“Diagnosing” student needs – It’s critical – It need not be complicated

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The best intervention – the best support – is a targeted intervention. Particularly for students with significant deficits in foundational skills, worksheet completion and broad-based reviews of a subject area are simply neither effective nor efficient. We have had dramatically impactful successes closing gaps quickly when we have focused on specific skill deficits. We’ve been able to provide these focused supports because we have conducted simple diagnoses.

Diagnosing the antecedents, causes, and explanations behind a student’s difficulty is a fundamental task of collaborative systems of support. It is unproductive to over-simplistically conclude that students perform poorly because they cannot read, and unproductive to then provide them with hours of daily reading intervention that focus on all domains of literacy. Diagnosing gets to the why. Perhaps the student reads fluently, with accuracy, prosody, and expression, but derives little meaning from the text. Or perhaps the student comprehends text quite well in spite of labored, error-filled, and disfluent reading. Determining the why behind student difficulties allows us to target supports.

We often hear from colleagues that they do not feel qualified to conduct diagnoses – that only trained specialized using validated instruments can adequately. We say poppy-cock! I’m a former mathematics secondary teacher and was an elementary school principal. The most common need amongst students with significant deficits is typically related to reading. Thus, as a lead leader, I committed to assist in determining the why behind students’ reading challenges. Through interviews and conversations, using simple protocols that we often created, we not only accurately determined the primary causes to a reading challenge; we were able to match a specific support to the identified cause and start the student on the road to reading improvement (all in about 15 minutes…true story).

We have developed “interviews” with our staffs, available online, that are intended to make diagnosing student needs more efficient, and to make regular educators like us more confident and successful (Hierck and Weber; 2015a; 2015b). 

Like screening, diagnosing is much more a process than an event (e.g., a test). While we hope that these resources assist in your efforts to serve our most vulnerable students, we are conscientious of too much assessment. We lament that some schools administer assessments of this depth to all students; we do not believe that this is necessary. We conduct these in-depth diagnoses to learn about the causes of student difficulties so that we can provide specific and focused support.

We must determine the why; students are counting on it. It cannot be overly burdensome or time-consuming. We must act. My colleagues and I can help…

 

Getting to the WHY of student difficulties

 

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As we relentlessly strive to find the right support for students in need – supports that will lead to positive responses to intervention – we are guided by several factors:

 

  • We are seeking causes of student difficulties. We must look beneath the symptoms and determine the why. For example, when striving to determine to appropriate behavioral support when a student is behaving, we look beneath the symptom (perhaps inattentiveness) to identify the function, purpose, or cause of the symptom: Why is the student misbehaving? We then do our very best to match a support to the cause.
  • The more precise and focused we can be in making this match, the more immediate the positive response. Research has continually validated this targeted approach  (Gersten, Compton, Connor, Dimino, Santoro, & Linan-Thompson, 2009).
  • As we will note below, in addition to the learning benefits (students respond more quickly to interventions), there are logistical benefits. When focusing on targeted causes, we can effect a significant change in 30 minutes per day. If we instead provide broad, unfocused supports that do not address the underlying causes of difficulties, much more time per day will likely be required. Again, this is validated by the research (Burns & Gibbons, 2008; Burns, VanDerHeyden, & Boice, 2008). We (schools, staffs, and students) simply do not have time within the school to spare. And, students surely do not have time within their learning journeys; gaps must be addressed, ameliorated, and /or sustainable work-around plans must be identified and practiced immediately.

 

If we find that students are not responding to the interventions that we are using, we suggest that we do not simply seek a new intervention; we may need to better identify the causes of student difficulties and better match a support to the diagnosed antecedent skill. This process may be iterative and we will not always be right the first time. But we never give up. In fact, we expect that we will learn quite a bit about the underlying causes of student difficulties through the very act of prescribing and providing an intervention.

 

A few more notes on prescribing targeted interventions: Several colleagues have lamented that they cannot provide all of the supports to meet all of the deficits in foundational skills with which a student may currently be working to overcome. We get it. The constraints on time (not to mention staff) will make providing multiple, intensive, highly-specialized supports in a day difficult if not impossible. However, here’s a contrarian point of view to consider: We may not need to provide multiple intensive supports. Instead, let’s identify the students most immediate area of need and intensively focus on that area:

 

  • Students who experience more academic success behave better.
  • Students who develop more positive and productive behavioral skills are better prepared to learn academic skills.
  • Students who read more accurately and fluently comprehend better.
  • Students who comprehend better and make better meaning of what they read tend to perform better in all academic areas: mathematics, social studies, sciences, and writing.

 

Secondly, our colleagues often lament that they do not have the right resources to provide interventions. We will address this further later in the chapter; a few resources that we have created and found to be productive for a very common and critical area of need, comprehension, is available online.

 

We cannot express this point often enough: The best intervention is a targeted intervention. We believe that interventions would dramatically and immediately improve if educators focused with laser-like intensity on specific foundational skills, because those skills were deemed to be the underlying causes that explain the symptomatic difficulties that the students were experiencing and that staffs were observing.

We never give up; we never stop providing intensive supports for our most vulnerable students – not until we have found the right support, until the student is adequately responding, and until we have ultimately closed the gap. Even if and when an eligibility determination is made, and the student receives special education supports, we continue to provide and adjust intervention supports until success is achieved. It’s inevitable.

