A Setting is NOT an Intervention: It’s Where the Real Intervention Has the Highest Probability of Success

A Setting is NOT an Intervention: It’s Where the Real Intervention Has the Highest Probability of Success

It’s Not WHERE We Put Students and Staff, It’s WHAT We Do When They’re There

Dear Colleagues,


   As I’ve worked with schools during these Pandemic months, it has been interesting to watch how they have handled social distancing, the organization of instructional pods, and the movement of students in and out of different settings across the school.

   When observing in a Michigan school classroom last week, I was amazed to see 28 fifth grade students jammed into a too-small room with each desk equipped with a bolted-down plexiglass front. The students were arranged in three rows with six inches between the desks on the side, and less than 18 inches between the desks in each row.

   From a pedagogical or classroom management perspective, respectively, there was no way for the teacher (a) to move comfortably to the back row if s/he wanted to closely watch a student complete the problems on an assignment, or (b) to use proximity to prompt a student to get back on task.

   From a safety perspective, the students could not comfortably move from the front door to their desks, and I shuddered to think what would happen if the students needed to get out of the classroom during a fire drill (or worse).

   Clearly, the Pandemic has altered how we organize the different settings in a school. But issues related to school and classroom settings existed before the Pandemic ever hit, and how we conceptualize settings is critical to the services and supports that we provide to students, and the collaboration and productivity of school staff.

   In this Blog, we will address how settings impact the outcomes of five different processes in a school:

  • Differentiated Instruction and the Organization of Student Groups
  • Special Education and General Education Collaboration
  • The Use of Trauma- or Stress-Reduction or Relaxation Rooms
  • The Principal’s Office as the Site for School Discipline
  • PLCs and School-Level Committees

   The connected theme of this Blog is:

A Setting is NOT an Intervention: It’s Not WHERE

We Put Students and Staff, It’s WHAT We Do When They’re There

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Differentiated Instruction and the Organization of Student Groups

   Too often, we let the classroom setting dictate how we organize students into differentiated instructional groups.

   The first issue is that many teachers do not know the functional skill levels of their students in the core academic areas of literacy, math, and language arts/writing. Yes. . . they may know their iReady, Acadience, MAP, NWEA, or STAAR scores. But these test scores often do not provide the specificity to truly understand a student’s mastery of the skills in a curriculum-based scope and sequence chart.

   To this end, at the middle or high school level, every teacher should know the functional skill mastery levels for every student before the first class each semester or quarter. Without this information, a 10th grade science teacher would not know that one-third of her class is reading at the early 8th grade level, and another third (with some student overlaps) have mastered their mathematical calculation skills only through Grade 7.

   With this information, the teacher would know how to adapt her instruction, what supplemental materials to layer in so that students understand and learn the 10th grade science vocabulary and content, and what remediation to provide so that students can perform the 10th grade mathematical calculations present in a specific science lesson.

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   The second issue is that some teachers have not differentiated their curricula into content that is best learned in heterogeneous, multi-skilled, or multi-leveled student groups, as opposed to content that is best learned in homogeneous, same- or equivalently-skilled student groups.

   This can result in the use of different differentiated grouping patterns within the same class of students. For example, an 8th grade teacher may strategically organize his/her class of 24 students—for a differentiated lesson on calculation skills—into four skill-based groups of six students—where the students within each group are functioning at the same skill level, but the students across the groups are performing at very different skill levels. Later on, the same teacher might reorganize the class into four heterogeneous or mixed-skill groups of six students for a problem-solving unit on determining the best travel route to a destination under different weather conditions and times of the day.

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   The third issue—related here to setting—is that some teachers—for example, four teachers teaching at the 3rd grade level—who need to differentiate for the five to seven different skill clusters of students within their respective classrooms in literacy, may feel locked into their classroom settings.

   Pedagogically, this scenario is a disaster. . . because there is no way that any teacher can provide high quality differentiation for six different skill groups of students over an entire school year—giving each student group the same amount of time, practice, feedback, and individual coaching.

   A more flexible use of these teachers’ settings would be to teach literacy at the same time of the day, merge all of the students at specific skill levels across two or all four teachers together, and have certain students walk to another teacher’s classroom for literacy.

   By working across the teachers’ settings, they end up with a more manageable number of differentiated groups to teach in literacy, the groups can be reconstituted each quarter if students make different amounts of progress, and more students have a higher potential of maximizing their literacy learning and mastery.

