Addressing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs: All is Not What it Appears to Be. Remembering Bob Slavin and Applying his Legacy

Addressing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs: All is Not What it Appears to Be

Remembering Bob Slavin and Applying his Legacy

Dear Colleagues,


   I had a totally different Blog in mind this week until I read an Education Week e-mail discussing all the up-to-date news in the world of school and schooling.

   Dr. Robert Slavin, one of the most prominent psychologists and educational researchers over the past forty years died suddenly of a heart attack last week (April 24, 2021). “Bob” was a Professor at Johns Hopkins University; the creator of the Success for All literacy, math, and school improvement programs; and a courageous voice of integrity and advocacy for at-risk and underachieving students across our country.

   While I did not know Bob personally, he influenced me in numerous ways through his emphasis on solving important pedagogical problems (like students’ reading difficulties) by integrating science into research into practice; and his ability to see the “big picture” while simultaneously attending to the “finer details.”

   But it was my one private telephone conversation with Bob that influenced me the most.

   That conversation occurred when I was actively battling the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) over their ongoing funding and exclusive promotion of the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) framework and Technical Assistance Center that developed it—while ignoring, dismissing, and (sometimes) attempting to undermine others’ evidence-based and successful work in the same area.

   I called Bob because he successfully fought a similar battle with the U.S. Department of Education when it manipulated the grant awards for the $6 billion Reading First Program during President George W. Bush’s administration. . . deliberately black-balling Slavin’s Success for All program from all of the state grants funded through Reading First.

   I knew the Read First history. And I knew that OSEP was doing the same thing with PBIS. . . and hoped that I could learn from Bob’s wisdom and experience.

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Slavin’s Reading First Legacy

   Slavin’s Reading First story is best told by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, a former Managing Editor at Education Week who also worked directly for him after she left that newspaper. It was her Education Week article (April 29, 2021), referenced earlier, that alerted me to Bob’s passing.

   In that article, she related her personal story:

The first time I met Slavin, he had invited me to lunch in Washington. He wanted to explain how the federal Reading First program, launched under the George W. Bush administration, was discouraging the use of some evidence-based reading programs, including his own Success for All, even though they met all the criteria outlined in the law, and in some ways surpassed those requirements.

As a longtime reporter on the curriculum beat, I had heard this before. Everyone thought their product, their program, their research was better than the rest. I was skeptical of such claims.

But Bob Slavin was not a salesman; he was a scholar and a researcher. Over lunch, he and his colleague spoke persuasively, and in great detail, displaying their knowledge of the law guiding Reading First, part of the No Child Left Behind legislation.

It had been modeled in part on previous initiatives that Slavin had helped to shape that called for evidence of effectiveness for federally funded programs. Slavin made a strong argument, built on his expert knowledge of literacy research and federal programs, but there was a lot that would need to be verified and put in context. By itself, that conversation might have given Slavin’s critics more fodder that his campaign against the Reading First program was simply sour grapes.

But Bob, being Bob, would never make a case just on the basis of opinion or hurt feelings. He came with evidence. He had already collected a briefcase full of official documents through public records requests, and had suggestions for other Freedom of Information Act requests that would yield valuable intel into the closed door conversations that determined which states—and which programs—would gain approval. Success for All was not among them.

Slavin was adamant that the Education Department and its consultants were denying thousands of schools and untold numbers of children access to proven programs that fit perfectly into the rigorous requirements of the Reading First program. In fact, Success for All may have been the solution with the most evidence of effectiveness at the time, having a full portfolio of gold-standard research to back it up.

That lunch meeting launched me on an extensive, three-year reporting effort to dig into the management of the $6 billion Reading First initiative.

After an official complaint from Slavin, a series of scathing Inspector General reports, a congressional hearing, intensive scrutiny from policymakers, researchers and educators, advocates of Reading First went on the defensive. Slavin’s critics saw his role as motivated by personal gain or a need to be in the spotlight. That criticism, mostly from competitors and the consultants who came under scrutiny in the inquiry, seemed disingenuous, and did not reflect the truth of Slavin’s long-standing pursuit of school improvement and, ultimately, student success. Reading First ultimately lost funding amid budget cuts.

