On receiving these forms in the office, the administrative staff would quickly enter the data contained within the form itself into a software system that efficiently captures the information and allows for simple analyses to be conducted when necessary. Then, no more than twenty-four hours after the teacher completes the form, administrative leaders visit the student within the classroom, ideally the classroom or time period in which the incident occurred. Administrative leaders do not call students to the office, thereby requiring them to miss class and providing them with the opportunity to take as much time as humanly possible to walk to the office. No, they go to the students. In addition to minimizing the amount of time students are out of the class, this timely follow-up accomplishes three things.

  1. Teachers feel the support. (They think, “Wow, the administrators are good to their word. I completed this form yesterday, and here they are to follow up. I’m going to continue to trust this process.”)
  2. Other students notice. (They think, “Uh-oh. They’re here for that kid who acted out yesterday. They sure have high expectations here, and they hold you accountable.”)
  3. The student in question receives timely feedback. (He or she thinks, “Yikes. Here we go. I guess the staff here talk to each other.”)

On entering the class, the administrative staff ask to see the student, assuming to do so will not be significantly disrupting the learning environment. They exit the classroom with the student, move into the hallway, and begin by furthering their positive relationship with the student (asking, “How’s class today?” “How was the game last night?” “How’s your brother doing?”). They then proceed through the 3Rs.

  1. Reflection: “Tell me what happened here” (while referencing the form).
  2. Reteaching: “What should you have done? Oh, you’re not sure; let me be clear . . .”
  3. Restitution: “What can we do to make this right?” (Restitution may include an apology, an element of restorative practices, a consequence, or a combination of these.)

They conclude with the positive: “Hey. I know you’re a great kid, and I know you expect more from yourself, and we expect more from you too. Please do the right thing, know that I’m here for you, and have a great, great rest of your day.”

The administrators would write a date on the form that represents when they will stop checking in with the student: maybe they will only follow up once, or maybe every day for a week. When they communicate to parents, this is part of the information that they will share.

While this technique requires organization, and necessitates that administrators made getting out of the office a priority, this method of following up and following through is not difficult and produces many benefits in addition to those noted here. We believe that these timely, positive follow-ups prevent many actual office referrals for major infractions from ever being written. Early intervention is the best. We must, however, have data from efficient assessments; and we must do something with the evidence we gather.

Restorative Practices within RTI



Restorative principles and practices apply at all tiers of RTI and provide opportunities and experiences that teach, model, and nurture the behavioral skills that staff and students prioritize. In fact, several high schools in which we have worked conduct restorative justice circles weekly within one of their class periods. These “circles” are secondary school versions of classroom meetings, providing an opportunity for students to come together in a more teen-appropriate way to learn about and discuss behavioral skills and address situations that may have occurred in a positive, collaborative, and problem-solving manner. This reflects restorative practices at Tier 1.

Restorative practices perhaps most meaningfully apply at Tiers 2 and 3. Suspensions do not work (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Ball, 2003; Calhoun, 2013; Dupper, Theriot, & Craun, 2009; Gumz & Grant, 2009; Hemphill, Plenty, Herrenkohl, Toumbourou, & Catalano, 2014; Karp & Breslin, 2001; Latimer, Dowden, & Muise, 2005; Mullet, 2014; Skiba, 2014; Tacker & Hoover, 2011; Teasley, 2014; Varnham, 2005). And, if staff determine that a suspension is necessary, then they must consider providing Tier 3 supports. Tier 3 supports involve wraparound supports for students with the most intensive behavioral needs, supports that involve restorative practices. So, what exactly are restorative practices?

Restorative practices flip the script on how we as educators approach misbehaviors. They are not about punishment; they’re about reteaching. They are not about educators solving students’ problems; they’re about students taking responsibility. Restorative practices empower students to resolve conflicts through educator-facilitated, often peer-mediated sessions during which reflection, reteaching, and restitution are the focus. Ryan Jackson, executive lead principal of the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone, believes that:

Schools that adopt a restorative justice mindset and implement those practices truly begin to model empathy and self-discipline, with these skills transferring to students. In my humble opinion, restorative practices have been the most significant development in the area of behavior due to the specific focus on empathy-based teaching and learning as well as their scaffolding of the goal-setting and commitment process for all students. The simple reality is that progress equals happiness, and the more we can help students identify and celebrate their progress, the better shot we have at students experiencing joy while in school.

Importantly, restorative practices are proactive, action-oriented, and based on social learning. Students in need come together, they make amends, they demonstrate their understanding of how to react and respond in a more productive way, and students return to core learning environments as quickly as possible, and more quickly than they have traditionally.

