Reconceptualizing Professional Development for the Coming School Year

Reconceptualizing Professional Development for the Coming School Year

Moving Away from Fly-by, “Spray and Pray,” and Awareness-Only Training

Dear Colleagues,

Introduction: An SEL Needs Assessment

   During the past week, I was on the West Coast completing a Social-Emotional Learning/Positive Behavioral Support (SEL/PBS) Needs Assessment with a small inner-city school district.

   Even before the Pandemic, the District had significant student discipline, classroom management, and student self-management issues.

   But these have been exacerbated by (a) two years of isolated virtual and pod-driven hybrid instruction; (b) a largely new teaching staff that did not receive appropriate pre-service training and supervision in classroom management; (c) an experienced teaching staff that believes that “discipline” should be handled by the administration; (d) a student body that has low morale, and is socially dominated by cliques and “in-groups” competing for status and (social media) attention across the school’s “peer pecking order;” and (e) an intolerance of individual differences across gender, race, socio-economic status, academic proficiency, and gender identity— that includes some members of the staff.

   The goal of the Needs Assessment was to identify the District and its schools’ organizational, school, staff, and student “SWOT” status: the strengths and assets, opportunities and resources, weaknesses and limitations, and threats and barriers to students’ social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health success.

   I physically walked into the District having (off-site) analyzed at least four years of comprehensive multi-tiered organizational and professional development, curriculum and instruction, academic and behavioral, and general and special education information, data, and outcomes.

   I also asked each school’s administrative and staff leaders—ahead of time—to complete self-evaluations of their SEL/PBS, multi-tiered system of supports, and internal SWOT statuses.

   And finally, I asked all of the staff (including paraprofessionals, secretaries, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians) to individually complete a School Climate, Safety, and Discipline survey.

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   Once on-site, I spent three days doing “walk-throughs” in many of the District’s schools. But the bulk of my time was spent interviewing different staff and student constituencies from across the District.

   Significantly from my perspective, some of the most compelling interviews were with the different randomly-chosen and mixed groups of elementary, middle school, and high school students, respectively.

   As the primary recipients of our educational services, these students provided an important “reality check” that both supported and extended some of the perspectives of the adults that I shared time with. And, indeed, even if some student statements were not entirely accurate, their perceptions were their realities of what they were seeing and experiencing in their respective schools.

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   In the end, I will write a Needs Assessment report, deliver it in one or more discussion group sessions, and hope that I will be invited back to provide some of the essential multi-level professional development that is essential to my proposed Action Plan and its specific goals and activities.

   Critically, many districts and schools have been through these needs assessments and the resulting cycle of “school improvement” activities too many times. . . without substantial or sustained student success.

   While there are many reasons explaining the lack of progress, one important one is how some schools conceptualize and deliver professional development.

A Critical School Improvement Barrier: Incomplete Professional Development

   As noted above, one of the reasons why many school improvement initiatives fail is their approach to professional development.

   Indeed, even when selecting the “right” or “best” research-to-practice curricula, classroom management and engagement strategies, compensatory and multi-tiered interventions, and/or other services and supports, too many schools implement these using professional development approaches that focus on fly-by, “spray and pray,” awareness-only “training.”

  • Fly-by/One-and-Done Training typically involves outside “expert” presenters who (a) are largely unknown to the staff, (b) provide one or two on-site or virtual whole-group professional development sessions, and (c) are never seen from again.

Staff, here, often have not been involved in either the selection of the topic or the speaker, they are expected to independently apply the information to their classrooms or work settings, and the time to fully understand the content is often not available.

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  • Spray and Pray Training often overlaps with the Fly-by/One-and-Done Training.

This training almost exclusively provides just knowledge, information, and content. Even when it alludes to classroom skill and application, it rarely provides this during the training.

Moreover, there typically are no small group opportunities to work with the presenter in the days after the in-service session—where the presenter can model, coach, and provide technical assistance to the teachers in their own classrooms and with their own students.