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Special Education and General Education Collaboration

   Federal law (i.e., IDEA) identifies a continuum of services and settings for students with disabilities (SWD), and requires that these students be educated in “the least restrictive environment” (LRE) and in a general education classroom and curriculum to the greatest degree possible. In fact, every district in the country that receives federal funds is annually evaluated on the amount of time that SWDs are educated in general education classrooms—with the U.S. Department of Education setting 80% of the time as the standard for every SWD.

   Despite this, many educators still look at “special education” as an “intervention” (rather than a service), and the special education classroom as where SWDs are placed (unless they can have success in a general education classroom).

   In contrast, special education services, supports, or interventions actually are based on (a) a student qualifying in one (or more) of thirteen different disability areas; (b) how a student’s disability affects his/her educational (academic, social, emotional, or behavioral) progress; and (c) who are the best educators and what are the best settings needed to deliver the services. 

   Relative to the best educators and settings, the research-to-practice shows that general educators and general education settings provide the best academic and behavioral student outcomes.

   Moreover, these outcomes are best accomplished when the services, supports, or interventions— written into a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP)—are specified before the professionals delivering the Plan and the settings where the Plan will be delivered are determined.

   Said a different way: The needs of a SWD should “drive” all personnel and placement decisions— rather than the other way around. And these decisions should start with an expectation that the student will be educated 100% of the time in the general education classroom by general education teachers in the general education curriculum.

   Given this perspective, if the general education teachers need consultation or co-teaching from their special education colleagues for a specific SWD, then this is written into the IEP. If the student needs two days of special education instruction and support with three days of general education generalization and infusion, then this should be in the IEP. . .  etcetera. . . .  etcetera.

   [Critically, it is acceptable—for a student with a disability—to have an IEP where “only” consultation services from a special education teacher or related services professional (e.g., a school psychologist) are provided to the general education teachers who are fully responsible for that student’s educational program. Indeed, federal law does not require an IEP to include direct special education services or instruction from a special education teacher in a special education classroom.]

   As a post-script here: I never liked the term “mainstreaming.” This is because this term suggests that a special education classroom is the “home base” for students with disabilities, and that SWDs are “programmed into” general education classes from this home base.

   Most SWDs in this country have only one academic area that their disability impacts. Indeed, across the thirteen different disability areas in the federal law, most SWDs are learning disabled in reading and, even here, their disability largely impacts their mastery of decoding and/or fluency skills (that then affects their comprehension).

   Given this example, the educational goal should be to integrate these students’ general and special education instruction to (a) remediate or minimize the impact of their decoding or fluency difficulties; (b) make sure that they progressively learn and comprehend the vocabulary and texts in their literacy or English classes; and (c) ensure that they are able to read and comprehend texts in other curricular areas (e.g., math, science, social studies). 

   By assuming that all students will be educated in general education classrooms and curricula, and then determining if the specific services or interventions needed by a SWD require a modified setting or curriculum, mainstreaming becomes a non-issue. The student’s skills and strengths, then, are celebrated and maximized, and the student’s disability-related needs are responded to and addressed.

   Once again, all decisions here start with an expectation that students with disabilities will be educated 100% of the time in general education settings by general education teachers using general education curricula.

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The Use of Trauma- or Stress-Reduction or Relaxation Rooms

   Especially with the Pandemic and its effects, many students are under more stress than ever before. Significantly, however, the popular press, the U.S. Departments of Education and Health & Human Services (and many State Departments of Education) have labeled this stress as trauma even though this is clinically inaccurate.

   In past Blogs, we have discussed the differences between stress and trauma—and, more importantly, the differences in how to treat the emotions and behaviors related to them. One of the best Blogs in these areas to review was published on August 8, 2020:

Why Stress-Informed Schools Must Precede Trauma-Informed Schools: When We Address Student Stress First, We Begin to Impact Trauma. . . If the Latter Even Exists

[CLICK HERE for this Blog Article]

   In this Blog, we stated:

Given these definitions, and as different students separately experience anxiety, stress, or trauma, the following practical conclusions must be emphasized:

  • While Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety share a number of clinical characteristics, stress is the broader and most prevalent of the three for students in schools.
  • Indeed, the most common stressors for students are those related to academic frustration and failure; homework and tests; boyfriend/girlfriend and other peer relationship issues; teasing and bullying; gender status and sexual orientation; racial or cultural prejudice and discrimination; poverty, homelessness, or food insecurity; and physical or other limitations or disabilities.
  • While the events above are significant, these stressors rarely meet the definition of trauma, and interventions for them—especially in school—generally differ.