Strategies within restorative justice include community conferencing, community service, peer juries, conflict mediation, and preventative programs. Here are short summaries of each of these strategies:

  • Community conferencing: Face-to-face meeting during which the individual (the responsible party) who has negatively impacted an individual or group hears directly from that individual or group (the impacted, affected, or supporting party) regarding how they were affected and how they feel. Those impacted typically have the chance to provide input on restitution – or how the situation will be made right, or at least better, and how the entire community will move forward positively. The individual causes the negative situation also has the opportunity to address the situation.
  • Community service: A component of restitution may be community service, when the responsible party provides a service to a group within the broader school community. For example, a student responsible for bullying classmates may learn about the negative impacts of bullying and teach mini-lessons to younger students on how to notice and respond to bullying that they experience or observe.
  • Peer juries: Peer juries are not courts in which fellow students pass judgment. Students who serve in peer juries work with responsible parties and the impacted affected, and/or supporting parties to help repair harm and build skills. Peer juries help support relatively minor situations and are typically guided by a staff member.
  • Conflict mediation: Also known as peer mediation or conflict resolution, conflict mediation is a structured problem-solving process in which two student facilitators help guide a problem-solving dialogue with two students who have had a conflict (Johnson & Johnson, 1996).
  • Preventative programs: When patterns of misbehaviors occur, schools use the strategies described above to provide guidance to a broader group of stakeholders in an effort to prevent future incidents. A common example is bullying prevention; when evidence shoes that bullying is becoming a common occurrence, restorative justice circles will address the topic, often with responsible and impacted parties from previous incidents serving as facilitators.

As noted earlier, the principles and practices of restorative justice can be should be increasingly present within our schools. We believe that they are a fundamental element of Tier 3.

Questions to Ask When Designing Behavioral Interventions at Tiers 2 and 3

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We as educators must prepare and commit to applying the same automatic processes we use in the academic arena for behavioral skills within an RTI-based system of supports. My intent is to describe what my colleagues and I have done, and what schools can do, to meet students’ behavioral skill needs in the same manner as we ideally meet students’ academic needs. We have had success in systematically and proactively responding to the following questions when designing processes and systems to organize our behavioral interventions


  • “Which students are most at risk or likely to have a significant deficit in behavioral skills? Why is a student significantly at risk? What is the most immediate area of need?” So that we can provide positive, differentiated supports within core classrooms and so that we can provide targeted, immediate, and intensive Tier 3 supports, we universally screen. Tier 2 supports can and should be informed on a regular basis using the common formative assessment processes and tools.


  • “Who will provide these supports? Which staff members are available and have received the professional development students require to administer these supports?” Teacher teams take the lead on Tier 1 and 2 supports, both academic and behavioral. In our experiences, behavioral supports at all tiers also benefit from the involvement of a schoolwide RTI team. While grade-specific, content-specific, and course-specific academic priorities are largely distinct, behavioral skills are (or should be) consistent across grade levels, departments, and classrooms; schoolwide teams can help inform the types of behavioral supports that will most successfully meet student needs. Moreover, teacher teams are the experts in the skills, concepts, and content of their grade level or course; teachers may not yet have the same confidence and competence with behavioral skills. Schoolwide teams can help inform these supports. Behavioral supports are distinct from academic supports because, in most cases, academic supports are specific to a content area and can be targeted and practiced in small groups. Behavioral supports, however, occur within all environments in the classroom and across the school. It is also best to provide and practice behavioral supports within normal teaching and learning environments. So, who provides these supports? All staff do. Therefore, processes need to be in place to prepare, empower, and support educators in supporting students’ behavioral needs.


  • “When will educators provide supports?” Unlike Tier 2 and 3 academic supports, Tier 2 and 3 behavioral supports will likely occur throughout the entire day, within all environments. Behaviors can best (and perhaps only) be practiced within the actual, authentic educational environments in which they are necessary and within which they have not yet been successfully demonstrated. Educators need to establish preparations and systems to support both the staff who are assisting students with supplemental needs and the students receiving this help. There may be times during which small-group supports, particularly at Tier 3, are appropriate. Once time may be when behavioral intervention programs, such as those below, are provided to groups of students with similar needs.


Program Behaviors and needs that are addressed
Aggression Replacement Training ( Physical respect and alternatives aggression
Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in School (CBITS; Childhood trauma
FIRST STEP Pro-social skill development
The Incredible Years ( Social and emotional competencies
Check & Connect ( Engagement, motivation, apathy
Anger Coping Anger management


  • “What supports or specific resources or programs will best meet students’ behavioral needs?” The best intervention is a targeted intervention. The science behind behavioral skills makes this fact even more concrete. Students behave and misbehave for a reason. There are causes, antecedents, and functions that underlie behavior. Our task is to determine these factors and provide supports that address them and target the most immediate area of need.


  • “How will we provide these supports?” As with academic interventions, the relationship we have with all students, and in this case with our most vulnerable students, makes the difference between success and frustration. We provide supports with a combination of intensity, compassion, urgency, belief in students, belief in ourselves, and patient persistence. Success is inevitable, and behavioral challenges can successfully improve.


  • “How will we frequently monitor student response to this support and make necessary adjustments?” Teams must make these decisions and develop plans that meet student needs and staff capacities. When monitoring the progress of a student receiving Tier 3 supports in the area of reading, 1-2 weeks is a frequency that we have used. It is both feasible to sustain and frequent enough to respond to information in a timely manner. We typically gather evidence of progress in response to Tier 2 and 3 behavioral supports on a daily basis. I recommend that data be gathered daily and more fully analyzed weekly.


