Intervention strategies evolve

New approaches address social-emotional learning and anxiety as well as academic instruction
By: | Issue: September, 2017
July 29, 2019

More than a decade after Response-to-Intervention and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports took root on campuses across the country, multi-tier strategies have become the standard for identifying and assisting struggling students. Yet, the way educators use these and similar systems continues to evolve.

Educators now understand far more about the neuroscience of learning and are more aware about the impact anxiety and stress have on students’ ability to concentrate and retain information. Schools also have more advanced technology at their disposal to track behavior and academic performance.

These developments allows district leaders to further fine-tune intervention strategies to better address their students’ needs. “School culture is the foundation of academic achievement,” says David Hardy, deputy superintendent of academics at Saint Louis Public Schools. “How a child behaves isn’t something separate from how they perform academically.”

Here are four new ways districts are approaching intervention:

1. Rethinking behavior

PBIS guides teachers in changing how they respond to student behavior. Schools can build on the foundation of PBIS by encouraging educators to go one step further and change how they think about behavior, says Lori Desautels, an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University in Indiana.

Instead of asking “What’s wrong with this student?” educators should ask, “What happened to this student?”

A lack of sleep, chronic stress at home, poor nutrition — all these factors can activate the brain’s stress response system, Desautels says. Even boredom can cause the release of cortisol—otherwise known as the stress hormone. “Anxiety is the new learning disability in our country right now,” says Desautels, adding that many teachers bring their own stress into the classroom.

Desautels works with districts across Indiana to help teachers understand neurobiology and how the human brain regulates emotions. Teachers learn to be more patient with a student who is acting out as a reaction to pain or trauma, and how to recognize their own emotional triggers.

One way of addressing elevated stress hormones—which in turn make it harder for students to concentrate or control their emotional responses—is to help teachers and students recognize when a child’s “fight-or-flight” response is being triggered. To regulate their emotions, students can learn mindfulness strategies such as deep-breathing or closing their eyes for 90 seconds and focusing on a specific taste or sound.

A similar effort to view student behavior through a sharper lens is called trauma-informed instruction. As a part of that, teachers are counseled on how their own demeanor can play a role in negative interactions with children who are suffering stress. This approach also focuses on creating an emotionally safe environment where educators help students find ways to improve their behavior—rather than always punishing students for acting out.

Counselors and district administrators at San Jose USD in California are beginning to receive training in trauma-informed instruction, and are learning how to incorporate it into PBIS, said Dane Caldwell-Holden, San Jose’s director of student services.

“Now we’re not simply just saying, ‘We’re going to recognize you for being good,’” Caldwell-Holden says. “We’re going to say, ‘When things don’t go well for you, we have interventions that are going to try to support you that so they don’t have to happen again.”

2. Pre-intervention strategies

Districts with well-established intervention programs for identifying struggling students have shifted priorities to “pre-intervening” before learners ever run into trouble.

Schools can take a proactive approach by adding social-emotional learning as a “Tier One” support within their RtI or PBIS framework—that means it’s provided to all students. Social-emotional learning emphasizes self awareness, self management and responsible decision-making to empower students to overcome academic and social challenges.

MacArthur Elementary School in Long Beach USD implemented an SEL program in 2014-15, with an emphasis on growth mindset — the belief that your own skills, intelligence or talents can grow with effort.

That year, only 53 percent of MacArthur’s students indicated that they had a growth mindset. In 2015-16, that number jumped to 81 percent of students, after the school introduced SEL. Administrators also provided professional development to staff on how to encourage growth mindset in students and, at the same time, ELA and math test scores at the school increased across all student subgroups.

Framing a task in a way that students believe they can achieve it will often get a better outcome, says Jim Wright, a New York State-based RtI trainer and author of RTI Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Schools. But teachers often need — and may not be getting — coaching in the best ways to galvanize students who are disengaged and losing hope, Wright says.

Using a framework like SEL can also help make academic intervention programs more successful in middle-and high school grades. There’s often a dramatic loss in motivation as struggling students transition to middle and high school, Wright says.

3. Keeping students in class

Increasingly sophisticated screening programs make it easier for teachers to identify and track struggling students, but that doesn’t mean pulling more kids from class for academic interventions.

There’s a growing consensus that taking kids out of core classes to give them extra support doesn’t help them catch up — it actually creates larger learning gaps, says Garth Larson, director of learning at the Winneconne Community School District in Wisconsin.

Larson, who has worked as a consultant with close to 1,000 school districts across the country on RtI implementation, says a growing number of schools are changing the structure of the day to provide academic support without taking time away from core classes.

At Winneconne, for example, all students receive “core instruction plus,” Larson says. The “plus” takes place during a daily, 30-minute block of time when all students receive specialized instruction—from intensive academic interventions for struggling students to enrichment for high achievers. The blocks are staggered by grade, so that reading specialists and other teachers are available.

Since launching this new approach, Winneconne’s students have posted double digit increases in overall proficiency scores in ELA and math, Larson says.

Creating time for all students to receive personalized instruction also allows districts to move away from using “tiered language,” Larson says. Labels can impact how teachers interact with students, and also changes how students think about themselves, Larson says.

“One thing a lot of districts are trying to do is, instead of sorting kids into tiers, just say, ‘This is the group of students that is going to get very specialized support,’” Larson says. “It’s just a simple change in language, but it’s a much different view in how to look at kids.”

4. Better technology

The development of new technologies and programs for identifying kids with academic or behavioral challenges has made it much easier for districts to implement successful intervention programs.

Saint Louis Public Schools uses a technology platform to track behavioral interventions and to support a positive campus culture. Teachers use iPads to report positive or negative classroom behaviors.

Hardy, the St. Louis deputy superintendent, says immediately sharing detailed data with parents has improved school climate and also helped increase community involvement. Giving parents information on behavior makes them more engaged and better equipped to work with teachers. “It adds that extra layer of communication that gets lost in paper, or just lost in translation when you don’t have it at your fingertips,” Hardy says.

Sharing information among educators is equally important, says Wright, the RtI trainer. That’s why district’s should look for systems that track student interventions year-after-year. If a fourth grade teacher provides the right intervention for a student struggling in math, that information should be available the following year to that child’s fifth grade teacher.

“One teacher can work a miracle,” Wright says, “but if no one can build on that miracle, then it’s often wasted.”

Jessica Terrell is a freelance writer based in Hawaii.