Behavior Support or Academics? … Why Not Both?

By Jeffrey Sprague

Many educators remark that intense federal and state requirements for demonstrating gains in academic achievement make it difficult to find time to focus on problem behaviors. Yet many (if not all) students who misbehave also present serious learning challenges.

In a misplaced attempt to be “fair” to typical students who are trying to learn, educators may be inclined to “punish” or exclude children who are acting out by using office referrals, suspensions, and even expulsion. “There has to be a consequence!” they say.

Research strongly suggests that if schools raise their level of achievement, behavior problems decrease; and if schools work to decrease behavior problems, academics improve. So why not do both? Especially when we know that punishing at-risk students and using “discipline” to systematically exclude them from schooling does not work. Schools that use office referrals, out-of-school suspensions, and expulsion—without a comprehensive system that teaches positive behaviors and rewards the same—are shown to actually have more problem behavior and academic failure.

Chronic use of referrals, suspensions and expulsion has damaging effects on teacher-student relationships, as well as on student morale and engagement in schooling. These kinds of responses leave the student with reduced motivation to maintain self-control in school, do not teach better ways to behave, and have been shown in the research to have a negative effect on long-term behavioral and academic adjustment. In fact, a history of chronic office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions from school is a known predictor of academic failure, dropout, and delinquency. There must be a better way.

Powerful longitudinal research shows that being engaged in schooling, bonding with teachers and other students, and experiencing academic success all serve as protective factors for students against a number of destructive outcomes, including school failure, delinquency, school dropout, and the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Preventing such problems can begin with implementation of a multitier model of positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS). When adopted, implemented, and maintained over time, such supports serve the dual purpose of promoting success for the majority of students and reclaiming others.

The Need for Integrated Behavioral and Academic Support Systems

More and more students are bringing well-developed patterns of behavioral and academic adjustment problems to school. At-risk students often come to school with emotional and behavioral difficulties that interfere with their attempts to focus and learn. Others may have interpersonal issues with other students or educators that make concentrating on learning difficult. Bullying, mean-spirited teasing, sexual harassment, and victimization are relatively commonplace occurrences on school campuses, and these behaviors clearly compete with the mission of closing the achievement gap.

Evidence-based best practice for supporting these students begins with identifying problems early—whether they are academic, emotional, behavioral, or interpersonal. After identification, interventions become essential to addressing the problem directly and thus reducing obstacles to successful school adjustment. If appropriate educational and behavioral supports were more widely provided, the long-term benefits would greatly exceed the costs.

Basing Interventions on the Intensity of the Problem

The U.S. Public Health Service has developed a classification system of approaches to preventing problem behavior, and schools are now widely adopting it to address both academics and behavior. This system has coordinated and integrated a range of interventions to address the needs of the three student types that are present in different proportions in every school: primary or universal, secondary, and tertiary or intensive.

Universal interventions, applied at the primary prevention level to all students in the same manner and degree, are used to keep problems from emerging in the first place. Some good examples of such interventions include (a) developing a positive schoolwide discipline plan, (b) teaching conflict resolution and violence prevention skills to everyone, (c) establishing high and consistent academic expectations for all students, and (d) using the most effective, research-based methods for teaching beginning reading in the primary grades and supporting all students’ reading performance throughout their school careers.

Individualized interventions, applied to one student at a time or to small groups of at-risk individuals (e.g., alternative classrooms or “schools within schools”) are used to achieve secondary and tertiary prevention goals. Chronically at-risk students “select” themselves out by not responding well to primary prevention efforts and need more intensive intervention services and supports if they are going to be able to change their problem behavior and achieve success within and beyond school. Often these interventions are made out to be too labor intensive, complex, intrusive, and costly. In fact, many of the intensive, evidence-based interventions require low amounts of time from staff, cost little to no money to implement (e.g., self-monitoring, behavioral contracting, systematic school-home note system, check in/check out, and so forth), and they are necessary for delivering effective behavior supports.

By the time a student has reached the level of tertiary prevention, a functional behavioral assessment (FBA) process is a necessary step in order to identify the conditions (e.g., antecedents and consequences) that sustain and motivate the problem behavior and use that information to develop and implement individualized behavior support plans. A comprehensive assessment of family, school, and individual risk (e.g., family stressors, academic failure) and protective factors (e.g., gets along well with peers, controls impulses) is also invaluable in guiding the delivery of a broader system of interventions.

This integrated model provides an ideal means for schools to develop, implement, and monitor a comprehensive management system that addresses the needs of all students in the school. In addition, the model has the potential to positively impact the operations, administration, and overall climate of the school. By emphasizing universal interventions, this system makes the most efficient use of school resources and provides a supportive context for the application of necessary secondary and tertiary interventions for the more challenging students. Finally, it provides a built-in screening and assessment process; that is, by carefully monitoring students’ responses to the primary interventions, it becomes possible to detect those who are at greater risk and in need of more intensive services, increasing the match between student need and intensity of support.

This is known as Response to Intervention (RtI) for Behavior Support.

Jeffrey Sprague, Ph.D., is an associate professor of special education and codirector of the University of Oregon Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior. In 2001, he helped establish the Oregon Center for School Safety. Sprague has been a teacher, a behavioral consultant, and director of the Center for School and Community Integration.

About Jeffrey Sprague

Books by Jeffrey Sprague: Best BehaviorWhole School Leader

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