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Intervention strategies evolve in K12

New approaches address social-emotional learning and anxiety as well as academic instruction
OFFERING INSIGHT—Students at Saint Louis Public Schools work on tablets. The district is using technology to share student academic and behavioral data with parents in real-time.
OFFERING INSIGHT—Students at Saint Louis Public Schools work on tablets. The district is using technology to share student academic and behavioral data with parents in real-time.

More than a decade after Response-to-Intervention and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) took root on school 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.


Sidebar: Intervention lessons learned


Such developments allow K12 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 in Missouri. “How a child behaves isn’t something separate from how they perform academically.”

Here are four new ways districts are approaching intervention:

1. Rethink 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—the so-called “stress hormone” that hinders concentration and emotional control.

“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 recognize their own emotional triggers and how to be more patient with a student who is acting out as a reaction to pain or trauma.

Students and teachers can reduce the stress with mindfulness strategies, such as deep breathing or closing the 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. Teachers are counseled on how their own demeanor can play a role in negative interactions with children who are suffering from stress.

The approach also focuses on creating an emotionally safe environment where educators help students find ways to improve their behavior—rather than simply 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.

“We’re not 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 so they don’t have to happen again.’”

2. Use 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 the growth mindset—the belief that your own skills, intelligence or talents can grow with effort. 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 provided professional development to staff on how to encourage growth mindset in students; at the same time, ELA and math test scores 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 advance to higher levels of education, Wright says.

3. Keep 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, 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.

4.Capitalize on better technology

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

Teachers in Saint Louis Public Schools use iPads to report positive or negative classroom behaviors to a platform that tracks behavioral interventions. Hardy, the deputy superintendent, says sharing this detailed data better equips parents to work with teachers.

Sharing information among educators is equally important, says Wright, the RtI trainer. Districts 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.