Assessment as evidence-gathering

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Assessment has become perhaps the most controversial issue within schools. We understand – the resistance exhibited by frustrated educators was inevitable when:

  • The content, critical thinking, and problem-solving that we strive to include within our classrooms is not matched in assessments.
  • The ways in which we expect students to demonstrate mastery in the classroom is not matched in assessments.
  • The roll-out of new assessments from national, state, and district leaders has been less than respectful, collaborative, inclusive, or clearly explained.
  • Assessments are used for high-stakes purposes (student and staff evaluation) that are supported by neither research nor common sense.

And yet, we must assess student progress. We must gather evidence regarding the efficacy of our efforts, we must use evidence to inform future teaching and learning, and students must be involved in assessing their performance and take increased ownership over their learning. 

Effective use of formative assessment, developed through teacher learning communities, promises not only the largest potential gains in students’ achievement but also a process for affordable teacher professional development.

Wiliam & Thompson, 2007, p. 57

Evidence is the engine that drives learning. We must take-back and take control of assessment. Evidence gathering must be a central element of collaborative systems of support.

Reviews of accountability data from hundreds of schools reveal the schools with the greatest gains in achievement consistently employ common assessments, nonfiction writing, and collaborative scoring by faculty.

Reeves, 2004

It’s not enough for staff to simply assess and gather evidence as individuals. Common assessments, used to inform teaching and learning must be our goal. 

Assessment for learning…when done well…is one of the most powerful, high-leverage strategies for improving student learning that we know of. Educators collectively at the district and school levels become more skilled and focused at assessing, disaggregating, and using student achievement as a tool for ongoing improvement.

Fullan, 2005, p. 71

If we do not have common evidence gathering opportunities scheduled at common times, we cannot:

  • Collaboratively design effective tasks
  • Collectively analyze student work to determine students and staffs’ relative strengths and needs
  • Ensure continuity of expectations, both horizontally within a grade level or course and vertically within adjacent grade levels and courses

We propose a new model of education, in which teaching and learning cycles are iteratively informed by frequent evidence gathering opportunities – cycles in which both teachers and students play an active role. We acknowledge that we all struggle with a perplexing paradox: there is a perception that we assess too much and a simultaneous desire for more information to strategically inform supports for students. To resolve this paradox, we recommend that we commit to the following:

  • Evidence that emerges from any and all assessments that are administered is used by teachers (and ideally, students) to inform future learning. We do not administer assessments solely to determine a grade, to earn points, or to rank and sort (teachers or students). This is necessitate the timely availability of evidence.
  • We inventory the tests and assessments that we administer to check for gaps and redundancies in the following areas (with a commitment to add or subtract as appropriate):
    • We frequently, proactively, and efficiently screen to identify students with significant deficits in the foundational areas of literacy, numeracy, and behavior so that intensive, ameliorative interventions can be provided.
    • We assess student mastery of the prioritized skills of a grade level or course at depth, so that we can provide feedback, we can provide more time and alternative strategies when students have not yet demonstrated mastery, and we can provide opportunities involving more depth and complexity when students have demonstrated mastery.
    • We diagnose students’ specific needs when difficulties are identified.
    • We frequently monitor the progress of vulnerable students who are receiving targeted supplemental supports. 

Well-designed assessment practices are an absolutely integral element of a collaborative system of support. 

Studies have demonstrated assessments for learning rivals one-on-one tutoring in its effectiveness and that the use of assessment particularly benefits low-achieving students.

Stiggins, 2004, p. 27

Simply stated, we cannot fulfill our professional obligations in the absence of evidence. Only by frequently, accurately, and efficiently checking for understanding can we meet all students’ needs and ensure that they are future-ready. 

One mark of schools that make headway on the achievement gap appears to be their propensity to promote and organize conversations based on evidence of student progress.

Little, 2006, p. 10

Collaborative systems of support will not be sustained or successful if we do not collectively determine the extent to which all students are responding to instruction and intervention. We must design organized systems of gathering, analyzing, and employing evidence to drive teaching and learning.

Reframing Behavior Instruction: A New Framework – Part II

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Transformation Begins With…

Transformation cannot occur until we apply researched-based ideas to schools and classrooms. We must close the knowing-doing gaps. Transformation can’t occur until we see the significance – until we enthusiastically accept the responsibility. Now it’s time for us to act and collaboratively tailor the foundational of Tier 1 for each of our unique contexts; it’s time to build something transformative. 

What it is not

We recognize and respect that we did not invent the RTI triangle or the concept of the integration of academics and behavior. We did not intend to invent a new, prescriptive behavior program.  

Prescriptive behavior programs built on a system of rewards and consequence, and a concept of scale and functionality will not fully meet educators’ expectations because we do not own them. We have attempted to address the functions of behavioral Tier 1, respecting that teams of educators will necessarily craft the forms that match their realities. The realities about the pitfalls of behavior programs have become the signpost of our story because it addresses the problem we want to solve, and sets forth the journey we want to grow together in. 

What it is

We have attempted to re-conceptualize the challenge and redefined the opportunity. We have reconnected to those priorities and principles to which we should have been connected from the beginning. We created a framework and approach that enables us to meet the comprehensive needs of students. Our goal was to create new schemas for integration. New schemas require a new set of “engagement rules.” Looking at behavior from the EFIB approach is more than just the process of connecting academic pedagogies and practices to behavior. It’s about clearly seeing where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we must go. It’s recognizing the opportunity that exists in our current reality. There is an opportunity to meet students right where they are, growing learners academically and behaviorally. 

