Successful Implementation of Tier 1 Social-Emotional Learning
Developing My School-Change Project: The Where and Why
As a member of the 2018-2020 School Mental Health Advanced Practice Program (SMHAPP) cohort (c/o Loyola University – Chicago), I was asked to develop a ‘school change project.’ I was tasked with identifying a problem that I hoped to investigate, use research and data to develop a plan, implement said plan to address the problem, and report the results and insights gained.
I am a school social worker who primarily works with students with Tier 2 or 3 social, behavioral, or emotional needs who have not responded to Tier 1 supports. My school is located in central Illinois with 750+ students (k-8), it is designated a Title-I school and is located in what is considered to be an ‘at-risk’ neighborhood. I just concluded my eighth year (in my current building) and during that time, we have continued to struggle to address our top four discipline referral offenses. We have not successfully identified why this is happening or how to effectively reduce these rates.
Data as Director
We must be responsive to what our data tells us about the trend of behavior we observe in working with our students. Subsequently, we must ask why these trends persist despite our knowledge and consistent disapproval of them.
We must examine and demonstrate how we are intentionally and proactively providing our students with social and emotional skills that will lead to alternative choices and improved social outcomes.
With a focus on Tier 1 social-emotional learning through Lion’sQuest instruction, our students could learn new strategies to manage existing obstacles leading to a reduction in problematic behavior and discipline referrals.
Much of this piece will be about my experience assisting our teachers to implement LionsQuest, a social-emotional learning curriculum, at two grade levels (6th & 7th), and why having a strong Tier 1 system to address the behavior is necessary to provide foundational skills for students. Functional response to intervention systems is a prerequisite to properly identifying students who have Tier 2 or 3 social, emotional, behavioral intervention needs. Finally, I will share some tools that I found helpful when looking to maintain or improve Tier 1 universal support to students.
When students struggle to perform an expected behavior, the student’s educational team must investigate whether data demonstrates the student’s failure to perform an expected behavior is a result of a skill deficit or performance deficit.
As a school social worker, I have worked to provide students with opportunities to strengthen their social skills in order to increase their success in the classroom.
I understand that when students know better, oftentimes they perform better.
It is vital that teachers instruct and motivate students on how to identify and perform pro-social behaviors too. Consequently, I believe that our students will better understand teacher expectations, and this understanding partnered with a positive relationship between the student and teacher will lead to fewer discipline referrals and problematic or unexpected behaviors.
Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is an evidence-based three-tiered framework to improve and integrate all of the data, systems, and practices affecting student outcomes every day. Implementation of PBIS creates schools where all students succeed (PBIS.org). I focused on Tier 1 because that is where all staff is providing prevention-based support to students by teaching skills. I believe that if I operate in a coaching role to support teachers in teaching appropriate behavior skills and emotional regulation through the implementation of LionsQuest, it will help establish a baseline of useful skills that will lead to a decrease in discipline referrals.
Data as Producer
As the 2019-2020 academic year got underway, I knew that it would be important to review discipline data and observe the interactions students were having with each other and staff. In the first few weeks, I noticed that there were students refusing to stay in class and experiencing intense conflicts with students and teachers. Additionally, there were students who were disruptive to the class environment and instead of managing their behavior issues in class, teachers were referring these students to the main office for disciplinary action. I asked myself (so soon in the school year):
- Was there sufficient time provided to build a positive relationship?
- Were teachers providing students the opportunity to learn the teacher’s expectations?
- Were teachers allowing time for their instruction of social-emotional learning to be learned and performed by their students?
- Why were students being sent out of class and referred to their discipline officer for misbehavior already?
To learn more from teachers about their classroom experience, I visited their grade-level team meetings. I learned that there were foundational classroom management and relational issues that they were experiencing difficulty in instituting with their students. These challenges included:
- lack of consistent classroom procedures
- when teachers felt frustrated by behaviors occurring in their classrooms, blaming and shaming students (leading to diminished student-teacher relationships)
- indifference to behavioral issues from students
- ineffective attempts to reduce instances of misbehavior
- ineffective school-wide discipline practices
- poor support at Tier 2/3 as a result of support staff responding to Tier 1 difficulties
I do believe that many of the student behavior challenges that our teachers face throughout the school year are related to a lack of experience working with ‘at-risk’ students. This strain can be further exacerbated when one is learning the structural, academic, and behavioral systems of support that exist and how to access them.
