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The Impending Transition Back to the Halls of Schools

463 199 DC Special Education Cooperative

As schools plan for how students will return to school buildings after the long chapter of virtual learning, there are a lot of questions about the challenging behavior that students may exhibit. It is important for school leaders and educators to focus on the many aspects of a school environment that are within their control to create; all of which promote a positive school culture, leading to acceptable student behavior.  In our work with schools we have seen the greatest student success when school leaders and educators focus on these aspects of culture and teaching.

  1. Positively-stated School Wide Expectations

There is ample evidence supporting the elements of School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) as well as guidance for implementation, though some schools still wonder about its effectiveness. A cornerstone principle of school-wide PBIS is having consistent, positively-stated expectations, which are taught and practiced. I often use the example of an airport to illustrate why stating the expectations of an environment is so important, and how effective it can be. There is little to question about the rules and procedures in an airport because everything is so clearly stated, in multiple ways, with ample guidance for following, such as additional staff members and visual and tangible boundaries. While there is some reference to what is not allowed, there are many more indicators of what to do. And as someone pointed out during a training I was offering, there is meaningful reinforcement for following the rules; travelers want to board the plane they came for, or exit the airport if they have returned. Imagine making the expectations of our schools so clear and consistent!

  1.   Good Teaching is Still Good Teaching

Behavior and learning are like two sides of the same coin, and when students are engaged in learning, they are often not misbehaving. While adjustments to pacing of instruction seem critical following the extensive virtual learning, the principles of good teaching remain the same. Consider how these aspects of quality education positively support students’ ability to attend: 

  • Educators who make an effort to build positive relationships with students and create content-rich learning environments with multi-sensory opportunities to explore information;
  • A balance between rehearsal of previously taught content and engaging instruction of new content; and
  • Time for students to process and share and time to practice independently.

These are still cornerstones of good teaching. Think of what makes school such a dynamic and engaging place to learn, and let that be your anchor amidst the structural and procedural changes due to COVID. 

  1.   Maintain a Positive Mindset

What we focus on, grows. While it is natural to have worry and anxiety around students’ behavior following the extended period of virtual learning, it is important to not let those worries take over and create problematic scenarios before they happen. I recently participated in a national call of district level personnel around high school culture. Representatives from several different states whose student population had begun to return to in-person learning reported that there was significantly less challenging behavior than districts had anticipated because students were so happy to be back in schools. It was a great reminder to me to not assume the worst. 

  1.   Consideration of Mental Health Supports and Screenings

While each school’s structure of mental health supports varies, there will likely be an increased need for supports across the board following the mental and emotional strain of the pandemic. The American Psychological Association has provided some guidance regarding universal screening of entire school populations. These will provide the most comprehensive and equitable assessment of students’ needs. Most school systems are also preparing by adding mental health staff and services, such as group counseling and discussion groups.

  1. Use Evidence-based Interventions to Respond to Problem Behavior

After school leaders have created systems that create a culture of positive behavior and anticipate problem behavior, they should layer on evidence-based practices for students with higher levels of need. The Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports has provided significant resources about preventing and responding to students’ challenging behavior. One point from Responding to Non-Responsive Behavior: Best Practices and Systems is “Students who require secondary/tertiary prevention/intervention PBS must:

  1. Be taught and encouraged to use more socially appropriate alternative behaviors that “work” as effectively, efficiently, and relevantly as problem behavior…not more punishment for problem behavior. 
  2. Experience more frequent, more powerful, and more immediate positive acknowledgement for displays of appropriate behavior….not less.” 

We hope that these practical strategies, that have proven effective for other schools, will support you in your planning to welcome back students. As a reminder, the Co-op is here to help! If you are interested in receiving free, targeted behavioral support for your school, complete this interest form.

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