Beyond preparation

We all want our students to live a full, positive, and productive life. But we want more. We want them to thrive, succeed, give, connect, and change the world. As we continue on this most important of journeys, our society will rely even more on schools and educators to prepare the next generation of citizens for an increasingly more connected and collaborative world. We count on educators to provide every child with an education that nurtures both the academic and behavioral skills. 

All stakeholders, not only our dynamic teachers, must be involved in sustaining holistic, comprehensive learning. Leaders must equip and build capacities to guarantee that every child receives a high quality education every day. As instructional leaders and guides, administrators can collaboratively craft high-quality professional development for all educators, consistently and with fidelity. Like any new skill learned, the EFIB approach must be continually promoted, communicated, supported and refined as we progress through this journey. 

Support in discovery

We will succeed in this journey because we journey together. So many educators have contributed and are contributing to the need to craft a systematic set of behavioral supports for all students, beginning with Tier 1, as we have referenced throughout this chapter. We hope we have continued to ask the questions that prod, poke, uncover, disrupt, and diverge. 

Building community

Just as we must build a sense of community in our classrooms, we must build a collaborative culture amongst educators. We cannot be successful in building a comprehensive and impactful Tier 1 behavioral system without trust and belief in one another. In the midst of high takes testing, accountability measures, progress monitoring, and data disaggregation, there exists an even more heightened focus to create deeper connections and genuine relationships with our students and our fellow colleagues. The power of these relationships will always transcend any RTI intervention strategies or pull out program. The more tangible metrics become a part of our educational and society reality, the more we must purposefully seek those intangibles: care community and connection that increases collaborative capacity. 

Billy

We began our conversation with a peek into Billy’s world and that’s where we will conclude. A bit of Billy’s story resides in all of us. There is an aspect of being unheard, undervalued, and misunderstood in each one of us.  If education is going to truly transcend academics, we must refocus our sense of empathy. Transformative and empathetic learning requires that we view realities through our student’s eyes, and through one another’s eyes, seeking to understand human behaviors and how they fit into our educational schemas. Our students have unique needs, beliefs, and worldviews, and they are waiting for us to appreciate this fact. Their futures and our future depend on it. 

 

Reframing Behavior Instruction: A New Framework – Part I

Imagine this scenario…

Billy is struggling in mathematics with division problems that focus on dividing three-digit numbers by two-digit numbers. The teacher notices this struggle and tells Billy that he has one more chance to demonstrate his ability to solve the problem. Billy is no further in his capacity to solve the problem after this additional chance and continues to struggle. The teacher tells Billy he has run out of chances and will now need to receive a punishment or negative consequence as a result of his difficulty dividing multi-digit numbers. 

You undoubtedly note the absurdity of this situation. You’re thinking that Billy needs to be taught (or re-taught) strategies to solve this problem. You might recognize that Billy would benefit from Tier 2 support – more time and alternative strategies to master this essential mathematical skill. You might even predict that Billy’s difficulties with division stem from deficits in foundational mathematics skills – little sense of number or difficulties with basic computation – which will require Tier 3 supports. Yet if the same scenario was attached to a behavioral challenge, many of those same voices would be muted, and others would suggest the outcome described for Billy was reasonable. We too often, and inappropriately, view behavioral struggles differently than academic struggles, and it is this very dichotomy that we believe requires our full attention. Behavior and academics are inextricably linked and the teaching, learning, assessing, and differentiated support of behavioral skills and academics skills must be processed identically.

Education should have always been about more than academics. Students may earn acceptance into universities and skilled careers through academic achievement, but college is successfully completed and careers are sustained through the application of behaviors that are too infrequently prioritized and taught in our schools. 

Teaching behavioral skills doesn’t reside inside of a program or exclusively siloed inside of a Tier II or Tier III pull-out environment. It resides right where it should, alongside of academic instruction, with the classroom teacher. We have purposefully gleaned valuable conclusions and concepts from respected education research surrounding behavioral instruction. We have deconstructed, reconstructed, and reframed those strategies inside of a new framework (we call this the EFIB) to continue supporting students in their learning journey. A journey that has no finish line, as we all continue to learn and grow, adapting to our environment, while also proactively changing it.  

A new framework: EFIB

The Enhanced Focused on Integrated Behavior (EFIB) framework supports behavior from an integrated, systematic, and parallel perspective, with an enhanced focus on behavior that intertwines and complements academic engagement. The EFIB Framework address the inadequate attention currently placed on behavior, and builds a foundation that supports students’ academic and behavioral growth. EFIB is not only integrated in terms of behavioral skills with academic skills, but also within the behavioral domain itself, pro-social skills integrated with pro-functional skills.  

EFIB systematically and directly impacts all classrooms, all staff, all stakeholders, all behavioral skills, and is a comprehensive all-in-one approach. From Tier 1 content, instruction, assessment, & differentiation to Tier 2 diagnosing, strategies, and progress monitoring to Tier 3 educator-friendly FBA and BIP – we’ve got you covered with research-based, evidence-based resources

The thinking, planning, and operationalizing of EFIB occurs in parallel for academics and behavior, with both afforded equal importance. 

Significance

There is a strong significance of the connection between academic and behavioral learning outcomes. A framework for Tier 1 behavioral instruction must mirror the approaches educators use to design academic instruction. We have provided strategies, supports, templates, and guides. We have provided an approach that supports behavior from a whole child perspective, with an enhanced focus on behavior skills that support and enhance cognitive processes. Our approach rejects the deficit model to addressing misbehaviors, building a foundation that reinforces students’ academic and behavioral growth. 