  • “When will our RTI team (or leadership team, student study team, or problem-solving team) meet to analyze data, examine or re-examine student needs, ensure students are adequately progressing, and make the adjustments necessary to guarantee that this occurs? Are we meeting frequently (at least every two weeks)?” Again, teams must make these decisions and develop plans that meet student needs and staff capacities. Six weeks is too long, in my experience; too much could have occurred in this amount of time that we will have not had an opportunity to discover an address. Once a week has been difficult to sustain. Every two weeks strikes the right balance. We will be empowered to make timely adjustments. The cumulative amount of time we meet will likely not be longer when meeting more frequently. Bi-weekly meetings will be shorter than monthly meetings which will be shorter than meetings that occur every sixth weeks. And remember, we need not discuss every student who is receiving supports and whose progress is being monitored. If a student is adequately progressing and responding to supports but continued intervention is still deemed appropriate, then we continue with the support. It’s students who are not adequately responding (and students newly identified as in need of support) that we discuss with the purpose of making adjustments that will improve the trajectory of success.


  • “What evidence do we have that we’re not only doing the interventions, but that they are working to improve student outcomes?” Whenever a new student-improvement effort is initiated, we should ask, how will we know if our work is resulting in improvements in student outcomes: What will improve as a result of increases in students’ behavioral skills? If a specific student at-risk’s mindsets, social skills, learning strategies, perseverance, and/or academic behaviors improve, for what student outcomes will evidence indicate improvement? We can gather anecdotal but valid evidence that habits directly associated with each of these categories are improving, e.g., improvements in learning strategies are resulting in improvements in note taking and organization of resources, there are other outcomes should improve. Improvements in learning strategies should also result in increases in work completion, increases in grades, increases in participation, and increases in attendance, and decreases in tardiness. What gets measured, gets done. We must measure the effectiveness of efforts; it motivates and sustains the efforts of both students and staffs.


Addressing questions such as these, questions that we can predict and anticipate need to be addressed, is a critical preparatory step to providing supplemental supports to students in need. We can predict that some students will require such supports and we must be ready. The next section will suggest tools that can provide school teams with the resources needed to be ready to meet these student needs.

Differentiation in Behavior

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Carol Ann Tomlinson (2014) defines differentiation as common sense:

Teachers in a differentiated classroom accept, embrace, and plan for the fact that learners bring to the school both many commonalities and the essential differences that make them individuals. Differentiation classrooms embody common sense. The logical flow in a differentiated classroom is this: A nurturing environment encourages learning.”

Differentiation in academics has been well defined, but we must also define and apply differentiated practices in the teaching and learning of behavioral skills (Sousa & Tomlinson, 2011). We can predict that some students will learn at different rates and in response to different approaches or strategies. Just as in reading, mathematics, or other academic areas, a variety of factors will necessitate that we prepare to differentiate instruction of behavioral skills at all tiers.

We can predict that a student with significant deficits in prerequisite reading skills may experience difficulties in making meaning of text that the class is using as a primary resource in, let’s say, an eighth-grade social studies classroom. We are committed to doing whatever it takes to ensure that the student demonstrates mastery of the prioritized skills and concepts of grade 8 social studies and are confident that, in collaboration between staff and between students, this vulnerable student will be successful.

How do we as educators prepare for success in this situation? We begin by identifying that the need exists and determining (at least preliminarily) the causes of the reading difficulties. In this grade 8 example, perhaps the student has difficulty decoding multisyllabic words, so his teachers provide one of the following five scaffolds to assess that information.

  1. Text written at lower Lexile levels that addresses the same social studies prioritized concepts and skills
  2. Visual representations of the concepts
  3. Opportunities to read grade-level texts with peers
  4. Access to audio recordings of the grade-level text
  5. Sentence and paragraph stems and other structured writing supports so that the student can show what he knows

Perhaps this student also responds demonstrably better to visual instruction and support, so his teachers are purposeful and prepared to provide visual cues and resources to accompany the auditory instruction that can often times dominate classroom environments.

As an important aside, learning for the student in the preceding grade 8 social studies example, for whom decoding multisyllabic phonics is a difficulty, is impacted by a significant deficit in a foundational skill—successfully decoding multisyllabic words, which is a skill that teachers expect students to master in the upper elementary grades. In addition to Tier 1 differentiation and access to Tier 2 additional time and alternative supports (as the evidence indicates the student needs), this student would receive explicit, intensive, and targeted Tier 3 intervention support in multisyllabic phonics to ameliorate a difficulty that is significantly inhibiting his ability to access text and learn.

The preceding scenario is familiar to most educators, and we accept that differentiated practices will be necessary to support student difficulties and differences when attempting to master academic skills. We must make the same commitments and make the same preparations to support student difficulties and differences when attempting to master behavioral skills.

We can predict that some students will learn at a different pace and in response to different approaches or strategies. We must prepare to provide differentiated supports in the learning of behavioral skills just as we do in the learning of academic skills. Just as in reading, mathematics, or other academic areas, a variety of factors will necessitate that we prepare to differentiate Tier 1 instruction of behavioral skills.

  • Students lack knowledge of immediate prerequisite skills—they will require some preteaching.
  • Students lack knowledge of foundational prerequisite skills—they will require more extensive scaffolding to meet grade-level expectations.
  • Students have different styles, interests, or modalities through which they best learn.
  • We have evidence, through frequent checks for understanding, that students will benefit from just a little more time and a slightly different approach within the core environments.

