A Case for Strong Multi-Tiered Supports During the Early School Years  

October 03, 2016

A common observation among educators is that “compared to when we were growing up” students are coming to school with fewer social and behavioral skills that allow them to be ready to learn. Many youngsters are less likely to know how to cooperate, listen, or take direction from adults. In fact, many educators would say that the impact of negative societal influences outside school are resulting in more frequent conflicts between students and their teachers.

At the same time, school expectations for academic rigor have become greater, and students in kindergarten are being asked to learn “what we used to learn in first grade.” This places more demands on students who have risk factors for academic and behavioral problems in the beginning of their school careers. What we know from the research is that if, once in school, a student continues on the path of disruptive and destructive behavior, both academic engagement and success will suffer. In addition, there is a likelihood of highly negative outcomes later on in adolescence (Walker & Sprick, 2016).

It is easy to make these observations about students who enter school with behavioral difficulties. And it is easy to place the blame and responsibility for school difficulties squarely on the shoulders of parents or society. While it is true that some of the risk factors for academic and behavioral problems are not in the control of schools and educators (such as parent pathology, ethnic minority or immigrant status, low socioeconomic status, difficult temperament, etc.), some risk factors CAN be changed (that is, difficulties with peers and teachers or parenting practices). What we CAN do is take collective responsibility by involving parents, teachers, and peers in changing those things that are malleable to change.

What We Can Do

There is one clear factor that educators can control and change during the beginning years of schooling:  classroom context. Classroom context, or the current conditions and overall climate of the classroom setting, is a combination of student characteristics, teacher management skills, and teaching style. The interaction of these factors can result in a well-managed and positive classroom or a chaotic classroom (or a classroom somewhere on a continuum between these extremes). Compelling research suggests the classroom context that young children experience at the beginning of their school careers has long-term effects on their behavior and academic success.

Studies reported by Walker & Sprick “found that the aggressive boys who were assigned to chaotic first grade classrooms had odds of 59:1 in favor of being aggressive years later, while boys who were equally aggressive at the beginning of school, but were assigned to orderly, well managed first grade classrooms, had odds of 3:1 in favor of being aggressive in middle school,” p. 1. These results suggest implications for early prevention and intervention.

Early Prevention and Intervention

The following are suggested as multi-tiered supports that educators can consider in providing positive classroom contexts for all students at the point of school entry.

1. Directly teach generic positive relationship skills from the moment of school entry. In the area of teacher-related adjustment, teach adaptive behaviors such as compliance with rules and teacher feedback; work completion; anger control; adjusting to instructional situations; working independently, and asking for help appropriately. In the area of peer-related adjustment, teach adaptive behaviors such as cooperation, leadership, support, and social skills. Involve parents by communicating school efforts and by modeling positive relationship skills. (Starting Strong in Kindergarten, Eisenhower, Taylor & Baker, 2016, is an example of a school-based program in prevention with a strong parenting component.)
2. Screen and monitor factors contributing to classroom context. Consider use of methods that have been developed to measure critical outcomes of effective teacher management skills and use of effective instructional practices. Think about the use of screeners that have been developed to identify students at risk for behavioral and social problems.
3. Support educators who need continued development of classroom management skills and use of effective instructional practices. When classroom contexts include children at risk for disruptive behavior problems, the classroom dynamics change. Address professional learning and coaching needs to meet needs related to the current context. Provide administrative monitoring and accountability.
4. Target students who need specific intervention. Address intervention needs that affect teacher-student relationships (compliance with rules and direction, work completion, etc.). Remedy academic deficits that decrease student need to avoid or escape instruction. Identify and stop the cycle for students already acting out to avoid or escape instruction. Limit the use of exclusionary discipline practices that decrease student access to instruction. Address intervention needs that affect student-student relationships (cooperation, social skills, etc.).
5. Provide intervention resources. Identify and implement evidence-based programs and practices for all students at all levels of intervention. Implement supports at increasing levels of intensity that match the needs of students or of classroom context difficulties.  Use data-based problem solving to address implementation difficulties and to address needs of students showing less than adequate response to intervention.

While school-wide positive behavior supports are important to implement across all grade levels in a district, it is CRITICAL to address the behavior support needs of classroom contexts involved in the first three years of students’ school careers. Whether these years include preschool settings or the elementary primary classrooms, it is suggested that a serious focus be placed on both behavioral difficulties and on academic or cognitive deficits that may result in persistent behavioral problems.

References: 

Eisenhower, A., Taylor, H, & Baker, B. L. “Starting Strong: A School-Based Indicated Prevention Program During the Transition to Kindergarten.” School Psychology Review, 2016, Vol. 45, No. 2, pp. 141-170.

Huffman, Lynne C., Sarah L. Mehlinger, & Amy S. Kerivan. “Risk Factors for Academic and Behavioral Problems at the Beginning of School.” Families in Society. CE4Alliance, 2000. Web. 21 Aug. 2016. 

McIntosh, K. & Goodman, S. (2016). Integrated Multi-Tiered Systems of Support:  Blending RTI and PBIS, The Guilford Press, New York.

Walker, H. M. & Sprick, R. “Coordinated Intervention When Children First Start School Prevents Destructive Outcomes.” Communique’. NASP, 2016. Web. 21 Aug. 2016.

McIntosh, K. & Goodman, S. (2016). Integrated Multi-Tiered Systems of Support:  Blending RTI and PBIS, The Guilford Press, New York.

Walker, H. M. & Sprick, R. “Coordinated Intervention When Children First Start School Prevents Destructive Outcomes.” Communique’. NASP, 2016. Web. 21 Aug. 2016.

-by Patrice Feller, MTTSS Facilitator

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