To learn more from teachers about their classroom experience, I visited their grade-level team meetings. I learned that there were foundational classroom management and relational issues that they were experiencing difficulty in instituting with their students.
Time To Shine
In my experience co-facilitating SEL lessons like Second Step, I noticed that many of our teachers did not have well-established procedures, routines, or expectations for behavior. A strong Tier 1 system is also important to prevent students who do need to receive Tier 2 or 3 services from appearing as if they do. Despite my previous experience facilitating Second Step, a violence prevention curriculum, it took repetition and perseverance to overcome the obstacles that arose before I was able to feel confident in teaching the material. Once I became familiar with the program, I felt I could be more dynamic and engaging with students; which would lead to a better exchange between me and the students.
I believe that if I operate in a coaching role to support teachers in teaching appropriate behavior skills and emotional regulation through the implementation of LionsQuest, it will help establish a baseline of useful skills that will lead to a decrease in discipline referrals.
I struggled less and less with managing student behavior and I was able to keep students engaged in the lessons. Some teachers cited the schedule as a problem that made it hard to teach social-emotional learning because students were emotionally checked out for the day or for the week and less likely to engage in the lessons.
Additionally, during my time visiting teachers in the grade level team meetings, I found:
- teachers were unable to consistently facilitate social-emotional learning lessons weekly as planned
- social-emotional learning became a low-priority when faced with classroom management issues
- teachers did not feel as prepared to facilitate SEL compared to their content areas
In response to the variation of teacher facilitation of social-emotional learning, I offered to co-facilitate lessons and model independent facilitation of lessons. Some teachers even took me up on it! Amidst all of this, it became challenging for me to honor my primary occupational responsibilities because of the additional time I spent lesson planning and facilitating social-emotional learning lessons. A looming tension between day-to-day responsibilities and this new role became increasingly strained.
I was beginning to better understand the stress our teachers face, who have an overwhelming amount of responsibilities, including to honor their content area while delivering SEL lessons sometimes to multiple classes a day.
I now better understand that the expectation of facilitating SEL instruction can be perceived as too much, particularly when teachers do not feel adequately prepared. This understanding underscores the importance of infusing SEL instruction into the academic instruction that teachers are already providing. Initially, I offered co-facilitation and modeling support to teachers who advocated most for my help without any assessment to determine the priority or actual need. Upon reflecting on my experience co-facilitating SEL lessons, I found that I preferred to provide direct co-facilitation and modeling support to teachers based on an assessment of their strengths, weaknesses, and needs.
With new building level obstacles arising, the climate of our building continued to evolve. Here are just a few of the building level obstacles that I faced throughout project implementation:
- A new building administrative team
- A 6th-grade teacher resigned due to illness
- A 7th-grade teacher was reassigned to a different grade level (he later resigned)
- We contracted with a school management team (11 new adults in our building) to help with Tier 1 management and parent engagement
- Our new school resource officer’s attendance was inconsistent due to a family crisis
These changes caused the additional disruption, confusion, stress, and inconsistent expectations for students and staff. Additionally, these obstacles seem to have created a climate of persistent crisis and dysregulation for our students; not the ideal circumstances in which to implement new programming. Expecting students to master new skills while in an emotional crisis state is a tough task for anyone. Our team persisted in facilitating social-emotional learning lessons despite the obstacles we were experiencing.
Didn’t See That Coming
In the Spring of 2020, our school year ended abruptly as a result of COVID-19 and the forced closure of our schools. We opted not to proceed with SEL instruction using Lion’sQuest remotely. Rather, our SEL team chose to focus on recurring weekly themes and produced recorded lessons for our students school-wide (shared via our school’s e-learning Facebook group).
