A recent troubling report from the University of Georgia confirms fears of school district leaders nationwide: Nearly one-third of educators are unlikely to remain in education for another five years.
There’s a good reason: With an anemic post-pandemic pipeline for teacher talent, educators are being asked to take on more or larger classes alongside the Herculean challenges of lost instructional time and a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
Even prior to the pandemic, the CDC reported that one in five children was experiencing “a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder, such as anxiety or depression.”
And that has only since been exacerbated — affecting all students and teachers.
During the pandemic, students missed out not only on key instruction, but also on a year-plus of learning how to behave in school, a fourth grade teacher from Tampa, Florida, recently told our colleagues as they worked alongside her to implement applied behavior analysis (ABA) strategies. She said that she was witnessing gaps between student behavior and teacher expectations for such things as the ability to form a line and get along with others, and that addressing such issues was making it harder to teach and diverting time from instruction.
To develop solutions for schools, we can look to cities. Cities hire planners to look at the larger picture of each community — carefully designing roads, neighborhoods and commercial development patterns with health and safety in mind. This foundation of careful planning helps first responders protect citizens and restore order when there’s a crisis.
Board-certified behavior analysts can play a similar role. They, too, are in the business of looking at the larger picture and developing a plan. BCBAs are trained professionals who address behavioral challenges, assess the learning needs of individuals and fulfill them from the ground up.
As veteran professionals and researchers in applied behavior analysis, we’ve spent our careers conducting ABA assessments and interventions to understand behaviors, from how they are affected by environments to how they impact academic progress and development. We collaborate with teachers to interpret results, then design interventions and incorporate behavioral goals into individualized plans for students.
One in five children were experiencing “a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder, such as anxiety or depression.”
Yet, too often, the role of BCBAs in schools has been confined to supporting only learners with developmental delays or autism spectrum disorder. Post pandemic, district leaders are increasingly recognizing the potential of BCBAs to support a wider range of students, particularly as educator morale and support remain a top concern.
By inviting BCBAs into more classrooms, schools can help overburdened educators address behavioral and mental health issues proactively.
Districts leaders can leverage the potential of these professionals in their schools in three ways:
1.To design instructional strategies to meet students’ academic needs. BCBAs can work with teachers to identify the behavioral skills students have acquired and their skill deficits, then design instructional strategies that match students’ learning needs. This tactic also frees teachers and counselors to work with other students whose challenges don’t require such targeted interventions.
2. To preempt behavioral problems. Great teachers know when a child is on a downward spiral, even if their behavior has yet to manifest in ways that disrupt the learning environment. As partners to teachers, BCBAs can translate educator instincts into actionable strategies, using behavioral assessment to identify the root causes of undesirable behaviors. They can then create interventions to address them before they manifest in crisis situations.
3. To help serve all students: ABA programs can be highly effective in treating students not just with pervasive behavioral issues but with emotional challenges, attention deficits, neurotypical behavior and even general compliance issues and emotional trauma.
We’re encouraged to see early signs of school districts across the nation already embracing this mindset shift. An urban district in Pennsylvania, for example, has incorporated ABA coaches to support teachers and classroom staff. They’ve told us that they’re observing a reduction of behavioral disruptions as they see young children building executive function skills, which we know are critical to productive classroom participation.
In Florida, Polk County Public Schools’ BCBAs are working collaboratively with licensed mental health clinicians to deliver targeted behavior interventions for students who have experienced childhood trauma. Our data shows that, as a result of this support, the district has seen an 89 percent reduction in suspensions and an 96 percent decrease in the number of school office referrals among students working with the behavioral specialists.
Now more than ever, district leaders must take action and look to these examples as a blueprint for success. Our cities thrive when thoughtful planning on the front end paves the way for a thoughtful response when there’s a crisis.
Our schools can do the same by tapping the right people to develop and plan interventions. And in most cases, that requires taking a second look at the skills of those already on staff, particularly BCBAs.
Brooke Walker has worked in laboratory, clinic, research-based and applied settings and today serves as the vice-president of School-Based ABA services for Invo Healthcare.
Juan Rojas, a former U.S. Army combat medic, is the lead behavior analyst for Invo Healthcare’s IMPACT, a multidisciplinary program that provides mental health counseling and behavioral support to at-risk youth in school and community settings across the country.
This story about student behavior problems was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.