Implementing a Combined RTI/PBS Model: SWPBS

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    In their series on integrating academic and behavior supports within an RTI framework, Hank Bohanan, Steve Goodman, and Kent McIntosh discuss similarities and places for alignment between academic and behavior supports in schools. They also note, however, that "there may be unique characteristics of each model that must be addressed somewhat differently." The message that we are learning from our efforts to implement a combined model at Silver Sage Elementary is that we (implementers) need to understand the systems, data, and practices of both academic and behavior supports enough to know when aligning will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the model and when aligning would detract from the model.

    As we mentioned in our last blog, our implementation efforts have focused on Tier 1 practices, systems, and data in the first year of our project. We started the year with an assessment of Silver Sage Elementary’s current status of both academic and behavior supports. One major difference that was apparent early on was that we were dealing with systems at very different levels. While the school was implementing some components of RTI for academics, a systems-level approach to behavior support was a new concept. In some ways, this made it easier to focus on a Tier 1 behavior system because planning to implement new school-wide systems was not a threat to their current programs and implementation. However, the initial effort to rollout systematic behavior support required a substantial amount of work and, really, led us to have distinct school teams focused on Tier 1 academic support and Tier 1 behavior support (at least in our first year). While the Tier 1 academic team focused on refining existing practices, data, and systems, the Tier 1 behavior team focused on developing practices and systems and narrowing and focusing their collection of data on that which is both valid and useful for decision-making. This blog entry will specifically address our experience with Tier 1 behavior implementation.

    Substantial guidance is available about the core features of SWPBS (Horner, Sugai, Todd, & Lewis-Palmer, 2005; Sugai et al., 2005). As we focused on defining and teaching school-wide expectations, building systems to acknowledge appropriate behavior, and responding consistently to challenging behavior at Silver Sage Elementary, we discovered several strengths of the school that enhanced this implementation. First, the school’s principal has been an active and highly involved member of the Tier 1 behavior team. The principal participates in all meetings and keeps the team focused on developing (and following through with) action steps. Several members of the Tier 1 behavior team have been able to attend the state’s SWPBS trainings throughout the year. These team members have showed enthusiasm and commitment to the process and have been excited to take ideas and strategies back to their school. The Tier 1 behavior team has also allowed themselves to celebrate their successes and have fun developing unique practices for their school.

    But, in the spirit of honesty, it has not been a bump-free road. A few challenges have slowed our progress along the way. The first is not likely a surprise to anyone who has implemented a school-wide system or has read the many, many references to staff buy-in. For a small number of teachers, the need for school-wide behavior support was unclear. A lesson we have learned throughout the year is that we really need to address the why of what we are doing clearly for all staff. We have also learned that we shouldn't assume that because something was said one time that it was said enough. For some staff, it has been difficult to really understand the parallel between academic and behavior RTI. We kept thinking we had already explained it and had difficulty figuring out how to explain it any differently. We realized, however, that when we explained this relationship early in the school year, many teachers had no context for the explanation. Now, as we are progressing toward making data-based decisions and identifying students for additional support, teachers have a context for the explanation. Now is the time to make those connections again!

    Another challenge, which we believe is not uncommon for schools focusing on Tier 1 behavior support, is that staff had a strong desire to focus on Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports for students who had more frequent and intense challenging behavior. We know that Tier 2 and Tier 3 interventions are intended to meet the needs of students who are not responding to Tier 1. So...if Tier 1 is not in place, how can we really implement Tier 2 and Tier 3 or identify which students would benefit from those interventions? This message, however, is difficult to convey when teachers are faced with intensive problem behaviors every day in their classroom. The value and role of Tier 1 supports is a message that we have to continually revisit.

    The last challenge that stands out in our first year of school-wide behavior support implementation relates back, we think, to the need to address why. We were surprised on our first attempt to conduct behavior screening when staff struggled with identifying and rating student behavior. We discovered (later) that staff were concerned about "labeling" students. We were surprised by the hesitancy to participate in the screening process since this was a process the school had been engaging in for reading and mathematics for some time. But screening measures for behavior are less developed and more dependent on indirect evaluation (including teachers' perception) because direct observation of behavior is both timely and costly (Briesch & Volpe, 2007). In hind-sight, greater explanation of the similarities between academic and behavioral screening and the rationale for indirect assessment of behavior may have eased some of the teachers' concerns.

    Each of these challenges, it seems, could be connected to the process by which teacher change takes place. Thomas Guskey (1986) proposed that the majority of programs fail because they do not consider what motivates teachers to participate in staff development or the process by which teacher change takes place. Guskey proposed a model of teacher change, which suggests that significant changes in teachers’ beliefs and attitudes occur only after changes in student learning outcomes. While teachers are willing to make changes to their classroom practices following staff development, their beliefs and attitudes will change only after those changed classroom practices produce changes in student learning outcomes.

    The lesson we take from this is one of patience. As we are asking teachers to change the practices and systems they know, we should also recognize the difficult and gradual process by which teacher change takes place. Positive behavior support is focused on fixing environments (including staff behavior), not on fixing students (Horner, 1999). It makes sense, then, that the process of teacher change should be a primary consideration.

    As we attend to implementation of SWPBS, we attend to more than the practices that will support student behavior. In an effort to reach our desired outcomes, we attend also to the data we need for decision-making and the systems that support staff behavior. To this point at Silver Sage Elementary, we have implemented parallel models of academic and behavior RTI. As both RTI teams have increased their technical capacity with primary level data, systems, and practices and developed more in-depth understanding of the processes, they are also better connecting the similarities across academic and behavior supports. We are now beginning to explore how to implement a comprehensive model as we fast approach our second year of implementation.

    In our next entry we will further discuss our implementation of SWPBS and how we foresee moving into a more comprehensive model of RTI. We encourage you to share your own experience implementing academic and behavior RTI, including both challenges and successes. It should be clear by now that we are all still learning!


    Briesch, A. M., & Volpe, R. J. (2007). Important considerations in the selection of progress-monitoring measures for classroom behaviors. School Psychology Forum, 1, 59-74.

    Guskey, T. R. (1986). Staff development and the process of teacher change. Educational Researcher, 15(5), 5-12.

    Horner, R. H. (1999).  Positive behavior supports.  In M. L. Wehmeyer & J. R. Patton, (Eds.), Mental Retardation in the 21st Century (pp.181-196).  Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

    Horner, R. H., Sugai, G., Todd, A. W., & Lewis-Palmer, T. (2005). School-wide positive behavior support. In L. Bambara & L. Kern (Eds.), Individualized supports for students with problem behaviors: Designing positive behavior plans (pp. 359-390). New York: Guilford.

    Sugai, G., Horner, R.H., Sailor, W., Dunlap, G., Eber, L., Lewis, T., Kinciad, D., Scott, T., Barrett, S., Algozzine, R., Putnam, R., Massanari, C., & Nelson, M. (2005). School-wide positive behavior support: Implementers' blueprint and self-assessment. Eugene, OR: University of Oregon.

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