Academically Struggling and Behaviorally Challenging Students: Your Doctor Wouldn’t Practice this Way

Why We Need to Validate the “Experts’” Recommendations

Dear Colleagues,

As I work with schools and districts nationwide— helping them to address the needs of academically struggling or behaviorally challenging students— I find it essential to ask a series of “drill-down” questions so that I fully understand the students’ difficulties and what the school has learned or is doing with the students.

For example, when schools say that they are “doing” Response-to-Intervention (RtI) or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) or even the Transformational (federal) option for school improvement-- exactly what are they doing? We need to know the functional components or activities being implemented. We need to know operational descriptions of the specific steps being implemented. And, we need to know the intended outcomes, how they are being evaluated, and what the short- and long-term results are.

In the absence of this information, we do not know if the correct instructional or intervention approaches have been selected. . . if they have been implemented in an evidence-based or research-based way. . . and whether they have been successful, partially successful, partially unsuccessful, or completely unsuccessful.

If partially or completely unsuccessful, we should not necessarily conclude that “the student has a more complex or resistant problem” than we first thought. Instead, we need to complete a data-based evaluation of the entire problem-solving process because, instead of this being a student-centered issue, we may have:

  • Identified or prioritized the wrong problem
  • Analyzed the problem incorrectly or incompletely
  • Prioritized the intervention targets incorrectly, or selected the wrong intervention
  • Implemented the intervention incorrectly, or without the needed resources or level of intensity
  • Used an incomplete approach to evaluation, or evaluation tools that did not have the needed sensitivity or specificity

I am not trying to make the problem-solving and evaluation process more complex or time-consuming. Instead-- knowing that we are already investing the time, energy, resources, and expertise to solve the problem-- I am suggesting that we get the “biggest bang for the buck”. . . or return on our investment.

We Do What We Know (or What We are Told to Do)

At times, we are required to do something in our classroom, school, or district-- for example, by law, statute, or mandate-- and we are left to design and implement the specific approaches to functionally and successfully address the requirement in a short period of time. When this occurs, in our busy, sometimes chaotic and crisis-filled professional world, we usually depend on others’ expertise to “work the problem.”

And, believe me, I do the same thing.

But, at the same time, when I solicit expertise to address my knowledge or skill weaknesses and gaps, I am mindful that— especially for complex problems-- there are “many roads to Rome.” That is, my “experts” are likely provide me with different opinions, recommendations, supportive research studies, and solutions. Ultimately, I will need to differentiate, validate, reconcile, and choose-- in an informed way-- what I think is the best pathway to my student- and staff-centered destination. But, in the end, it is still my responsibility to both address the mandate, and choose the best solution (regardless of the experts who have counseled me).

But, in my consultations around the country, this sometimes does not occur. In fact, sometimes, the wrong solutions to the right problems are selected because decision-makers:

  • Don’t have the time to make the informed choices
  • Don’t have the information or skill to make the informed choices
  • Implicitly “trust” the experts and do not externally validate their recommendations
  • Cannot implement the right solutions due to limited resources
  • Do not have the needed political or positional (e.g., within the “chain of command”) influence

Among the wrong educational decisions still advocated by some national experts or national technical assistance centers (and still being implemented across the country because of the conditions above) are the following:

  • Immediately accepting the results of a screening tool and moving immediately to (Tier I or II) interventions

(Instead of validating the results of the screener, and doing the diagnostic assessments to identify the underlying problem that is then addressed by evidence- or research-based interventions linked to the assessment results.)

  • Assuming that the problem is student-centered, and that when students “do not respond to an intervention” that the student needs more intensive intervention

(Instead of assessing for current or past instructional or curricular gaps or ineffective practices that validate that the student can learn or behave appropriately, but was not given the opportunity.)

  • Keeping struggling students in the core curriculum (with minimal remedial or intervention support) when their instructional and functional gaps are so large that they cannot benefit from either the core curriculum (because they do not have the prerequisite skills to learn at that level) or the intervention (because it cannot be implemented long enough or intensively enough)

(Rather than redesigning the core curriculum for students functioning, for example, one or more grade levels below their grade-level placements so that they are largely taught at their instructional and optimal learning levels.)

  • Waiting for students to exhibit interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and/or emotional coping challenges in the school or classroom, and then providing them (Tier 2) social, emotional, or behavioral skill instruction in pull-out groups that isolate them from their peer group and from the settings where their challenging behavior occurs

(Rather than providing a sequenced and scaffolded preschool through high school “Health, Mental Health, and Wellness” regular classroom curriculum that teaches all students these skills at the right developmental level-- focusing on prevention, positive school and classroom climates, prosocial interactions, and academic engagement.)