We must apply the integrated and parallel framework beyond content acquisition so that we can explicitly address the pro-social and pro-functional behaviors that we want all students to exhibit. We sometimes hear from very well-meaning colleagues that certain behavior – like motivation – cannot be taught; students either have it or they don’t. it comes from within. We respectfully reject this position. Consider this: we cannot teach “reading.” Instead we teach students to: identify the 44 phonemes (sounds) within the English language; recognize initial sounds; discriminate sounds to identify letters; make letter-sound connections; blend phonemes when presented with graphemes; attack words; read fluently (with accuracy, appreciate rate, and prosody); employ appropriate and high-leverage skills and strategies to explicitly comprehend what they read; employ appropriate and high-leverage skills and strategies to inferentially comprehend what they read; and much, much more. We don’t teach students to read; we teach them to independently employ strategies intended to ensure that they can make meaning of what they read. Similarly, we do not teach motivation. We teach skills (see above) that enable in a student be self-motivating and engaged when learning, particularly when the learning process is uncomfortable or complex.

The paradox continues inside of differentiation. Inside of Academic Tier I, differentiation strategies have been well-defined for academic skills, but we must also provide the same level of application to the teaching and learning of behavioral skills. Illuminating this paradox forces us to redefine and reframe how we will provide differentiated instruction comprehensively and equitably to both academic skills and behavior skills. 

Assessment and feedback are also cornerstones of this integrated approach. All students need feedback, to reflect on the behavior that will contribute to success. We conceptualized the feedback process as a Reverberation Cycle. This cycle is unique in that the student has a major role in the feedback, hence the “reverberation.”  This cycle is built on trust, and allows students to analyze and synthesize feedback at the highest “meta” levels. 

Transformation Begins With…

Transformation cannot occur until we apply researched-based ideas to schools and classrooms. We must close the knowing-doing gaps. Transformation can’t occur until we see the significance – until we enthusiastically accept the responsibility. Now it’s time for us to act and collaboratively tailor the foundational of Tier 1 for each of our unique contexts; it’s time to build something transformative. 

What it is not

We recognize and respect that we did not invent the RTI triangle or the concept of the integration of academics and behavior. We did not intend to invent a new, prescriptive behavior program.  

Prescriptive behavior programs built on a system of rewards and consequence, and a concept of scale and functionality will not fully meet educators’ expectations because we do not own them. We have attempted to address the functions of behavioral Tier 1, respecting that teams of educators will necessarily craft the forms that match their realities. The realities about the pitfalls of behavior programs have become the signpost of our story because it addresses the problem we want to solve, and sets forth the journey we want to grow together in. 

What it is

We have attempted to re-conceptualize the challenge and redefined the opportunity. We have reconnected to those priorities and principles to which we should have been connected from the beginning. We created a framework and approach that enables us to meet the comprehensive needs of students. Our goal was to create new schemas for integration. New schemas require a new set of “engagement rules.” Looking at behavior from the EFIB approach is more than just the process of connecting academic pedagogies and practices to behavior. It’s about clearly seeing where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we must go. It’s recognizing the opportunity that exists in our current reality. There is an opportunity to meet students right where they are, growing learners academically and behaviorally. 

Beyond preparation

We all want our students to live a full, positive, and productive life. But we want more. We want them to thrive, succeed, give, connect, and change the world. As we continue on this most important of journeys, our society will rely even more on schools and educators to prepare the next generation of citizens for an increasingly more connected and collaborative world. We count on educators to provide every child with an education that nurtures both the academic and behavioral skills. 

All stakeholders, not only our dynamic teachers, must be involved in sustaining holistic, comprehensive learning. Leaders must equip and build capacities to guarantee that every child receives a high quality education every day. As instructional leaders and guides, administrators can collaboratively craft high-quality professional development for all educators, consistently and with fidelity. Like any new skill learned, the EFIB approach must be continually promoted, communicated, supported and refined as we progress through this journey. 

Support in discovery

We will succeed in this journey because we journey together. So many educators have contributed and are contributing to the need to craft a systematic set of behavioral supports for all students, beginning with Tier 1, as we have referenced throughout this chapter. We hope we have continued to ask the questions that prod, poke, uncover, disrupt, and diverge. 

Building community

Just as we must build a sense of community in our classrooms, we must build a collaborative culture amongst educators. We cannot be successful in building a comprehensive and impactful Tier 1 behavioral system without trust and belief in one another. In the midst of high takes testing, accountability measures, progress monitoring, and data disaggregation, there exists an even more heightened focus to create deeper connections and genuine relationships with our students and our fellow colleagues. The power of these relationships will always transcend any RTI intervention strategies or pull out program. The more tangible metrics become a part of our educational and society reality, the more we must purposefully seek those intangibles: care community and connection that increases collaborative capacity. 

Billy

We began our conversation with a peek into Billy’s world and that’s where we will conclude. A bit of Billy’s story resides in all of us. There is an aspect of being unheard, undervalued, and misunderstood in each one of us.  If education is going to truly transcend academics, we must refocus our sense of empathy. Transformative and empathetic learning requires that we view realities through our student’s eyes, and through one another’s eyes, seeking to understand human behaviors and how they fit into our educational schemas. Our students have unique needs, beliefs, and worldviews, and they are waiting for us to appreciate this fact. Their futures and our future depend on it. 

