Research-based strategies to support students – no matter the tier of support – exist to meet both students’ academic and behavioral needs. We must use these strategies 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- or underreactive to sounds, 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 in 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 need 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 supports for students to meet behavioral and academic expectations, so let’s be ready.