Descriptively, Spray and Pray Training often aligns with the “sit and git” approach to professional development.

However, even when presenters embed small collaborative group and applied activities into their sessions, they often do this while cutting down the comprehensive information that staff need to fully understand the topic.

This occurs because presenters are rarely afforded enough time to fully share their expertise, because too many districts and schools try to jam too many topics and presentations into the precious few professional development days that they have each year.

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  • Awareness-Only Training continues the trend above. This training either is designed only to increase staff awareness of (not skill and application with) a specific topic area, or it only results in that outcome.

At most, this kind of training results in staff who may understand the information, but do not know how to functionally implement the information in their classrooms or work settings.

At “least,” this training results in staff who think that they understand the information and its classroom applications, and they implement practices that either are not successful for students (thereby wasting precious time) or that inadvertently undercut students’ learning and mastery.

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   To change the professional development “flaws” above, most districts and schools will need to take the information below and implement it as part of a systemic planning and change process.

   With all the information and skills needed in our classrooms and schools today, it is amazing to me that—over the past decade or two—districts and schools have significantly decreased the number of annual professional development days, while additionally (as above) sacrificing the quality. This has largely been done because districts and schools believe that teachers need to spend more time in the classroom teaching students.

   But if teachers are not providing effective, quality instruction. . . then the additional days in the classroom will not produce the desired academic or social, emotional, and behavior results !!!!

   Indeed, using an analogy from the business world, I would suggest that any business that ignores (a) research and development, and (b) staff professional development, coaching, and supervision for too long will not stay in business.

   This is because they will not maintain and sustain the innovation, quality, and product consistency that they need to attract, keep, and extend their customers and profits.

   As educators, we are in a “people” business. Our product is the academic and social-emotional proficiency of our students from year-to-year and upon graduation.

   Without sound, high quality professional development, we will surely (continue to) underperform relative to our students. It is time to take to recognize that “more is less.” That is, we need to focus on fewer school improvement and professional development initiatives, but do them better.

The Three Essential Components of Professional Development:  Knowledge, Skills, and Confidence 

   There are three interdependent goals and components of effective professional development:

  • The Understanding, Learning, and Mastery of the information, content, and knowledge related to a specific professional development topic or initiative; that transfers over time into. . .
  • The effective Skill and Application needed to make it sustained and successful with students in a classroom or other work setting; that results over time in. . .
  • Independent Competence and Confidence, because it has been implemented many times, under many conditions, with many different kinds of students.

   These three components are essential to maximize the staff success that is needed to successfully impact student outcomes. They are so important that they must be part of a district or school’s strategic professional development plan that should be outlined before the professional development is ever begun. Moreover, these components must be evident in how the professional development is arranged, organized, and contracted for.

   More specifically, if a district or school is using an outside expert to guide its professional development initiative, that individual’s contract should include not just his or her in-service presentations. . . it should also include the follow-up coaching, consultation, and technical assistance sessions needed to accomplish the three goals and components above.

   As noted earlier, these post-in-service sessions typically involve extended small group staff trainings where (a) skills relevant to a specific professional development initiative are modeled and practiced, and where (b) these skills are integrated—with coaching—into participants’ classrooms or other work settings and applied to/with the students present.

   These coaching and consultation sessions should be further supplemented with administrative supervision and evaluation—all to ensure that staff have the time and resources needed to attain both competence and confidence. . . and that they are held accountable for expected student-centered outcomes.

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   Two science-based practices have been embedded in the discussion above.

   The first involves how to teach staff new skills, behaviors, and personal or professional interactions.