Once again, if the pandemic or its effects were to be clinically traumatic for a student, it would need to have exposed him or her to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence” (i.e., the primary clinical definition of trauma).

Significantly, trauma is evident for some students. But it is not evident for many, or even most, students exhibiting high levels of emotionality.

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Given all of this, schools need to establish the positive climate, safety, prosocial relationship, and multi-tiered service elements that first and foremost prevent or respond to student stress. For trauma-involved students, schools need to have multi-tiered assessment and interventions services available.

Said a different way: Schools and educational staff need to be more broadly trained and expert in Stress-Sensitive or Informed Practices, while school mental health professionals (e.g., counselors, social workers, school psychologists) need also to be clinically trained and expert in Trauma-Sensitive or Informed Practices.

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   From an “intervention” perspective, many schools have established stress or trauma break, de-escalation, chill-out, relaxation, sensory, or similarly-named rooms or school areas. When stressed or emotionally triggered, students are allowed to go to and use these rooms to regain emotional control.

   Given the theme of this Blog, however, we must emphasize that the clinical goal here is not to have a student in a classroom (a) recognize that s/he is emotionally escalating and may “lose it,” (b) ask to be excused to the Stress Room; and (c) successfully regain emotional control and stability in that room—so s/he can then return “successfully” to the classroom.

   Instead, the clinical goal is to teach students emotional recognition, de-escalation, control, and self-management skills so that they can handle their emotions in their classroom seats (i.e., without the need to leave the classroom). The “ultimate” clinical goal is to teach students the skills and give them the supports such that triggers that previously resulted in high levels of emotionality do not trigger this emotionality at all in the future.

   Thus, while the successful use of the Stress Room is a clear step in the right direction, the more essential intervention steps involve working with the students involved to attain the ultimate clinical goal above.

   For some students, along the multi-tiered continuum, this can be accomplished with a short-term group (e.g., relaxation or cognitive-behavioral—depending on the triggers of the stress) intervention. For other students, a more individualized therapeutic treatment is indicated. In virtually all of these cases, a school psychologist or clinically-trained social worker will need to be involved.

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The Principal’s Office as the Site for School Discipline

   The relationship between setting and staff is especially important when addressing student discipline problems. Here, there are a number of important principles when students demonstrate inappropriate classroom behaviors.

  • Principle #1. The goal of a disciplinary action is to (a) hold students accountable for their inappropriate behavior, (b) motivate them to demonstrate appropriate behavior the “next” time, (c) guide them toward an apology or corrective practice, and (d) engage them in the positive practice of the appropriate behavior that they should have done instead of the inappropriate behavior.
  • Principle #2. To the greatest extent possible, if the inappropriate behavior occurs in a classroom, the disciplinary response, consequence, and correction should involve the classroom teacher so that the students involved realize that they are, first and foremost, accountable to the teacher (and not, for example, to the Principal).

When students feel more accountable to the Principal than their classroom teachers, they more often continue their inappropriate classroom behavior with the teachers, and only “straighten up” in the presence of the Principal.

  • Principal #3. Disciplinary actions need to vary based on the intensity or severity of the inappropriate behavior. But—consistent with this Blog’s theme—the setting (e.g., the Principal’s Office) where the student’s inappropriate behavior is addressed is not the intervention. The intervention involves what is done to strategically address and change the behavior (Principle #1), and who should be the primary person to implement the intervention (Principle #2).

   Given the Principles above, when we consult with districts and schools in the area of school discipline, classroom management, and student self-management, we help them develop classroom-focused student behavior accountability systems at each grade level. Here, we have each grade-level team of teachers identify the specific behaviors in their classrooms that are (a) annoying, (b) disruptive, (c) antisocial or significantly disruptive, or (d) severe, dangerous, or that violate the Code of Conduct.

   As we put this Classroom Behavioral Matrix into practice, we emphasize that, consistent with Principle #1 above:

  • Classroom teachers should address annoying behaviors in the classroom with a Corrective Response (e.g., proximity control); and
  • Disruptive behaviors in the classroom with (consistent with consequences, corrective remediations, and apologies, and the positive practice of the appropriate behavior.

   Thus, for these first two intensity levels of inappropriate behavior, the classroom teacher is responsible for interacting with the student, and the student and the disciplinary action stays in the classroom—the setting where it occurred. In this way, the student remains accountable to the teacher.  Indeed, for these first two levels of inappropriate behavior, students are never sent to the Principal’s Office.

   For antisocial or major disruptions, and severe or dangerous behaviors that violate the Code of Conduct, the student is typically sent to the Principal’s Office.