Schools will make great progress when we stop focusing on THIS

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One of the most significant obstacles to progress is the idea of seat time and the ways in which time is allocated within traditional daily schedules. If we continue to view whole group instruction, and not smaller group and more targeted supports, as the only time during which legitimate teaching (and hopefully, learning) is taking place, we will not fulfill the promise of core, more, and specialized supports.

 

As in most states, in the state of California in the US, home of 1 in 8 US students, students in grades 9-12 are required to sit in classes for specific amounts of time (64,800 minutes a year or 360 minutes a day). These time constraints can inhibit schools’ abilities to customize learning experiences for students within a collaborative system of supports. Other US states, such as Michigan and New Hampshire, are loosening these constraints, in the interest of better preparing students for college and career.

 

In the sample schedules below, the amount of yearly time devoted to supporting students within secondary schools is 64,800 minutes within an 180 day school year; however, only half of the those minutes are dedicated to core support, with the other half dedicated to more and specialized supports. In the past, policy officials have indicated that more and specialized supports do not count as seat-time, and yet they are most definitely connected to both curricular priorities and readiness for careers. Until we break through the status quo regarding topics such as seat time, our abilities to truly transform teaching and learning and students’ educational experiences will be greatly constrained.

 

Our colleagues around the world have designed innovative daily schedules, such as these below, that provide staff and students with the flexibility to experience differentiated, individualized, and personalized supports.

Screen Shot 2020-01-22 at 1.01.40 PMScreen Shot 2020-01-22 at 1.01.55 PM

In guiding schools’ blended learning practices, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has described the similarities and differences between differentiated, individualized, and personalized instruction. Their descriptions are remarkably similar to Tiers 1, 2, and 3, and are applicable and beneficial to our application of collaborative systems of support (Grant & Basye, 2014):

 

  • Differentiation: A teacher responds to a student’s unique learning needs by making adjustments to process, content, and product, based on a student’s interests, learning profile, and readiness levels (we have traditionally known this type of support as Tier 1; we call this core supports).
  • Individualization: If differentiation is the how, then individualization is the when. Student learning progresses at different speeds; some students may need to review previously covered material, while others may be ready to immerse themselves in a certain topic (we recognize this type of support as intervention and enrichment at Tier 2; we are suggesting more supports).
  • Personalization: Extending the metaphor, if differentiation is the how and individualization is the when, the personalization is the where – as in, where are students in their learning journey. Students who are not yet performing at expected levels, due to significant deficits in foundational skills, receive targeted and intensive supports at the leading edge of their zone of proximal development to close the gap. Other students’ experiences are tailored to preferences and interests and support is paced to students’ unique needs. Students are involved in the creation and monitoring of their learning path (we recognize this type of support at Tier 3; we suggest specialized supports).

 

Within a System of Supports, my colleagues and I have organized our schools around the following types of supports…each provided to all students:

 

  • Core Supports: Differentiated Teaching and Learning for All: The need for, and the tools for, designing teaching and learning cycles for grade level and course-specific of behavioral and academic priorities for all will be described in detail. These supports have traditionally been described as Tier 1. 

 

  • More Supports – Individualized, Timely, and Targeted: The need for, and the tools for, designing timely and targeted supports for greater levels student mastery of academic and behavioral priorities, so that students don’t fall behind (or further behind) and so students can achieve reach greater depths of understanding, will be described in detail. These supports have traditionally been described as Tier 2. 

 

  • Specialized Supports: Highly Personalized and Proximal: The need for, and the tools for, designing supports to meet students’ at their zones of proximal development The need for, and the tools for, designing highly individualized supports to meet students’ at their zones of proximal development will be described in detail. These supports have traditionally been described as Tier 3. 

 

Achieving this level of customized supports for all students will require shifts in long-held practices and policies. Core + customization will also require a system. The teams, coordination, and communication required to integrate the essential elements of professional learning communities, response to intervention, multi-tiered systems of supports, and other popular and proven practices must be organized within a System of Support.

BEYOND BEHAVIOR: THE NEXT GENERATION OF BEHAVIORAL RTI

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Educators have long recognized the importance of student behavior as a necessary foundation upon which the “real work” of academics can be completed. Most educators now appreciate that behavioral skills are as important as—and perhaps more important than—academic skills. Whether we label them non-cognitive skills, self-regulation, executive functioning, social-emotional learning, grit, self-control, or social intelligence, student mastery of these behavioral skills better predicts success in school, college, and life than test scores and measures of intellectual ability. We must collectively embrace this reality and better nurture these skills within our students. But the question is, how? 

The principles and practices of Response to Intervention (or Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports), that are dedicated to the nurturing of behavioral skills are most impactful and efficient when processes mirror the ways in which we have successfully served students’ academic needs. We have developed and implemented a blueprint to help schools prioritize, define, teach, model, nurture, and reinforce positive behavior to achieve better student outcomes and create productive school cultures. (We must honor and acknowledge the debt that we owe to Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports , or PBIS. As described below, our work addresses a broader range of behavioral skills in a slightly different manner, but our starting point for behavioral RTI has always been PBIS.) 

We must gather evidence regarding the extent to which students are mastering behavioral priorities and diagnose the needs of students who are not yet meeting behavioral-skill expectations, so we have designed and employed simple evidence-gathering tools. Research-based strategies exist to target specifically diagnosed needs and can be used at all tiers and with all students, so we have created a library of instructional, differentiation, and intervention strategies that match likely areas of student need.

There is a great need for behavioral supports for students, and a great need to build our capacity to support student needs. As educators, we have simply not been well enough equipped and prepared to support students’ behavioral needs and to help students develop mastery of critical behavioral skills.