Armed with our proactive, predictive knowledge, we can begin to prepare differentiation strategies to use with our students.

As we commit to differentiation, let’s differentiate more systematically, more proactively, and more positively:

  • Systematically: Use these strategies across the school, for any student, with common procedures, when evidence indicates the need; moreover, use these strategies with fidelity (the way to use them) and for a long-enough period of time for improvement to occur. (While twenty-four useful repetitions are necessary to solidify academic learning [Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001], one hundred useful repetitions may be necessary to solidify behavioral learning [Benson, 2012].) Practically speaking, systematic means that a student in need of scaffolded supports to succeed would receive that support in the same way throughout the school day, no matter the teacher or environment. And, systematic means consistent, both throughout the day and for as long as the support is necessary. When a lack of adequate student progress is at least partially the result of our lack of consistency and follow-through, then we as educators are a major contributing factor in this lack of success. Tactile and sensory supports, a strategy listed above for students who struggle with arousal state regulation (they may be over and under-reactive to sounds or sights or touch), can involve students squeezing an object or rocking safely in a chair as they manage their behaviors. We would use this strategy systematically by employing such techniques across all classrooms, within all environments, and with all staff members. This would mean that all classrooms and staff members would have the necessary resources (squeezy balls or safe rocking-type chairs) and know how and when to support the student it its use. If a student benefits from this differentiated practice, then we all must use it all the time; it should be used systematically.
  • Proactively: Screen to identify students whose skill needs that may necessitate the use of these strategies and provide supports to students before they establish more entrenched difficulties and frustrations. Practically speaking, proactive means that we don’t wait; that we provide supports as soon as we possibly can. Proactive approaches can be informed through two processes. First, screening completed at the end of last year or the beginning of a new year will identify students for whom behavioral skills represent a need. Proactive means that the new school year begins with supports already in place within all environments and that all staff members understand and provide the supports. The second opportunity to support students proactively is made possible by the analyses of evidence collaborative teams complete. When the frequent analysis of data indicates that some students need a little more and a little different type of support to be successful, then teams and schools have the opportunity and responsibility to provide these supports as soon as possible. We would use sensory supports like squeezy balls or safe-rocking chairs proactively by beginning the year with these supports in place because we have screened that a student needs them to be successful or because they were used productively last year and we effectively communicated and transitioned from last year’s teachers to this year’s teachers. We cannot, need not, and should not wait to introduce differentiated supports that students up for success behaviorally
  • Positively: Let’s avoid employing these strategies with reluctance and from a deficit point of view; instead, let’s consider them as we would consider the use of differentiation strategies for reading difficulties and communicate a growth mindset. Practically speaking, provide differentiated supports positively means that we do not blame students or their parents for difficulties; rather, we accept, and even expect, that some students are going to need a little more time and an alternative set of supports to be successful. A positive approach also means that we expect these differentiated supports to work and that we believe in every student’s ability to grow. We do not, alternatively, go through the motions of providing supports (that we do not expect to work) so that we can move toward special education assessment and placement. Last, positive means that we provide feedback, recognition, and reinforcement when students are behaving in appropriate, productive ways; we do not only provide feedback (punishment or consequences) when students do not meet behavioral expectations. Using the squeezy balls or safe rocking chairs positively means that this strategy is normalized – it’s normal that students need them and can use them. Such a strategy is not unusual and it is not a punishment, as in “If you can’t settle down you’re going to need to use your squeezy ball.” The use of behavioral differentiation strategies such as these should be as normal as differentiation strategies that we use to ensure students successfully access text in a reading lesson.

It’s inevitable that we will need to provide differentiated behavioral supports within Tier 1 environments for students to meet behavioral and academic expectations, so let’s be ready.

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What and Why of Tiers 2 and 3 – Part 2

Let’s address the what and why of Tiers 2 and 3 – for both academic and behavioral skills – with an example: Suppose there is a student about to be in grade 7 for whom there are reading concerns. These concerns are known in a timely and efficient manner through universal screening; we both examined assessment data that we gathered on all students (through regularly administered state [or province], district, or school tests) and systematically gathered input from teachers at the conclusion of the school year so that we had the information needed to proactively support students at the very beginning of the next school year. Let’s say this particular student scored in the fourth percentile on regular administered districtwide reading tests. We do not yet know why, but there is something amiss, and we intend to do something about it. Moreover, this year’s team of sixth-grade teachers notes that this student has difficulty reading grade-level material; they notice that he reads in a labored fashion and makes mistakes with longer words.

After universal screening and identifying that this student needs additional support, we must determine why this student is having difficulty. To do this, we sit with our soon-to-be seventh grader and listen to him read. Given that this student is performing at the fourth percentile (at least as one indicator measures), we do not ask him to read a sixth-grade passage; instead, we asked him to read a fourth-grade passage so that accuracy does not compromise our assessment of comprehension. While the student reads to us aloud, we listen for fluency (rate and prosody) and accuracy, specifically paying attention to any pattern of decoding errors. Following the student’s reading, we ask a few comprehension questions. At the conclusion of this ten- to fifteen-minute period of informal diagnosing, we are in a position to confidently determine whether the student most needs (or first needs) targeted support in the area of single-syllabic phonics, multisyllabic phonics, fluency, or comprehension. We efficient and effectively (albeit perhaps preliminarily) identify why the student was having difficulty reading.

