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If it’s predictable, it’s preventable. This core phrase is at the heart of RTI. It allows us to identify, anticipate, and prepare for our students’ needs, and to proactively respond to these before frustration and disengagement set in. We as educators predict and take measures to prevent student difficulties in academic skills—but how can this predict-and-prevent attitude apply to our model of behavioral RTI?
We can predict that a lack of adequate core instruction in the behavioral skills as the introduction describes will compromise student success—both behavioral and academic. We can predict that not all students will possess the mindsets, social skills, perseverance, learning strategies, and academic behaviors that will lead to success in school and life when they arrive in our classrooms. Thus, we can conclude that if we do not identify, prioritize, and teach these critical skills, there will be some students whose success is negatively impacted. We can prevent this negative impact if we establish behavioral skills as a priority along with key academic concepts.
The first step in designing a system of supports that nurtures the mindsets, social skills, perseverance, learning strategies, and academic behaviors within students—behaviors that are so critical to their success—is for educators to accept responsibility for this critical but challenging task. Parents and communities can positively shape student behaviors, and schools should complement these supports. Schools, however, have the unique opportunity to nurture behavioral skills that educators can apply and practice when engaging in the intellectual tasks in which schools specialize.
The nurturing of behavioral skills is consistent with innovative learning environments in which student voice, choice, and agency are priorities. Ryan Jackson, executive principal of the Mount Pleasant Arts Innovation Zone and practitioner of behavioral RTI, notes that:
Schools adapting to the Netflix generation mindset, where purpose, passions, and empowerment reign supreme over compliance, standardization, and simple engagement, can be highly successful. These schools are building a sustainable model of behavioral skill success, starting from the ground up with trust and respect as a foundation, and goal-setting and commitment as the catalysts. (R. Jackson, personal communication, June 19, 2017)
Creating this sort of staff culture and learning environment starts with a belief in and high expectations for all students’ success and a commitment to not letting anything (such as poor attendance, apathy, or deficits in reading skills) get in the way. The central importance of belief and expectations should sound familiar to proponents of PLCs at Work (DuFour, DuFour, Eaker, Many, & Mattos, 2016). They are foundational Big Ideas. A culture of high expectations, of doing whatever it takes, and of recognizing that the only way to ensure that every student learns at high levels is through a commitment to collaborative and collective action has always been at the heart of PLCs at Work.
So, how is this nurturing learning environment created? I believe that there exist several foundational principles that educators should address, discuss, and ultimately accept regarding student behavior.
- Behavior is as critical as academics; behavioral skills include the categories of precognitive self-regulation, mindsets, social skills, learning strategies (such as metacognition, cognitive self-regulation, and executive functioning), perseverance, and academic behaviors (such as participation, work completion, attendance, and engagement).
- Students behave and misbehave for a reason, purpose, or function, and educators have a great deal of influence regarding the ways in which students behave.
- Educators must define, model, teach, and nurture the behaviors that they want to see.
- Educators will be most successful nurturing behavioral skills when they align the definitions, steps, and process of behavioral RTI to those of academic RTI.
- Staff members must assume collective responsibility for nurturing student behaviors.
- Great relationships between educators and educators, educators and students, and students and students lead to better student behavior and greater levels of engagement and learning.
- Great classroom environments with high expectations and clear procedures and routines lead to better student behavior.
- Engaging, rich, and sound pedagogies, strategies, and tasks lead to better student behavior.
- If educators want student behaviors to change, they must be willing to change.
Begin your collective work on building a system of behavioral supports by collaboratively reflecting upon and discussing these foundational ideas, and reference them throughout the process. Do they ring true? Do “yeah, but. . .” and “what if. . .” comments and questions arise? Transparent and courageous dialogue on core principles such as these can help serve as a vision or “North Star” that guides and shapes these critical efforts.