  • Utilizing a rigid Tier I to Tier II to Tier III progression where students must “fail” at the previous tier level in order to “qualify” for services at the next tier level

(Rather than immediately matching the intensity level of services and supports needed to the severity of the problem-- based on the diagnostic assessments referenced above and immediately below.)

  • Waiting until Tier III to get either an initial or comprehensive historical, functional, and diagnostic picture of the student and his/her underlying problems-- so that the services, supports, strategies, and/or programs needed to address the situation are identified and implemented as quickly, intensively, and successfully as possible.

What Would your Doctor Do ? The “First Things First”

When some of the above practices have been implemented, they end up (a) not solving the problem, (b) delaying the right services and supports to students, (c) making some students’ problems worse and/or more resistant to change, (d) blaming the student for the “problem,” such that missing or ineffective instruction or curricular factors are not evaluated, and (e) wasting time, energy, resources, and expertise.

In the latter situation-- where a review of the student’s status and history, and a diagnostic assessment of the underlying reasons for the existing problem are delayed-- one might rhetorically ask, “Would your doctor do this?” That is, would your doctor begin a medical treatment in the absence of your medical history, diagnostic medical tests, a consultation (if she or he was uncertain regarding the best treatment), and the scientific certainty that the selected intervention was the correct one.

With the rhetorical answer being, “No,” below is a list of the “First Things First”— the first things that any teacher or educator needs to do before formally exploring the underlying reasons why a student is academically struggling or presenting with behavioral challenges:

  • Review the Records. Examine all of the existing cumulative, attendance, assessment, and intervention records on the student that are present in or available to the school (e.g., from previous schools or others) so that the student’s history, progress, and instructional and intervention successes and failures are catalogued.
  • Determine the Student’s Current Functional Skills. Complete the formal and informal assessments needed to identify the current functional skill level of the student in all academic and behavioral areas, how much progress the student has made on an annual basis, and how big the skill gaps are relative to the student’s chronological age and peers.
  • Discount or Factor-in All Physical, Medical, and Biological Factors. Validate (or not) the presence (or absence) of vision and hearing, diet and nutrition, sleep and stress, physical and physiological, neurological and biochemical, genetic and family history, and other medical factors that may be implicated in the academic or behavioral difficulties present.
  • Interview the Parents/Guardians. To determine the student’s physical, social, developmental, learning, and behavioral status and history, progress, and changes over time; their perspectives of the current problem and when it began; and their commitment to helping with interventions and other strategies.
  • Interview Previous Teachers, Administrators, and Intervention Specialists. To get their perspectives of the problem and its history, the data and analyses that they collected and conducted, the solutions that they tried along with their outcomes, and their interactions with the student over time.
  • Observe the Problem in Real-Time. Have someone observe the student in the settings where the problem exists. . . during times when it is present and when it is not present. These observations provide both another objective perspective of the frequency, significance, and/or intensity of the problems, as well as a beginning analysis of the setting and situational factors that may co-exist with and/or trigger the problem.

Summary and Conclusions

Whether we are discussing a student who has not passed a state’s high stakes proficiency test, or a student who is not responding to effective instruction and classroom management with a teacher, we need to design systems and implement specific strategies that analyze why the problems exist so that the right instructional or intervention approaches can be implemented to address the root causes in effective and efficient ways.

Beyond this, we need to be good “empirical consumers” so that, when we consult (directly or indirectly) the other experts, we have the ability to make objective, informed, and strategic choices as to whether their expertise is sound and what we need to do.

While I know that all of this takes time, as noted above, we often are already investing the time-- many times, with minimal pay-back. And so, the suggestion is to invest our time wisely at the front-end, so that we end up spending less (or no) time at the back-end. . . because the problem has been solved.

I hope that some of the ideas above are thought-provoking, and motivate you to look at how you are providing services and supports to all of your students. If these ideas validate what you are doing. . . excellent !!! If they uncover areas of improvement. . . I appreciate your willingness and dedication to the change and improvement process.

Beyond all of this, as we approach the holidays and, especially, Thanksgiving this week, I hope that you will take some time to reflect on your accomplishments and the people in your life that share in these successes.

None of us works in isolation. Whether to our colleagues or our families, take the time to give thanks and to give them thanks. Working in our field is not easy sometimes. . . but it is important.

I thank you for everything that you do to support your students, staff, and schools.