 

The Power of Motivation

At ICLE, we passionately believe that the most important principles and practices for student growth are inextricably related—including differentiation, growth mindset, student self-assessment, metacognition, and perseverance—and are mutually reinforcing concepts that will improve student engagement, nurture non-cognitive skills, and lead to better academic performance. We should celebrate these similarities and encourage staff to interpret and implement best practices as connected sets of supports for students.

There is as much research in the specific behavioral area of motivation as there is in mathematics: Dweck (2010), Duckworth (2016), Ericsson and Pool (2016), and Farrington, et al. (2012), have described the interconnectedness of non-cognitive factors, or behavioral skills, and report that they are “teachable” and “changeable.” We have recreated Farrington’s framework in diagram-form below; this flowchart has influenced our identification of essential “behavioral skills.” As noted above, while we are indebted to Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) —and PBIS’ processes are as sound and as relevant as ever—schools’ implementation of PBIS has focused on social skills. We know that there are other domains of behavior that are critical to student success and that we can and must nurture them if all students are going to ready for success in school, college, career, and life. We must commit to ensuring students learn these skills—by modeling, teaching, reinforcing, nurturing, assessing, providing feedback, differentiating, and intervening—so that they are optimally prepared.

From Research to Reality

There may be educators who feel that a focus on behavioral skills is unnecessary, given the rise of facilitated learning experiences, project-based learning, the maker movement, and competency-based education. They may hope that more contemporary pedagogies and practices (present in a growing number of future-ready schools) represent the answer to the question, “How do we nurture non-cognitive factors within students?” 

But while these next-generation teaching strategies may be more facilitative and learning may be more experiential, students still need to be guided, habits need to be modeled, and behavioral skills need to be taught. 

So, how do we do it? What magic formula will support teachers and schools in helping students develop these habits? While there may be yet untapped strategies, the practices that will most likely develop critical behavioral skills are the very same research-based best practices we’ve read about but may not have found time to implement—such as rigorous and relevant teaching, collaborative learning, differentiated instruction, and most comprehensively, the principles and practices of Response to Intervention.

The research is clear. The realities are understood. The nature of the future for which we are preparing students is undeniable. And, we as a profession know what to do; we already have the answer within our reach.

A Collective Sense of Efficacy

 

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We firmly believe that high expectations in every student’s ability to learn at high levels is more critical than the most highly evolved system of support. We now know neurobiologically, as we have long known behaviorally or experientially, that every student can learn. On the neurobiological front, studies of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity and electroencephalography (EEG), which maps electrical activity in the brain, have revealed that the “appropriate” parts of brains change as a result of high-quality instruction and intervention (Shaywitz, 2003, Shaywitz, & Shaywitz, 2007; Freyer, Becker, Dinse, & Ritter, 2013). Every educator has experienced a student who learns “in spite of” the most significant obstacles imaginable.

Our favorite story is Christopher, a severely autistic student who was also mute—his parents had never heard him speak coherently. When we last worked with Christopher, he was in a sixth grade classroom for severely and profoundly disabled students and was reading solidly at a third grade level. How? It starts with his committed teacher, Rachel, who simply expected Christopher to achieve and involved sign language and a commonly utilized alternative reading program called Edmark. In our opinion, Christopher’s success had more to do with school culture and with staff members’ belief in themselves and in Christopher than with any structures or programs. Each of has students who have beaten the odds when we considered their success to be inevitable: Michael, Jonathan, Anayeli, Azucena, et al.

Yet, even if there remain doubts in some educators’ minds regarding the probability that all students can learn at high levels, our only option is to put forth our best efforts to help every student learn. We cannot advocate learning for some students. Which students would we choose?

Ethically, our profession demands that we expect the very best from ourselves and from all students at all times. Leaders and educators who do not launch every school year and school day with the firm belief that 100 percent of students will learn at high levels are doomed before they have begun. 

Belief and expectations in ourselves and our colleagues is as important as beliefs and expectations in our students. A teachers’ sense of self-efficacy is directly related to their students’ achievement (Dembo & Gibson, 1985; Bandura, 1993). The cultures and climates of schools must powerfully communicate the expectation that high levels of learning for all students are inevitable; we can make the difference; we simply need to find the right support for the specific need.

In the US, approximately 12% of students receive special education services and have a Individualized Education Program plan. Approximately 1% of students have been diagnosed with a severe or profound disability, meaning that they have the intellectual functioning that will significantly limit their ability to live an independent adult life. They will have modified jobs and accommodated living conditions. We feel blessed to live in societies in which we provide care and support for these precious individuals.

A review of the percentages in the above paragraph reveals a very important reality that directly impacts high expectations, or a lack thereof. The vast majority of students receiving special education services, students who have an Individualized Education Program plan, do not have a severe or profound disability and will be expected to live an independent adult life, without modified jobs and accommodated living conditions.

The critical implication is as follows: When we do not expect high levels of learning for all (and complement these expectations with intensive and targeted interventions as necessary), we significantly limit their future prospects with equally significant impacts on our societies. Students receiving special education services graduate from Grade 12 at rates that are demonstrably lower than their peers; they attend 4-year universities and colleges at equally lower rates (Samuels, 2015). 