Then, we determine what we will do to proactively target these needs so that the student is on the path to success. This seventh-grade team embeds buffer times within units of instruction and throughout the school year to provide intervention or enrichment depending on evidence of need that it gathers through assessments (Tier 2 interventions). All students in the class will benefit from these buffer times, either from intervention or enrichment, and we can anticipate that our at-risk reader in this scenario may require these supplemental Tier 2 interventions from time to time. However, his needs are such that he is likely to require targeted Tier 3 interventions.

In an ideal environment, the school would have already developed a system of supports within which there are thirty-minute Tier 3 sessions in the various areas of reading difficulties, available within the school day. Assuming this to be true for our school, we assign this sixth-grade student to a targeted Tier 3 support that specifically addresses the most immediate area of need. Assuming that this situation is occurring at the end of the student’s sixth-grade year, this intervention support would begin at the very start of the student’s seventh-grade year. We would also prevent frustration and failure by being ready on day one of seventh grade with positive and proactive differentiation supports (such as text at the student’s Lexile level, graphical and visual representations of key content, and audio versions of the course’s texts) so that all students can achieve mastery of the course’s priorities.

In addition, we would identify who on staff will take the lead in providing these supports and when the appointed staff will provide them, at all tiers. In this scenario, seventh-grade teacher teams would prepare for the differentiated and scaffolded core instructional supports that students with significant needs in foundational reading skills require to be successful in their courses. If a student cannot successfully read grade-level content, in the absence of scaffolded supports he will experience difficulties accessing learning. But all students can think. All students can problem solve. All students can learn. Educators cannot allow reading deficits to prevent students from mastering grade-level essentials. This student must have equitable access to meeting grade-level expectations as a result of scaffolded differentiation.

Last, we must ensure that we check on student progress frequently and accurately and ensure that we have a process in place for making necessary adjustments. There is no learning unless we know the extent to which students are progressing so that we can adjust our teaching. There is no RTI unless we know the extent to which students are responding to the interventions. So, to measure the extent to which our middle school reader who is at risk is responding to Tier 3 reading supports, we monitor progress in the skill area that matches the area of need, and the area in which we are providing support, at least every two weeks. If the student is receiving single-syllabic support, then we monitor progress in decoding single-syllabic words. If the student is receiving multisyllabic support, then we monitor progress in decoding multisyllabic words, and so on.

Additionally, we ensure that the RTI team (principal, administrators, counselors, special education staff, and teachers) meets weekly to review evidence to ensure that students—particularly students most at risk—are adequately responding to intervention. If students are adequately closing the gap, then we continue these supports until the gaps do not exist. If students are not adequately closing the gap, then we make adjustments to the type of support (or to how we are providing the intervention) until adequate progress occurs. No matter what. No matter how long it takes. Success is inevitable.

None of these practices occur in isolation and they are not completed only for our fictional sixth-grade student. They occur automatically, systematically, as part of our specially designed RTI-based system of supports.

Beliefs and Expectations



Beyond a collaborative culture, a belief in the ability of all students to learn (academic and behavioral skills) at high levels is fundamental. Students know when educators have high expectations for their success (Zimmerman et al., 1992). When educators have high expectations, students learn at higher levels. There can be no references to that student or those students. No label can be allowed to persuade educators that students cannot self-regulate, be motivated, or be cooperative. With proactive and positive supports, educators can make significant progress, and all students can be on track (or get back or track) for college, career, and future readiness. We have experienced it, and researchers demonstrate that behavioral skills are malleable (Farrington et al., 2012).

Educators cannot use a perceived lack of student motivation as an excuse to deny supports to students. Motivation is a symptom. More specifically, motivation is an academic behavior. A student’s needs in the areas of precognitive self-regulation, mindsets, social skills, perseverance, or learning strategies will likely lead to a lack of motivation.

An absence of high expectations is a challenge. How do we overcome this challenge? I recommend that schools develop an action plan that describes concrete steps that will be taken to promote more positive student, and staff mindsets, directly related to the indicators provided by Camille Farrington and her colleagues (2012) and described in the Introduction:

