Behavioral skills help ensure students succeed in school, college, career, and life. Some students will need intensive supports to meet significant needs. To identify students—based on evidence, data, and observations—who are likely to require immediate and relatively intensive supports from the very beginning of the year to achieve success, we must be proactive. We can predict that some students will have behavioral skill needs—needs that we can and should determine early within school years and school careers. We can prevent frustrations and failures by screening for these needs and proactively preparing positive supports.
Universal screening is a popular RTI term. What does it mean? First of all, we do not screen to label or confirm the reasons that a student is succeeding or having difficulties. We screen so that we actively anticipate students in need and proactively prepare positive supports. This is a foundational principle of RTI.
Screening filters those students who are at risk of failure unless they receive immediate, intensive supports. Remember, if it’s predictable, it’s preventable. One efficient and practical way in which to screen students is to reflect on those students for whom mastery of the prioritized and defined behavioral skills prove to be quite difficult. We can predict who these students are—they scored in the lowest performance band on the state (or province) test; they scored in the sixth percentile on a norm-referenced test; they were suspended for twelve days last year. At the end of each academic year, teachers should screen all students in this manner to identify any individuals who, despite a strong core instructional program (Tier 1), are still in danger of failure. To ensure that students do not fall further and further behind, students must have access to immediate help (Buffum et al., 2009, 2010, 2012; Hierck, Coleman, & Weber, 2011). Those determined to be at risk for experiencing significant difficulties receive targeted, evidence-based interventions as soon as is practical.
I will now discuss two tools for screening students: the combined student risk screening scale and student internalizing behavior screening scale, and transition guides.
Two tools that schools may use when screening all students in the area of behavioral skills are the student risk screening scale (SRSS; Drummond, 1994) and the student internalizing behavior screening scale (SIBSS; Cook, Rasetshwane, Truelson, Grant, Dart, Collins, & Sprague, 2011). The SRSS and SIBSS are brief, no-cost, research-based screeners that educators can use to identify students with externalizing and internalizing behavioral challenges (For research on the use and efficacy of these screeners, please see: Lane, Bruhn, Eisner, & Kalberg, 2010; Lane, Kalberg, Lambert, Crnobori, & Bruhn, 2010; Lane, Kalberg, Parks, & Carter, 2008; Lane, Little, Casey, Lambert, Wehby, Weisenbach, & Phillips, 2009; Lane, Oakes, Ennis, Cox, Schatschneider, & Lambert, 2011; Lane, Parks, Kalberg, & Carter, 2007; Menzies & Lane, 2012; Oakes, Wilder, Lane, Powers, Yokoyama, O’Hare, & Jenkins, 2010).
Staff who know students well can complete this screener at the conclusion of a school year. In middle or high schools, where teachers work with well over 100 students in a day, the school can agree that homeroom or advisory period teachers complete the screener, sharing results with colleagues to check for differences in opinion. In the absence of these types of periods, the school can dedicate one period within the day for teachers to complete the screener. Educators can use data from this screener to provide supports to students on the very beginning of the next school year before another year of difficulties occurs. The screener requires little time to complete, and students with behavioral needs above a given threshold will very likely require immediate, positive, and structured behavioral supports at the start of the following year to be successful. The research behind these screeners specifies a “score” above which a student is deemed to be at-risk for difficulties with externalizing or internalizing behaviors (a score of 9 or above corresponds with high-risk). In my experience, in is not uncommon for there to be more students identified as “high-risk” than is practically possible to support. In this case, the school may decide to raise the threshold above which students are provided with proactive and positive supports, with other students below this threshold on a watch-list. The term positive is important. We are not screening to prejudge or to pre-punish but to prepare positive supports and environments in which we can preclude the difficulties that the screener predicts are possible.
Some students who experience difficulty accessing content and benefitting from instruction within the core Tier 1 environment may have health, nutrition, sleep, exercise, and sensory needs that are not being met. These skills represent coping strategies for stressors that, when lacking, will impede student success. We as teachers are unable to provide all of these basic needs, and, indeed, educators have not historically been trained or expected to know about cognitive or precognitive self-regulation. Consequently, and understandably, we may not even be used to recognizing deficits in these most basic and critical of foundations. Proactively screening for students with these needs is a first step in organizing and providing supports.
Importantly, screeners are not intended to diagnose or determine the causes of student needs or suggest the types of supports that are required to meet student needs; diagnosing student needs is a separate step and set of processes. The SRSS and SIBSS are holistic screeners; the accumulation of points across the seven indicators within each screener indicate risk but an elevated score on a single indicator does not necessarily equate to a diagnosis.
As an alternative to the SRSS and SIBSS, teams of educators can systematically, consistently, and proactively reflect on student successes and challenges. For example, within K-8 schools in Chicago, Illinois in which I worked, teacher teams collaboratively completed transition guides at the conclusion of the school year. They shared information from this chart with the next grade level’s team of teachers so that it could proactively prepare positive supports that would ensure that students got off to a great start to the year. In addition, they share this information with leadership and student study teams so that those teams could proactively prepare more intensive support plans for students with the greatest need in a timely manner, plans that would be initiated at the very beginning of the next school year. The school principal and leadership team provides the time for this important work and facilitates the process so that current teachers are empowered to inform their colleagues and so that next year’s teachers are empowered to proactively and positively prepare.
When screening identifies a student to likely be in need of specialized supports so that he or she can meet the clearly defined behavioral expectations, there are two next steps.
- Teacher teams collaboratively prepare differentiated supports, strategies, and scaffolds so that all students can successfully learn within core, Tier 1 environments.
- RTI teams collaboratively determine the why behind students’ difficulties with behavioral skills and design appropriate plans (perhaps Tier 2 or Tier 3 supports) that will meet their needs and ensure their success.