We fear that tragically lower expectations for students receiving special education services has lead (and continues to lead) to their significantly lower achievement. And yet, despite they fact that schools accommodate and modify these students’ educational experiences (with unfortunately corresponding modifications to expectations), students within Individualized Education Program plans who do not have a severe or profound disability will be expected to compete and collaborate with rest of the 99% for a purposeful and productive adult life. 

Labeling students is a destructive and unproductive practice. Labeling proves to be even more maddening when we develop biases that are not even warranted – as ridiculous as that may seem. For example, the majority of students have been deemed eligible for special education services because they have a discrepancy between the intelligence and achievement. In other words, they have a normal intelligence, but are not achieving at a correspondingly normal level, and a disability is believed to be the explanation. In spite of our questions about the validity of eligibility of determinations  using this model (Fletcher & Vaughn, 2009), it seems illogical to expect less of students receiving special education supports when the very reason that they have been deemed eligible is because their intelligence seems to dictate they should be achieving at the same levels as their peers.

Let’s move beyond issues around special education: the intelligence quotient as a predictor of students’ later life success (Duckworth, Quinn, Lynam, Loeber, & Stouthamer-Loeber, 2011; Nisbett, Aronson, Blair, Dickens, Flynn, Halpern, & Turkheimer, 2012) is a simply not accurate. We recognize that intelligence and the intelligence quotient are not entirely correlative; however, due the biases that schools and societies have adopted around these terms, we suggest that they effectively represent the same concept. Intelligence tests are effective at predicting how students will score on later intelligence tests, or on tasks that assess related skills. They are not entirely predictive of success in school or after school. For example, a student’s score on the SAT, particularly prior to its revisions in 2005 when the test most closely mirrored traditional intelligence tests (Frey & Detterman, 2004; Koenig, Frey, & Detterman, 2008), did not validly predict a students’ grade point average during the freshman year (Kobrin, Patterson, Shaw, Mattern, & Barbuti, 2008). And yet, the unfortunate and pervasive cultural consequences regarding perceptions of IQ profoundly effect educator’s expectations for students. Consider this quote from the concepts’ founder:

 [Some] assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest & react against this brutal pessimism…With practice, training, & above all method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment, & literally become more intelligent than we were before.

Alfred Binet (1909). Les idees modernes sur les enfants, pp. 105-106.

According to Binet, intelligence is not fixed; it’s time we stop prejudging students’ abilities based on this man-made construct.

If you don’t believe in all students’ abilities to achieve at high levels, and you and your colleagues’ abilities to make that happen, then don’t bother going through the motions of designing systems of support. Collaborative systems of support will work when we will persist, expect, and believe.

Self-Assessing Your School’s RTI Practices

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We recommend that schools leaders and school teams assess their current levels of success in implementing a collaborative system of support as a way to determine next steps. Such as process can also help establish a common understanding around the elements of systems of support. How would your teams respond and rate their schools on the following descriptors, using a four-point scale?

 

4:  Consistent and effective

3:  Fairly consistent and generally effective

2:  Inconsistent and occasionally effective

1:  Not present or observable

 

  • We believe that all students can learn at very high levels.
  • We honestly discuss our biases and expectations for students.
  • We use evidence to challenge assumptions.
  • We are willing to do whatever it takes (altering schedules, teaching assignments, past practices) to ensure that all students learn at the very highest levels.
  • We have researched schools that have been successful with students like those we serve and we have analyzed lessons we can take away to improve student learning.
  • We have identified and celebrated the strengths of all staff. We have honestly acknowledged our collective and individual areas for growth.
  • We have collectively established team norms based on cooperation and compromise and the best interest of students.
  • Our teams meet regularly to work on well-defined tasks. We collaboratively address the following question:
  1. What are the essential learning targets we expect students to master during the upcoming unit?
  2. What scaffolding and differentiation strategies will allow all students access the essential learning targets?
  3. How will we measure our effectiveness as teachers? In other words, how will we informally and formally assess student mastery of essential learning targets?
  4. What collective supports will we provide to students when need extra time and alternative approaches to master essential learning targets?
  5. What collective supports will be provided to extend and enrich the depth and complexity of their mastery of essential learning targets?
  • We have scheduled regular lesson studies in which small groups of teachers “plan–practice–re-plan–practice–review” lessons with their students, with release provided by roving substitutes or by school staff.
  • Each grade level or content-alike team is crystal clear on the agreed-upon essential learning targets and is committed to ensuring that every student masters them.
  • Each grade level or content-alike team has clearly defined each essential learning target, ensuring that there is a common understanding about the rigor and format to which students will be held accountable.
  • Each grade level or content-alike team has backwards planned from common assessments to ensure that instruction matches the required rigor and format at which students will demonstrate mastery.
  • Resources and materials, including but not necessarily limited to textbooks, are collaboratively identified and shared to provide tasks that match the rigor and format of the essential learning targets.
  • Differentiation strategies are identified and shared that best help students master essential learning targets.
  • The school clearly identifies and articulates, teaches, consistently models, assesses, provides differentiated supports, and positively reinforces the pro-social behaviors that it expects all students to exhibit, including but not limited to the areas of:
  • Cooperation
  • Self-control
  • Respect
  • Resiliency
  • The school clearly identifies and articulates, teaches, consistently models, assesses, provides differentiated supports, and positively reinforces the pro-functional behaviors that it expects all students to exhibit, including but not limited to the areas of:
  • Motivation
  • Volition
  • Attention
  • Self-monitoring
  • Every staff member at the school provides explicit instruction for the behavioral skills that they expect all students to exhibit.
  • Every staff member at the school consistently models, corrects, and positively reinforces the behavioral skills that they expect all students to exhibit.
  • Common (commonly created or selected, administered, and analyzed) assessments are continuously and vigorously used to inform, refine, and improve instruction.
  • Teams use evidence of learning on a regular basis to determine students who needs additional time and support, the areas in which these identified students most need the additional time and support, and areas in which all students will benefit from additional time and support.
  • Each grade level or content-alike team draws on the successes of members of the team to continuously refine and improve teaching and learning.
  • The school has inventoried assessments to ensure that gaps and duplications do not exist.
  • An increasing percentage of all assessments given are used to inform teaching and learning. They include:
  • Pretests that assess the prerequisite skills that students should possess to successfully learn upcoming content.
  • Mid-unit tests that assess student progress part of the way through a unit, but well before the end of the unit, so that timely interventions can be provided.
  • End-of-unit tests that allow teams to know which students will continue to require support in mastering certain essential learning targets even though a new unit of instruction is set to begin.
  • Formal or informal checks for understanding including tickets-out-the-door and mid-lesson checks for understanding.
  • Progress monitoring that more frequently and validly monitor students’ response to intervention, and when errors are analyzed, can also diagnose students’ needs.
  • Screening, diagnostic, and monitoring tools are used to assess student needs in the areas of social and academic behaviors.
  • The principal and other administrators are constant participants in these analyses.
  • Every student has access to the time and/or supports (academic and behavioral) they need to learn at the very highest levels.
  • Grade level and content-alike teams have built time into their normal instructional day to provide additional supports (intervention and enrichment) to students on essential learning targets (academic and behavioral).
  • Grade level and content-alike teams have collaboratively identified and/or collaboratively created strategies and activities to meet the remedial and enrichment needs of their students.
  • The school has built times into the instructional day for students to receive more supports in addition to core instruction and differentiated instruction provided by grade level and content-alike teams.
  • The school has collaboratively identified and/or collaboratively created strategies, activities, and programs to meet the specialized needs of students who have not yet responded to instruction and interventions.
  • The school has inventoried all staff members’ availabilities and abilities and has assigned them to directly providing supports to students, with initial and ongoing professional development provided.