   This requires using social learning theory’s five steps to sound behavioral instruction. These steps are:

  • Teaching the “internal” steps (or scripts) needed to guide staff members’ implementation of a new skill or behavior, and associating these steps with a break-down of the actual behaviors that need to be demonstrated;
  • Having staff members watch a professional development leader or mentor positively and appropriately model these steps and behaviors—initially out loud, and eventually through just behavior;
  • Giving staff opportunities to roleplay the new behaviors in simulated situations with guided “performance feedback” that positively reinforces correct skill demonstrations, and that critically corrects inaccurate demonstrations;
  • Transferring participants’ successful skill practice and mastery into controlled, but actual, classroom situations where the professional development leader is still there to guide and coach, provide positive and corrective feedback, and help staff members with situations that involve high levels of emotionality; and
  • Ensuring that staff members continue to practice and use their new skills (through, for example, self-evaluations and/or periodic PLC or grade-level meetings) so the skills become embedded or “infused” into automatic behavior, and they move toward high levels of self-confidence and independent skill competence.

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   The second science-based practice involves professional development’s instructional continuum from:

  • In-Service Training, to. . .
  • Small-Group Skill Instruction, Modeling, Roleplaying, and Mastery to. . .
  • Guided Classroom-Based Application and Coaching, to. . .
  • Administrative Accountability, Clinical Supervision, and Evaluation, to. . .
  • Staff Member Automaticity, Infusion, Competence, and Confidence.

A Brief Professional Development Example

   As an international consultant who works with many districts and schools for three to five years at a time, quality professional development is a cornerstone of my work and my schools’ successes.

   Below is an example of a sequence of professional development activities that is typical for teaching general education teachers how to implement the Stop & Think Social Skills Program in their classrooms. This sequence would be adapted for both special education teachers, counselors, and/or other mental health staff, respectfully, to address the strategic or intensive multi-tiered needs of struggling or challenging students.

   Note how the specific sequence of activities aligns with the characteristics of effective professional development discussed earlier in this Blog.

   Using an elementary school implementation for our example, the sequence of professional development activities might be:

  • A school’s Leadership or Professional Development Committee decides that, based on formative or summative evaluation data, there is a need to implement a school-wide social skills program.
  • The Committee holds a series of whole staff and focus group discussions to get a consensus of the professional development goals and student benefits and outcomes from such an initiative.
  • A Social Skills Selection Task Force completes an analysis of the research and outcomes of numerous evidence-based social skills programs, conducts interviews of schools using different high-success programs, and listens to presentations the various social skills program authors and trainers.
  • The Task Force selects the Stop & Think Social Skills Program, asks the school’s staff to formally adopt and commit to the implementation of the Program, and outlines the Knowledge, Skill, and Confidence activities and outcomes needed for the professional development process.
  • These activities are discussed with the Stop & Think author and trainer who commits to a training process at both the teacher and the support staff levels.
  • The school purchases enough Stop & Think Social Skills Program manuals and support materials for the entire staff.
  • Staff meet the Program’s author on a Zoom meeting, and they complete a guided book study of the Stop & Think Social Skills manual with a second Zoom meeting with the author to discuss what they have learned so far and to answer any questions.
  • Staff then participate in a live in-service training on the Stop & Think Social Skills Program. This training gives them the information needed to teach social skills in the classroom across an entire school year, shows representative videos of effective social skill lessons, as discusses how to transfer, apply, and infuse the social skills instruction so that students are learning, mastering, and able to independently apply the skills in real-life school and classroom situations.
  • Staff watch additional social skill lesson videos after the training so that they see additional effective social skills lesson samples at different grade levels and for different skills.
  • Additional training and implementation support in the use of the Stop & Think Program at the Tier II and Tier III levels are provided to the school’s special education, mental health, and administrative staff to address the needs of struggling or challenging students.
  • After the in-service training, small groups of teachers get together to debrief the information and content of the training. These small groups meet periodically during the early implementation of the Program in their classrooms, and some of these sessions include the Stop & Think trainer who reinforces the steps and staff skills needed for successful Stop & Think Program classroom and school implementation.
  • The Stop & Think trainer returns to the school and does live Stop & Think lessons at different grade levels and with different skills. These demonstration lessons are watched live by the teachers and staff at these different grade levels.
  • The live presentations are done with selected intact classrooms of students, the training is videotapes for later use, and the staff who observe the lessons meet immediately after the training to debrief and ask questions about what they observed.
  • Teachers continue to implement the Stop & Think lessons in their classrooms—focusing especially on the transfer of these skills, as relevant and strategically appropriate, into the day-to-day functioning of their classrooms and across the school.
  • Teacher complete self-evaluations of their instruction and application for each skill, and provide these to their administrators and the Stop & Think trainer.
  • The teachers also meet at least once per month for a Stop & Think meeting where they share instruction and application activities that worked in their classrooms, and where they plan together as a “curriculum committee” to prepare their lessons for the coming month.
  • At least three times during the school year, teachers observe a colleague’s Stop & Think social skills lesson, and share observations and provide feedback on what they have seen.
  • Administrators, either during walk-through or informal/formal classroom observation (evaluation) sessions, consciously choose to observe a Stop & Think lesson, and provide appropriate feedback.
  • All teachers meet, virtually or live, with the Stop & Think trainer at least two more times during the school year to discuss implementation, student outcomes, and situations where the training needs to be adapted or modified.
  • This could include having the trainer observe teachers’ Stop & Think lessons so that instructional processes can be reinforced, corrected, or extended.
  • At the end of the year, teachers self-evaluate their progress and student outcomes, identify additional training or support that they need for continuing success, and plan for their implementation beginning in the new school year.