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Slavin’s Legacy Applied to PBIS

   My conversation with Bob was quite simple.

   When I told him that OSEP was doing for behavior what the U.S. Department of Education staffers did with Reading First, he described how long it took him to finally get copies of the “closed door conversations” from his many Freedom of Information Act petitions.

   Even then, he said, some rejected this evidence because, “Not everything is what it appears to be.”

   At the same time, Slavin was intrigued to hear that I was conversing with one of Representative George Miller’s chief legal aides just weeks before the House of Representative’s Education and Labor Committee would take action on the first Reading First investigative report from the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General.

   Representative Miller was the Chair of that Committee, and I presented documentation to the aide—asking the Representative to initiate a similar Congressional investigation of PBIS alongside Reading First.

   The request was denied because they did not want to cloud the Reading First issue—which was going to be controversial enough as one of President Bush’s signature programs.

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   I am not going to go back into the PBIS history—which continues to this day—in this Blog.

   For those who are interested, I have discussed this history in previous Blogs, and in a recently published monograph.

[CLICK HERE for the most-comprehensive PBIS BLOG (February 15, 2020):

“Did a Misguided U.S. Department of Education E-mail ‘Confirm’ Its Improper Favoritism of the PBIS Behavioral Framework? Using the School Climate Transformation Grant to Misrepresent, Re-Brand, and Strong-Arm Educators toward Only "Department-Approved" PBIS Consultants”

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[CLICK HERE for the recently-published Monograph:

“The Mirage Behind Trauma-Informed, SEL, Mindfulness, & PBIS Programs and Frameworks. Why Schools are Wasting Money, Time, and Training on Unproven Programs to Solve Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs”

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Slavin’s Legacy Applied to Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs

   While sidestepping the PBIS angle, today I am going to apply Slavin’s Legacy to students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs.

   Even as we speak, the federal government (e.g., the U.S Department of Education; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) is encouraging districts and schools to use the billions of earmarked dollars from the American Rescue Plan to address students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs.

   While this is critically important in order to address many students’ pandemic-related needs, one of the strongest federal “pushes” is for schools to adopt a “Trauma-Informed Care” program.

   And within this push are references to a number of federally-funded Technical Assistance Centers that are happy to provide their services “for free.”

   There are significant problems with this (sometimes) singular promotion of these Technical Assistance Centers and Trauma-Informed Care programs (see the Blog citations that support each point below).

  • From a psychological perspective, there are more students experiencing stress than trauma, and trauma-based initiatives are too clinically narrow to successfully address these broader issues of stress.

[CLICK HERE for (August 8, 2020):

Why Stress-Informed Schools Must Precede Trauma-Informed Schools When We Address Student Stress First, We Begin to Impact Trauma. . . If It Exists]

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  • Some of the assessments of trauma are based on the Adverse Childhood Experience scale (the ACES) which has only partial relevance and applicability to students’ in-school social, emotional, and behavioral status.

[CLICK HERE for (August 17, 2019):

Aren’t Schools with Positive, Safe Climates Already “Trauma Sensitive”? Unmasking the ACEs, and Helping Students Manage their Emotions in School]

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  • Some of these “programs” have never been fully and diversely field-tested, and a 2019 article reviewing over 7,100 studies of school-based trauma-informed programs over the past decade found not a single study that met the evaluation criteria of an effective study.

[CLICK HERE for (January 11, 2020):

Trauma-Informed Schools: New Research Study Says “There’s No Research.” Schools “Hitch-Up” to Another Bandwagon that is Wasting Time and Delaying Recommended Scientifically-Proven Services (Part I)]

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  • Many of the school climate and prevention activities embedded in trauma-informed programs, are developed by (a) well-meaning educators who do not understand the psychological science underlying students’ social, emotional, or behavioral development; or (b) clinical-community psychologists who—unlike school psychologists—are not trained to fully understand schools and their cultures, contexts, and dynamics.

As such, many trauma-informed programs are presented as “add-on” programs (which staff see as “another thing to do”), and the programs do not recognize that there is a common psychological science that can integrate trauma prevention and response practices into a culturally-sensitive, multi-tiered school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management system that addresses students’ health, behavioral mental health, and wellness needs.