 

We use this self-assessment as a process much more than a product. The analyses and problem-solving that result ensure from conversations around a school’s success in meeting these critical elements of collaborative systems of supports can help focus the district and school on next steps.

 

Five Reasons Why Collaboration is Essential – Part 3

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Collaboration amongst staff is the foundation and the prerequisite for any and all continuous improvement amongst educators and on behalf of students. The expectations placed upon schools and students are too great and the challenges too complex to continue to act autonomously and reject collective responsibilities – All staff for all students. It will take time; it’s worth it, so let’s dedicate ourselves to embedding authentic, systematic collaboration into our professional days and our professional practice.

 

In addition to the questions presented in Part 2 of this Blog Series, collaborative teams of administrators, specialists, and teachers work within an organized system to address the following questions and complete the following tasks – all for the purpose of improving teaching practices and student learning, particularly our most vulnerable students:

  1. About which students do we have concerns?
  2. In which areas do we have concerns?
  3. What are we currently doing to support the student and meet the student’s needs? What supports will we be providing in the future?
  4. Has the student responded to the instruction and interventions we have been providing? (Hierck & Weber, 2014)

In other words,

  1. We can predict that we will serve students who are vulnerable. Knowing who these students are as quickly and efficiently as possible will allow us to begin preparing for the differentiated supports and intensive interventions that they need to be successful.
  2. The best differentiation is targeted differentiation; the best intervention is targeted intervention. We must diagnose the causes and antecedents of student difficulty to specifically target needs.
  3. The only wrong differentiation and intervention is the complete absence of differentiation and intervention. We must do our best to target supports based on our diagnoses and make adjustments as necessary, based on…
  4. …our frequent, efficient, and specific checks for student response to differentiated supports and intervention.

Excellence in education requires that teachers work in collaborative teams to clarify the learning intentions and success criteria of their lessons, gather evidence of student learning, and discuss the effectiveness of their teaching based on that evidence. Teachers…share evidence about their teaching with their colleagues; in fact, the key question is whether teaching can shift from an immature to mature profession, from opinions to evidence. The education profession will not mature as a profession until professional dialogue focuses on evidence of student learning rather than opinions.

Hattie, 2009, p 252 & 259

 

A commitment to working interdependently is the right thing to do, and as noted here, it’s research-based. It may also be uncomfortable. It will represent a different way of doing our jobs. We will need to make compromises to our own preferences because collective decisions are better for kids. Our colleagues will know what we’re doing, and not doing, and how those actions or inactions are impacting student outcomes. And that’s ok. That’s the professional thing to do. An important note: Trust and transparency are absolutely critical. Any sincere efforts at collaboration on behalf of kids that are tainted by draconian evaluative techniques will fail. Teams of educators engaged in authentic efforts to continuously improve their practices on behalf of students will be undermined if evidence is gathered for judging, and not for discovery. The goal is learning from one another so that student learning improves.

 

In the final analysis, only collaborative systems of support will allow us to provide personal learning pathways for all students and will ensure that they make the progress necessary to succeed as citizens and adults. It will also transform the role of educator – our experiences, and our colleagues’ experiences, working within collaborative systems of support inevitably result in the same conclusion: “I’ll never work in a school or in a situation in which there is not the time, the expectation, and the benefits of working in a highly collective manner with my fellow teachers and administrators on behalf of every single student.”