Bettering Schools With Positive Behavior Support Programs

At one local elementary school where the mascot is a puma, teachers and administrators recognize and reward good behavior with “Puma Paws.”

Students are honored very publicly in class, during assemblies and in school announcements, and the actions that earned the coveted “Puma Paw” are clearly detailed. The students’ names are then entered into drawings for prizes.

Not surprisingly, the program is very popular with students, and the school is enjoying an improvement in its learning environment.

Problems such as bullying and low academic performance have prompted many public schools to adopt school-wide positive behavior support interventions like “Puma Paws” to engage the school community—students, teachers, administrators, support staff, and parents—in creating a fun, positive, and safe experience for children.

But such a model can only be effective if it is rigorously monitored to ensure that all participants are buying into its practices and that the program is a good fit for the school, according to Michelle Marchant and Melissa Allen Heath, faculty members in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education at Brigham Young University’s David O. McKay School of Education.

“For many of these models, there is great buy-in at the beginning, but they often run out of energy,” said Heath. “Stakeholders must frequently ask themselves, ‘Is this sustainable?’”

She described a school that is having success using a school-wide model that teaches children how to follow instructions, express gratitude, resolve disagreements, and accept responsibility for their actions—all in the hope that these will translate into important life skills.

But that school’s original model called for teaching more than a dozen such skills—a goal that was significantly pared down to four basic social skills once the school’s stakeholders expressed their frustrations. A simpler plan was formulated to better meet the needs of teachers and students, Heath said.

As in many states, the Utah State Office of Education has created the Utah Multi-Tier System Support to provide a model for schools. Typically, such systems help teachers and administrators identify specific areas in which students are struggling academically and socially and then apply proven research-based interventions to help them succeed.

However, simply implementing a model, however valid or well researched it may be, is not enough. Evaluating stakeholder opinions and perceptions is a critical factor in a program’s success and sustainability, Marchant said,

She points to assessing “social validity” as a way of measuring a model’s effectiveness. In its simplest form, social validity is a measure of how well a social program is embraced by those who are targeted to implement it or benefit from it.

Identifying the school’s key stakeholders is a first step, since the role of many stakeholders, like school support personnel, has evolved from passive observers to active participants who act as partners to build the vision, methods, and success criteria for behavior interventions.

Marchant’s research has been highly influenced by a landmark 1978 study on social validity that recommended all stakeholders be asked the following questions:

  • Are the specific behavioral goals important and relevant to the outcomes I want?
  • Are treatment procedures acceptable?
  • Am I satisfied with both the predicted and unpredicted outcomes?

Marchant said that, while all participants should be surveyed, measuring teacher support is especially critical. “The power of teacher buy-in increases the likelihood of successful implementation of interventions, particularly at the school-wide level,” she said.

Parents also contribute to a behavior support model’s success. “There is a real beauty in it when it becomes a blended effort between the school and the home,” said Marchant.

Once an accurate and representative sample of stakeholders is assembled and their opinions on the intervention model are polled, the second step is to use the resulting information to determine the model’s value to the community.

One study’s findings indicated that although its stakeholders generally supported the model’s goals, they struggled to find ways to implement the interventions and follow procedures. The intervention model needed to be modified to better align with the teachers’ ability to intervene and to be adequately supported by limited school resources.

In another study, while initial results from the surveyed stakeholders demonstrated high levels of overall satisfaction, over time it became clear that the amount of required paperwork was too time consuming and that the practicality of day-to-day implementing and adhering to its detailed procedures needed to be reconsidered and simplified.

“Such feedback should be welcomed,” said Marchant.

Regularly assessing the social validity of these models and implementing necessary changes will help ensure that the interventions are successful and that the students involved will enjoy a more successful and safer school environment, Marchant and Heath concluded.

Their recommendations for evaluating intervention programs were recently published in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions. Read the entire article here.