Morning Zen

Linking student support to school improvement

September 05, 2013

Guest blog post by Kevin Dwyer, MA, NCSP ~ 

Schools are becoming more effective in applying prevention science for addressing both academic and behavior problems.  Many are teaching readiness for reading using proven strategies pre-kindergarten. Many are also teaching social skills that increase attention and coping skills and reduce off-task and disruptive behaviors. This promotion of skills and prevention of problems is universally applied and evaluated for effectiveness. Monitoring this application is combined with administrative support for connecting with each student in caring classrooms. But what happens to those students who are not keeping pace with their peers and who may not be mastering needed skills? In most schools teachers are keenly aware who these students are and most teachers have tried what they know to help those students who are falling behind. Stymied, they will seek advice from peers. If unsuccessful, the teacher is encouraged and supported in seeking the help of the school’s student support team (SST).  In the prevention-intervention paradigm this is the main team for addressing, early, individual student needs.

One of the great changes in education’s application of prevention science has been the problem solving methods used by SSTs incorporated into the school’s climate/improvement team. These teams learn from each other.

Many proven early intervention strategies developed for individual students have been incorporated into instruction and classroom management for all. This has usually occurred when SSTs are connected to and coordinated with universal school-wide school climate/improvement/management teams. Individual student problems addressed by student support teams can lead to systemic changes in classroom and school practices. For example: positive discipline, catching students being good, and the universal, classroom teaching of social skills to all students were initially interventions for students with social and behavioral problems. De-escalation practices used by many staff originated in work with emotionally disturbed youth. Even some “remedial reading” techniques have been folded into regular reading instruction.

Successful school implementation of both prevention and early intervention teaming relies on an understanding of how the modification of systemic practices and policies can support students at-risk and foster improvement for all students. Schools that have policies and practices that connect prevention and intervention teams report that when that behavior and achievement improve for all students. 

One way to ensure that these teams are functionally connected is to have a few core staff members serving on both the student support and school climate/improvement teams. These core members coordinate and share their information about what works for all students as well as for students needing supports. In many systems that information sharing is reported as a measurable process outcome that can be connected to student outcomes. Some schools also indicate that problem solving and progress monitoring are streamlined when these teams coordinate. 

The following diagram has been published in various forms showing this connection:


The three consistent joint-members of both teams have been shown to maximize this efficiency and effectiveness for both improving school-wide climate and for better serving students at-risk of academic and behavioral problems. 

Why these joint-member professionals? 

  • First, the principal (or administrator) has the big picture of both policies and practices and also has the authority to make things happen. The principal has authority and responsibility for the school’s yearly progress. The administrator can coach, monitor and inform other leadership, staff and families concerning trends in referrals that may require shifts in resources, specific grade-level instructional modifications, teacher supports. Principals also report it is vital for them to know and connect with the students who are receiving interventions for academic and behavioral issues. 
  • Second the teacher. A peer in the instructional role who understands the curricula and the multiple pressures on the classroom teacher. A teacher representative can foresee implementation strategies that best match the instructional setting. The teacher representative better ensures a connection to instructional peers. The teacher representative can speak to both universal climate issues and the resources needed to implement effective interventions for individual students. In many schools this teacher/coordinator, team member is chosen by the faculty and administration. 
  • Third is the mental health/behavioral professional. In most schools this is a counselor, school psychologist or social worker that has a strong background in both mental health and social/behavioral functioning and is skilled in knowing best practice interventions for those activities. This professional is also expected to enhance the understanding of the interaction between targeted interventions and universal practices. This core member should also assist in monitoring the alignment and effectiveness of interventions with universal academic and social/emotional learning goals.

The core team members’ skills are interwoven and there always will be overlap. These three core members also ensures that the problem-solving process is maintained and that interventions are chosen, implemented, monitored and measured for effectiveness. They are the coaches for the classroom teacher and other interventionists assigned to help the student. They are also the core for prevention and the promotion of a caring school climate. They are the core that then sees how school-wide practices impact upon those at-risk and how referral trends inform school improvement. One example of how this connection changed practices is in an elementary school where many discipline referrals were coming from recess and lunch despite the student’s having social skills training that seemed to be working in the classroom. Looking at individual misbehaving students and doing functional behavioral plans for each might have occurred but the principal and school psychologist observed that the saw that the paraprofessionals and lunchroom staff were not using the social skills language and prompts. It became clear that they had not been trained in the social skills language that teachers were using to positively guide student behavior. In-service training of these school staff and greater teacher and administrative involvement was initiated. Over a year’s time this training measurably reduced lunch and recess office referrals and referrals to the student support team.

Universal school climate/improvement teams that maintain a strong staffing connection to student support teams also benefit from:

  • having regularly scheduled meetings with monthly for school-wide climate teams and weekly for student support teams
  • using the problem solving process
  • using best practices for universal policies and practices and for interventions
  • openly communicate with all stakeholders including families and students about universal trends
  • use easy to measure data sets across both teams and, when possible, establish computer-based recording to connect progress for students receiving measured recommended interventions
  • always connecting interventions to universal academic and social/emotional functioning
  • maintain regular progress reporting on both universal data (each semester) and the measured impacts of individual/group interventions for students addressed by the student support team (monthly to marking period).
  • Team unit training of core members to mastery.  Training and coaching by core members of staff (and community partners) on both universal and student support teams. 

What can you do to improve the connection between school-wide team planning and student support teams? 
Start by seeking support of others in your school community including the principal, school psychologist or counselor. Look at your school’s assets: What is already in-place and build upon those resources. There are many resources on implementing functional school teams. One example is the series webinars from the Safe Schools Technical Assistance Center supported by the U.S. Department of Education (

Ref. Dwyer, K. & Osher, D. (2000). Safeguarding our Children: an Action Guide. Longmont CO: Sopris West.

dwyerKevin P. Dwyer, M.A., a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an education and child mental health consultant.  He recently served as a principal research associate for the American Institutes for Research. For over 30 years he practiced school psychology in public schools and held several local, state and national leadership positions in the fields of mental health and education, being responsible for the design, development, implementation and evaluation of programs and practices, for improving school climate, safety, and wellbeing for the education, and mental health of children.  He has helped school staff in many districts use data to inform decisions on improving caring and connectedness with students and professional peers.  His work, publications, presentations, and practices have influenced public policy and the development of efficient, family focused collaborative child service systems.  During his 30 years as a public school psychologist he worked directly with over 10,000 children and their families as well as trained over 6000 educators. He provided psychological services to children, including those with disabilities and those whose anxiety and mental health problems blocked learning and adjustment.  He assisted teachers and staff in supporting a caring, inclusive school climate for all children.  In 2007 the Maryland Coalition of Families awarded Mr. Dwyer and his wife for their work in making schools more family friendly.  He served as president of the National Association of School Psychologist and was given its highest honor, the Life-time Achievement Award.  In 2000 he received the Tipper Gore “Advocacy award for improving the lives and mental health of America’s children” from the National Mental Health Association.

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