  • “I belong in this academic community.” – Here are steps that could be taken to increase students’ connections to school: Initiate or reinvigorate homerooms or advisory periods within secondary schools or classroom meetings in elementary schools; keep track of interactions within classrooms to ensure that a conversation (however brief) happens with every student at least every week; expand the quantity and type of activities or clubs at school so that every student can be involved, and will be held accountable to being involved, and connected to something on campus.
  • “My ability and competence grow with my effort.” Here are steps that could increase student and staff beliefs that, given time and the right supports, all students can learn at high level: Stop assigning points when work (quizzes, papers, tests) are returned, instead highlighting errors (opportunities for improvement) that all students are expected to correct or improve; stop assigning zeros that effectively let off the hook, instead assigning incompletes and requiring students to complete all assignments that were worthy or being assigned in the first place; require students to refine assignments and retake tests that are below an agreed upon level of mastery, instead of denying them the opportunity to show you what they now know after correcting errors, relearning concepts, and receiving support; consistently communicate a “not yet” approach to lack of understanding, as in, “I don’t get this yet,” instead of, “I don’t get this;” explicitly learn from errors, using a routine like “My Favorite No” (, in which a “good” mistake is shared with the class an opportunity to grow.
  • “I can succeed at this.” Here are steps that could increase student and staff beliefs success with the task is possible: Learn about, and truly commit to, differentiation and scaffolding, for example, providing text that is at students’ reading level so that they can access science or social studies content or adjusting the complexity of numbers so that students can be successful accessing mathematics concepts; providing students with multiples ways of showing what they know, for example, videoing, screencasting, or recording audio of responses.
  • “This work has value for me.” In addition to striving to design experiences that tap into students’ lives, promote more voice, choice, and agency to increase the value that students place on their learning. Voice: Listen to students and use their input when providing options for the content with which they engage, process used for learning, and the products they use to show what they know. Choice: Allow students to exercise some choice over the place, pace, path, and time of day that they learn. Agency: Give students a stake in their learning, inviting (or requiring) them to track their progress toward learning.

Schools implementing behavioral RTI sometimes believe that the teaching, modeling, and nurturing of behavioral skills is only for “naughty” students, students at risk, or students from historically underperforming subgroups. This could not be further from the truth. All students will benefit from developing more effective behavioral skills. Too often, behavioral RTI (and academic RTI for that matter) efforts only focus on intervention, or Tiers 2 and 3. Having a Tier 1 focus means that all students receive supports in the behavioral skills needed for success in school, college, career, and life. All means all. We have met high-achieving students who do not persevere, and gifted students with fixed mindsets. Schools need not worry about when they will pull vulnerable students to teach them behavioral skills. The teaching and learning of behavioral skills is for all, and must be part of every school’s Tier 1, core environments.

There may be educators who feel that a focus on behavioral skills is now unnecessary, given the increasing popularity of facilitated learning experiences, project-based learning, the maker movement, and competency-based education (Larmer, Mergendoller, & Boss, 2015; Dougherty & Conrad, 2016; Colby, 2017). In other words, perhaps more contemporary pedagogies and practices (present in a growing number of future ready schools) already represent the answer to the question, “How do we nurture behavioral skills within students?” They very well may, but while next-generation teaching may be more facilitative and learning may be more experiential, students still need guidance, to see adults modeling good habits, and to receive behavioral skills instruction. As Farrington and colleagues (2012) report:

Students are not likely to develop learning strategies in the absence either of explicit instruction or classwork that requires the use of such strategies. It may be most helpful to think about noncognitive factors as properties of the interactions between students and classrooms or school environments. Rather than being helpless in the face of students who lack perseverance and good academic behaviors, teachers set the classroom conditions that strongly shape the nature of students’ academic performance. The essential question is not how to change students to improve their behavior but rather how to create contexts that better support students in developing critical attitudes and learning strategies necessary for their academic success. Thus, teaching adolescents to become learners may require educators to shift their own beliefs and practices as well as to build their pedagogical skills and strategies to support student learning in new ways. Academic behaviors and perseverance may need to be thought of as creations of school and classroom contexts rather than as personal qualities that students bring with them to school. (p. 72)

So how do educators do it? What silver bullet or magic formula will help teachers and schools help students develop these habits? While there may be unique strategies about which educators do not know, the practices that are likely to help develop critical behavioral skills are the very same research-based best practices about which educators have read but may not have found time to implement or have not implemented well—rigorous and relevant teaching, collaborative learning, and differentiated instruction, to name a few.

School Culture and Administrative Supports for Behavioral RTI

Without a staff culture that recognizes the importance of teaching behavioral skills and displays a commitment to doing so, behavioral RTI will be impossible. Thus, you must acknowledge, respect, and nurture building such a culture from the beginning of your journey.

What are the challenges related to culture and designing and implementing a system of behavioral supports for all students, and how can we proactively prepare for them and address them as they arise?

Culture begins at the board and superintendent level. Leadership empowers and expects site principals to live, breathe, and message the vision that behaviors are as critical as academics, that they model and teach behaviors, and that they realize positive approaches are the best.

Long after structures, systems, and processes are in place, culture will determine the extent of a school’s sustained success or the frustration of school’s abandonment of what could and should be have been successful supports for students.

One way, therefore that the challenges associated with culture can be addressed to ensure that behavioral RTI is a priority at the Superintendent and Board level, throughout the district office staff, at the site administration level, for the teachers’ association, and throughout every classroom. Behavioral RTI will be seen as a priority when leaders communicate a message of its importance consistently and when alignment exists among the various elements of school district: board priorities and policies, fiscal allocation, personnel allocation, and professional learning initiatives.