[CLICK HERE for (October 24, 2020):

Classroom Management and Students’ (Virtual) Academic Engagement and Learning: Don’t Depend on Teacher Training ProgramsDistricts Need to Reconceptualize their School Discipline Approaches—For Equity, Excellence, and Effectiveness]

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  • Many of the trauma-informed programs do not help schools to discriminate between different intensity levels of anxiety, stress, trauma, fear, or other emotions or clinical problems. They also do not prepare schools to provide the Tier 2 and Tier 3 services, supports, and interventions needed by students with significant, persistent, acute, or co-mingled social, emotional, and behavioral needs.

[CLICK HERE for (May 30, 2020):

Preparing NOW to Address Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs Before They Transition Back to School (Part II). Let’s Use Caring and Common Sense as Our Post-Pandemic Guides

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  • Many (most) of the trauma-informed programs are not free.

Even those from the federally-funded Technical Assistance Centers (which sometimes are distributed through your state departments of education) (a) provide only online training, fixed multi-media modules, or off-site support; (b) use training of trainers models that are dependent on the skills of those being trained—and that rarely work; and/or (c) employ tactics where they provided limited on-site training and then “up-sell” the “full package” for an additional cost.

More critically, even when a trauma-informed program is fully “free,” there is a significant cost when schools invest in an untested, unvalidated, and/or poorly designed or matched program that does not work. The “cost” here is the wasted time, resources, effort, and motivation that went into the failed program, and the unintended cost when staff then mistrust “the next, best program.”

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   Slavin’s legacy here is that, just as with Reading First, most educators do not know all of the facts above, nor do they fully understand the implications—even as critical staff at the federal and state policy, practice, funding, and promotion levels do.

   Slavin’s legacy compels us to advocate for our students and do our own independent research before implementing approaches that will not provide a real “return on investment” relative to students’ multi-tiered social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health prevention, strategic intervention, and crisis management needs.

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Summary and a Call to Action

   B.B. Shepherd said:

“We all make assumptions every day. Some more important than others. Some more damaging than others. And things, very often, are not at all what they seem.”

   The good news, right now, is that the states still have to submit their American Rescue Plan (ARP) plans to the federal government for approval and, thus, a good deal of the billions of dollars available have not yet trickled down to individual districts and schools.

   Moreover, as someone who worked for the Arkansas Department of Education for 13 years—including the time when billions of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA; 2019) funds were available. . . know that districts will similarly need to submit ARP plans to their state departments of education for approval.

   So, there is some time to plan.

   To assist:

  • My standing offer to provide a free hour of strategic planning and consultation to your Leadership Team in this and related areas always stands.
  • In addition, this Blog has provided you with a number of references to previous Blogs, and there are a number of Project ACHIEVE monographs available (see this Page or CLICK HERE), for you to do your own self-study.
  • Finally, during the past two months, I have integrated the science to research to practice in the two critical areas below into separate on-line/on-demand courses where I “cut through the smoke, mirrors, and fluff” and provide what you need to know to plan the strategic directions needed for your students, staff, and school(s).

Each course comes with a free 30-minute Introductory webinar (see the Links below) and the Course Syllabi are available.

Course 1 [CLICK HERE for Free Introductory webinar]:

Coping with Stress in a Stressful World: Teaching Students How to Manage Their Emotions, Thoughts, and Behavior

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Course 2 [CLICK HERE for Free Introductory webinar]:

Implementing Effective Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports: Academic and Social-Emotional Prevention, Assessment, and Intervention

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NOTE that the “practice” embedded in these courses is based on my 40 years of research, teaching, field-based implementation, and data-validated approaches often associated with the fifteen or more U.S. Department of Education-funded grants that I have helped districts receive over the years.

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   Bob Slavin’s passing is a great loss to the entire educational community.

   I hope that the thoughts and resources above are useful to you, and that you will share them with your colleagues.

   If there is anything that I can do to add value to this discussion, please feel free to contact me with your questions.

   I always look forward to feedback on these Blogs, and to the pathways and suggestions focused on ensuring that all students nationwide receive the instruction and services that they need and deserve.