   This Blog focused on the fact that many school improvement initiatives fail because of their approach to professional development. Some of the typical approaches used in many schools were described: Fly-by/One-and-Done, Spray and Pray, and Awareness-Only training, respectfully.

   In contrast, we described the three interdependent goals and components of effective professional development:

  • The Understanding, Learning, and Mastery of the information, content, and knowledge related to a specific professional development topic or initiative; that transfers over time into. . .
  • The effective Skill and Application needed to make it sustained and successful with students in a classroom or other work setting; that results over time in. . .
  • Independent Competence and Confidence, because it has been implemented many times, under many conditions, with many different kinds of students.

   We then discussed the two science-based practices that must be embedded in the processes above. The first involved how to teach staff new skills, behaviors, and personal or professional interactions. The second involved a professional development instructional continuum beginning with In-Service Training and ending with Staff Member Automaticity, Infusion, Competence, and Confidence.

   The Blog finally provided a “case study” example of a professional development sequence in an elementary school that was focused on training general education teachers to teach the Stop & Think Social Skills in their classrooms during Year 1 of implementation.

   All of this is based on both the research and our 40 years of experience implementing Project ACHIEVE (—our evidence-based multi-tiered academic and social, emotional, and behavioral school improvement process—in thousands of schools across the country.

   Project ACHIEVE, and its Social-Emotional/Positive Behavioral Support component—highlighted by the Stop & Think Social Skills Program—was the Arkansas Department of Education’s school improvement model during thirteen “No Child Left Behind” years.

   Using it, we worked to (a) enhance students’ interpersonal and emotional self-regulation skills; to (b) increase their academic engagement and focus; so that they could (c) maximize their academic learning, mastery, and proficiency.

   The professional development goals and approaches described in this Blog helped to maximize teachers’ knowledge, skill, and confidence. . . in a wide variety of school improvement areas. The process helped to maintain their implementation fidelity, and to keep them accountable to high-quality implementation over time.

   I hope that the information in this Blog is useful to you. Even as we near the end of this school year, many are already planning their professional development for next year.

   Given this, as you plan and identify (and contract with) your professional development trainers, I hope you will ensure that all three elements of quality professional development are built-into your training and instructional process.

   If I can help you in this—or related—areas, please do not hesitate to contact me so that you can take advantage of my standing offer of a free one-hour consultation conference call at any time to help clarify your needs and directions on behalf of your students and colleagues.

   I look forward to hearing from you.