Educators were not prepared in our teacher-preparation courses, in most cases, to teach behavioral skills; their training focused on the teaching and learning of academic skills. But the educators honored to serve students, families, and communities can learn, and there is as much research and as many research-based practices in the area of motivation as there are in the content area of mathematics. Our schools must embrace a culture that:

help[s] students move from being passive recipients of academic content to active learners who can manage their workload, assess their progress and status, persist in difficult tasks, and develop a reliable set of strategies to master increasingly complex academic content as they proceed through school. (Camille Farrington et al., 2012)

Other ways to address the challenges of building buy-in for the shifts associated with behavioral RTI are to:

• Find and share the data that reflects the district and school’s success in helping all students “behave” and perform at high levels.

• Survey staffs’ willingness to nurture student behaviors and their confidence in doing so.

• Engage in honest, positive conversations around current staff realities and attitudes, and the needs of communities and students.

Lastly, change of any kind is challenging, and change and culture are related. Change can be intimidating and even resisted, in my experience, when stakeholders:

• Don’t understand the purpose and need for the change – Therefore, communicate the why, using the information within the Introduction.

• The don’t have the training or resources to feel and be successful throughout the change – Make a commitment to providing the time, resources, and professional learning supports that staff need and deserve.

• They don’t see how the changes benefits them and those they serve – Gather and communicate evidence on the progress and successes occurring as a result of the change, either directly or indirectly. For example, if behavioral skills improve, tardies should decrease, attendance should increase, D and F grades should decrease, work completion should increase, and behavioral infractions should decrease – just to name five data points that schools already regularly gather.

• They aren’t held accountable to make the change – Check-in frequently, provide opportunities for collaboration to occur, and patiently but persistently hold all staff accountable for the changes upon which consensus was reached.

• There isn’t a clear process – Develop a comprehensive plan to follow when initiating and implementing the changes that are required when committing to improving students’ behavioral skills.

Leadership is critical in all school functions that intend to significantly improve student outcomes. Administrators listen, learn, serve, and support. In the area of schoolwide behaviors, administrative support is especially critical.

Behavioral expectations and processes are schoolwide; while grade-level teams, departmental teams, and collaborative teams may have success on their own, only a schoolwide team is best positioned to guide this endeavor. Of course, teacher representatives are part of the schoolwide teams that lead behavior, but administrators, who have a schoolwide focus, should take the lead. Moreover, we want grade-level teams, departmental teams, and collaborative teams to focus on teaching and learning within their grade levels and content areas; in these areas, they take the lead. While all staff members assume collective responsibility for nurturing behavioral skills, administrators serve as the content-area experts.

To meet this challenge, behavioral RTI and systems of supports should be led by the leadership team under the direct guidance of the school principal (Buffum, Mattos, & Weber, 2012). While all staff is involved and responsible for ensuring the success of behavioral RTI, the school’s leadership must take the lead on coordinating efforts.

Last, when helping staff help students develop positive behavioral skills, timely and focused follow-through is critical. Administrators are in the best position to systematically and proactively accomplish these tasks, getting out of the office, into classrooms, and being present. Stated another way (and at the risk of oversimplifying), teacher teams take the lead on academic skills and concepts, and administrators take the lead on behavioral skills and concepts (even though all staff members collaborate on both).

So, have a plan that prioritizes administrators’ active and timely support of behaviors, particularly when students’ exhibit behaviors that interrupt learning environments.

Cultures matter in all ways, but perhaps even in the area of behavioral RTI. And while all educators contribute to a district and school’s culture, administrators lead the way.

6 Categories of Essential Behavioral Skills



Each of these six categories of behavioral skills are essential to success in school, college, career and life. Do we prioritize, model, teach, and nurture these skills within our teaching and learning experiences?


Precognitive self-regulation: Students can attain, maintain, regulate, and change their level of arousal for a task or situation. Educators may observe that students have difficulty coping emotionally and may determine that these difficulties are impacted by poor health, nutrition, and sleep; or lack of exercise; or sensitive to sensory inputs; or an ability to process inputs. These abilities are dependent on, and related to, physiological and safety needs as defined within five-tiered theory of motivation.

Mindsets: Students feel a sense of belonging, belief, and engagement. Affirmative responses to the following statements represent a positive, growth mindset:

  • “I belong in this academic community.” Educators know that students are connected to someone and something within the school.
  • “My ability and competence grow with my effort.” Educators observe that students believe that they can improve with effort; that smart is something that you become, not something that you are.
  • “I can succeed at this.” Educators know that success breeds success and that meeting students where they are and nudging them toward greater levels of proficiency is key; students draw on a sense of self-efficacy to persist in learning.
  • “This work has value for me.” Educators know that motivation is dependent on the relevance that students see in classrooms; students have opportunities to explore passions, they see the purpose in learning, and they experience personalized supports and opportunities for personalized paths.

Social skills: Student have respectful interactions with others and demonstrate respect for themselves. Educators observe students cooperating and collaboratively in socially appropriate ways and behaving with empathy for others in both academic and social circumstances.

Learning strategies: Students can regulate, monitor, and reflect on their learning. Educators see students employing effective study and organizational skills, behaving metacognitively, tracking their own progress, and responding appropriately when faced with a task, whether the task is completing an in-class assignment, completing a long-term project, or preparing for a test. Learning strategies can be thought of as cognitive self-regulation; students regulate the level of their learning frequently and make the necessary adjustments.