My efforts to lead teachers in providing Tier 1 social-emotional learning instruction to our students were not as successful as I had hoped, however, I have learned greatly from this experience. At times, I could have been more coordinated and intentional about the boundaries I set to create a balance between my day-to-day responsibilities and my school change project. Additionally, the research I used to support this work helped to shape my understanding of program implementation, response to intervention, social-emotional learning, and student-teacher relationships. There’s still plenty of research to sift through to continue making improvements!
Perhaps most importantly, I learned so much more about the needs of our teachers. They require additional training, self-calming skills and interpersonal support to prevent unprofessional behavior which can lead to student-teacher relationships deteriorating.
As an SEL team, we have to be more responsive to students who clearly demonstrate higher levels of need that will not be met in a general classroom setting without additional supports.
These efforts would help teachers focus on those students with needs that can be met in the general education setting.
Finally, I identified tools that I will use next year to improve our implementation model further. The 5 key practices of PBIS are a good place to start with training for our staff:
- School-wide Positive Expectations and Behaviors are Defined and Taught
- Procedures for Establishing Classroom Expectations and Routines Consistent with School-Wide Expectations
- Continuum of Procedures for Encouraging Expected Behavior
- Continuum of Procedures for Discouraging Problem Behavior
- Procedures for Encouraging School-Family Partnerships
I believe that these 5 key practices will help our teachers build relationships with our students by collaboratively developing class procedures expectations and routines. One of the benefits of being a designated PBIS building? We have the flexibility and staffing to do this critical work!
According to Dr. Wynita Harmon, Associate Professor & Instructional Coach at the Art Education University, “Allowing students to take ownership of their environment shows them you value their thoughts”(Harmon, 2017). Harmon offers that there are 3 benefits to creating classroom expectations with your students:
- Your students will feel valued
- Your students will understand the power of collaboration
- Your students will have a clear understanding of the expectations
The 3 benefits mentioned above could make a major impact on the culture and climate in our school and would provide the skills necessary for our students potentially leading to a reduction in the discipline referral data.
We have a system for rewarding students and acknowledging student behavioral and academic successes in place. Celebrations for grade levels and classes of students who meet goals set by our PBIS team are hosted quarterly. We also provide tokens that students can accumulate electronically which have a value that can be spent at our school store.
The Tiered Fidelity Inventory (TFI) is a great resource for assessing the success of the implementation of your tiered intervention and related systems.
According to CASEL, “Tier 1 supports must be fully operational before schools can most effectively support more intensive needs. Without this foundational tier, support at Tiers 2 and 3 may become over accessed by students who may have otherwise been adequately served by Tier 1 supports.”
Additionally, Kim Gulbrandson states that “Tier 2 supports are for students who, according to data, do not respond to Tier 1 supports, not students who lack high-quality social and behavioral supports, to begin with”.
Our students need evidence-based social-emotional learning in order to best meet school behavioral expectations. This is my motivation to continue using these tools to improve our implementation of the LionsQuest curriculum next year. While we did not decrease discipline referrals as much as I had hoped, we did reduce our referrals for aggressive actions.
My hope is that if we can accomplish the full implementation of PBIS, MTSS, and Tier 1 SEL our discipline data will decrease in all categories, but specifically disruption, insubordination, aggressive actions, and cutting class referrals.
Be sure to check out other articles on the SSWN site and feel free to connect with me!
- Algozzine, B., Barrett, S., Eber, L., George, H., Horner, R., Lewis, T., Putnam, B., Swain-Bradway, J., McIntosh, K., & Sugai, G (2019). School-wide PBIS Tiered Fidelity Inventory. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. www.pbis.org.
- Gulbrandson, K. (2018, August 22). Implement SEL Within Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (Part 1). Retrieved April 22, 2020, from https://www.cfchildren.org/blog/2018/06/implement-sel-within-multi-tiered-systems-of-support/
- Harmon, W. (2017, August 3). Create Your Classroom Rules WITH Your Students for a Powerful Start to the Year. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from https://theartofeducation.edu/2017/08/08/3-benefits-creating-classroom-expectations-students/#:~:text=Giving students a say to share with the class.