Each day as we tune into news sites and social media, we hear disturbing reports of violence in our nation’s schools.
These stories’ regularity leads us to believe schools are no longer safe places for our children, or our teachers.
So, can we curb school violence and the behavior problems behind it? Can we create safe and supportive school environments and reach struggling children and adolescents? The answer is “yes” … but it takes some work.
The first step is understanding the nature of student behavior in schools. Several decades of research reveal a depiction of problem behavior among a school’s student body. In nearly every school studied, the majority of students (about 80 percent) rarely, if ever, exhibit behavior problems (such as code of conduct violations resulting in a disciplinary referral) at school. The majority of students receive no, or only one, disciplinary referral during a school year.
About 15 percent of students can be classified as “at risk,” engaging in periodic behavior problems (receiving two to five disciplinary referrals per year).
The remaining roughly 5 percent have chronic and serious emotional and behavioral problems and engage in ongoing behavior problems, such as bullying, classroom disruption and aggression.
Schools have traditionally applied punitive procedures, including detention, suspension or expulsion in response to behavioral infractions, in hopes that these aversive responses will deter students from future problem behaviors. However, numerous large-scale and well-conducted research studies reveal the opposite outcome: These approaches don’t work. When schools apply highly punitive and restrictive procedures, problem behaviors such as rebellion toward teachers, vandalism against school property, absenteeism and truancy actually increase.
If punishment is not effective, then how do we address behavior problems?
The solution is to develop and apply a positive approach that prevents problems from emerging and provides supports for students with more serious mental health and behavior problems that may include depression, anxiety and acting out.
In this “tiered” support approach, intervention is provided in a preventive and proactive way, with intensive intervention reserved for students with the greatest need. In addition, students with mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety, who would not otherwise be noticed until a violent incident happened, are identified through schoolwide screening, and appropriate intervention is provided.
With a tiered system, all students receive “Tier 1” instruction in the school’s behavior expectations, with acknowledgment and rewards for positive interactions and consequences for problem behaviors.
At-risk students requiring “Tier 2” intervention often need additional social skills development, monitoring or mentoring to learn how to interact or self-regulate their behavior. They typically receive support in small groups that provide social skills training or cognitive behavioral interventions that are highly effective at reducing depression and anxiety symptoms.
The most commonly used Tier 2 intervention is a student behavior monitoring system in which students “check in” with a designated school staff member each morning to discuss daily expectations, receive behavior ratings from their teachers at the end of each class period, “check out” with the staff member at the end of the day to discuss accomplishments and goals, bring the behavior ratings home for a parent signature, then return the sheet the following morning.
For the 5 percent of students with more serious and intransigent problems (“Tier 3”), intervention is individualized, multicomponent and derived through a comprehensive assessment process.
The assessment process identifies environmental variables, such as academic skill deficits or the lack of adult support, that may be modified to help support the student. Interventions at this tier might include shortened testing periods, remediation of skill deficits (intensive reading instruction, anger control), and structured school and community supports for mental health concerns.
The adaptive, tiered approach to student behavior creates a school culture where students feel welcomed and supported and teachers have a consistent and effective way to interact with students and address problems.
Its effectiveness has been demonstrated in schools throughout the United States and abroad, including those in high-risk neighborhoods. For example, LeGrand Union High School in Merced County, California, has cut suspensions in half and almost eliminated expulsions. Another advantage is that because the approach is preventive, and intensive support is reserved only for those most in need, it becomes efficient in terms of time and resources.
Is it easy to ensure our schools are safe places – physically and emotionally – for students and personnel? No, especially when school staff are frustrated or burned out.
It requires effective school leadership, a collective commitment to make improvements and systems to sustain change efforts over time. But in the long run, it is well worth the effort for students, their families, school personnel and society.
Lee Kern, a professor of special education at Lehigh University and director of Lehigh’s Center for Promoting Research to Practice, received a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to adapt Tier 2 behavior interventions for elementary school (K-5) children. Along with researchers from Vanderbilt University, Kern aims to develop a framework to more easily identify and modify interventions that help children with mild to moderate behavior problems.