Perseverance: Students maintain effort and adapt to set-backs; they exercise self-discipline and self-control; they delay gratification; and they advocate for one’s needs. Educators observe that students stick-with-it, typically because they are drawing on positive mindsets, social skills, and learning strategies.

Academic behaviors: Students are physically, emotionally, and cognitively present and attentive within learning and learning environments. Educators note that students consistently complete tasks of high-quality; that they actively participate in learning; and that they appear motivation to learn, succeed, and grow. Again, educators’ observations of academic behaviors typically draw on, and depend on positive mindsets, social skills, learning strategies, and perseverance, the companion behavioral skills in the diagram above.


Defining behavioral skills within the context these categories framework is helpful because the framework then becomes an action plan. We can operationalize the research, putting the best thinking of these experts into action and actively supporting students in developing skills and proactively supports students when difficulties exist.

Tier 2 is not Tier 3 lite



Let’s review what we know about Tier 2 supports, drawing on the half-century of research-based, RTI-based Tiers 2 and 3 (Allington, 2011; Bloom, 1968, 1974, 1984; Buffum, Mattos, Weber, & Hierck, 2015; Burns, Appleton, & Stehouwer, 2005; Burns & Symington, 2002; Elbaum, Vaughn, Hughes, & Moody, 2000; Gersten, Beckmann, Clarke, Foegen, Marsh, Star et al., 2009b; Gersten, Compton, Connor, Dimino, Santoro, Linan-Thompson et al., 2009a; Guskey, 2010; Hattie, 2012; Swanson & Sachse-Lee, 2000; VanDerHeyden, Witt, & Gilbertson, 2007). We believe that one reason why academic and behavioral RTI has been frustrating and less than effective in schools and districts is a simple misun­derstanding of what the tiers actually are. Mike Schmoker (2004) observes, “Clarity precedes competence” (p. 85). Let’s spend a brief moment revisiting the basic purposes of the tiers, paying particular attention to the least understood and implemented tier: Tier 2.

Tier 1 supports represent the high-quality, differentiated instruction—both academic and behavioral—designed to meet the needs of all students. Teachers help achieve this goal by collaboratively examining evidence of student response to academic and behavioral instruction and identifying which differentiated instructional strategies meet student needs.

When a student does not respond to this focused, differentiated core instruction, educators supplement core (Tier 1) instruction with more support (Tier 2), again whether the needs are academic or behavioral. Whether this means additional time or the use of alternative strategies or both, the evidence collected and the collab­orative planning and analysis of all staff members drive supports. This is Tier 2. Decisions to provide these supports are based on evidence of a student’s response to focused core instruction.

Tier 2 supports are fundamentally different than specialized Tier 3 supports. Simply stated, Tier 2 supports prevent students from falling behind or falling farther behind, while Tier 3 supports provide the intensive sup­ports necessary to catch students up. Tier 2 supports provide additional time and access to alternative strategies for more students to master more core priorities at deeper levels—we can predict that this will be necessary for some students. Tier 3 supports provide the intensive, immediate supports that students will desperately need when educators find significant deficits in the foundational skill areas of literacy, numeracy, and behavior to be inevitably contributing to frustration and failure—we can predict that this will be necessary for some stu­dents. In our experiences, most schools that have RTI-based systems of supports in place are not offering more or Tier 2 supports to students. They are offering Tier 3, but their Tier 2 interventions are actually Tier 3-lite.

In actuality, Tiers 2 and 3 supports are distinct, and schools must move toward a future in which all stu­dents have access to both and receive both if the evidence indicates the need, along with differentiated core supports. The consequences of not providing Tier 3 supports are easy to imagine: students who are highly vulnerable due to significant skill deficits will become increasingly disengaged and will continue to struggle to simply perform as they currently are. But what are the consequences of not providing Tier 2 supports, even while providing Tier 3 supports?

Let’s begin answering this question by acknowledging a reality: I do not know of any educators who have ever concluded a unit of instruction with all students achieving the depth of mastery that we desire and that students must attain. Likewise, we have never seen a classroom in which all students meet expectations in response to our first, best instruction. Students simply learn at different rates and in different ways. What can we expect if, at the conclusion of a unit, we simply move on? Students will probably feel frus­trated. In spite of the fact that the less-than-complete mastery of some priorities by some students was predict­able, we have not prepared for this reality. Affected students’ grades are negatively impacted. Their motivation for future success, their engagement, and their sense of self-efficacy diminish. The concepts and skills of many (if not most) subsequent units of instruction build on the concepts and skills of preceding units; this is even more true for behavioral skills. Students who have not yet mastered the preceding month’s priorities and are not given an ongoing opportunity (or requirement) to do so will experience predictable difficulties mastering the next month’s priorities. When this situation befalls a student unit after unit and month after month, we can predict that a significant deficit in skills will develop in short order and that a student’s will to engage in their continued learning will similarly suffer.

Importantly and significantly, we have never concluded a unit of instruction feeling that we sufficiently extended the learning for students who have attained mastery. Time for Tier 2 supports can and should pro­vide a service for all students: timely and targeted supports for greater levels of student mastery of academic and behavioral priorities, so that students don’t fall behind (or further behind), and enrichment opportuni­ties to engage with tasks and situations of greater complexity so students can achieve reach greater depths of understanding.