   However, here we strongly recommend that:

  • Classroom teachers be personally involved in the disciplinary discussions between students and the Principal and in any school-based disciplinary actions; and
  • Classroom teachers should be involved in reintegrating students back into the school and classroom even after a Principal-determined suspension for a Code of Conduct offense.

   Once again, even though the student is in the Principal’s Office setting, the act of sending the student “to the office” is not the intervention. The intervention is the disciplinary action that ultimately motivates the student to eliminate future inappropriate behavior and demonstrate appropriate behavior. Even though the student is in the Principal’s Office, the classroom teacher who sent the student (and who observed or experienced the inappropriate behavior) must, once again, be personally involved in the disciplinary deliberations, decisions, and reintegrations so that the student recognizes his/her responsibility and accountability to the teacher.

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 Finally. . . Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

   Many educational leaders across the country organize their staff into PLC teams that meet periodically in a specific school setting or location. But, consistent with this Blog’s theme, the act of sitting in a series of PLC meetings is not the goal of the process. The goal of the process is to contribute to one or more specific student, staff, and/or school processes or outcomes relative to enhancing school climate, culture, and relationships; academic learning and proficiency; social, emotional, or behavioral competence; or the success of underperforming or unproductive groups.

   Too many PLCs are not designed for success. For example:

  • The members or participants in some PLCs are not chosen strategically.

Indeed, in some secondary schools, anyone who is free during a specific class period is automatically together on the “Period 3 PLC.” This may result in a disjointed PLC that has nothing in common, or a PLC with competitive or dysfunctional dynamics.

In many elementary schools, there are mixed-grade PLCs, but no regular and planned times during each week where same-grade-level teachers get together for collaboration, planning, and problem-solving to address instructional or student-specific needs.

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  • Some PLCs and PLC leaders are not trained and supported.

In order for PLCs—or any formal team, committee, task force, or group—to be time- and task-efficient, all members often need formal training on how to collaborate, make (difficult) decisions, prevent and resolve conflicts, and focus on the “common good” relative to students and staff.

PLC leaders may need additional training, and ongoing coaching and consultation.

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  • Some PLCs are not given specific group expectations, tasks, topics, or goals so they know where they’re going and when they’ve arrived.

These PLCs, instead, are allowed to wander randomly in discussions that waste time, energy, momentum, and motivation.

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   PLCs are about accomplishments and outcomes—not about settings and “seat-time.” The PLCs in a single school should be designed like the pieces of a puzzle—fitting together over time to create a stronger and more unified whole where the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

   PLCs do not meet just to meet. Schools get no credit for “having” PLCs. They get credit for helpful and innovative production from their PLCs.

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   The Pandemic has altered how we organize the different settings in a school, as well as how we schedule and logistically move students and staff from setting to setting. But, as we have emphasized throughout this Blog, putting people into places is not the goal.

   The goal is putting the right people in the right places with the right other people, putting the right people “in charge,” discussing goals and desired outcomes at the outset, providing and sustaining needed resources and conditions, and accomplishing great things over time.

   While the Pandemic has created a number of challenges, some issues—related to the use of school and classroom settings existed before the Pandemic ever hit.

   How we conceptualize settings is critical to the services and supports that we provide to students, and how school staff collaborate and productively accomplish important school and schooling outcomes.

   In this Blog, we addressed how educators can reconceptualize the settings in their schools, and improve the outcomes in five different areas:

  • Differentiated Instruction and the Organization of Student Groups
  • Special Education and General Education Collaboration
  • The Use of Trauma- or Stress-Reduction or Relaxation Rooms
  • The Principal’s Office as the Site for School Discipline
  • PLCs and School-Level Committees

   The overarching theme of this Blog was:

A Setting is NOT an Intervention: It’s Not WHERE

We Put Students and Staff, It’s WHAT We Do When They’re There

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   I hope that the thoughts and analyses in this Blog are useful to you. As we continue to address Pandemic-related issues, we also need to identify the issues that existed before the Pandemic and address them also.

   As always, I encourage and look forward to your comments. . . whether on-line or via e-mail. Also, please feel free to share this Blog and my website with your colleagues.

   In addition, if I can help you, your colleagues, your school, your district, or your professional setting to analyze its current strategic status, needs, and directions; or to address specific issues or challenges (e.g., multi-tiered services, special education service efficacy, disproportionality, social-emotional learning), please do not hesitate to contact me.

   Know that I am always available to you—virtually and on-site. . . ready to apply my psychoeducational experiences across the country and world to your needs. And, I am always happy to provide a free one-hour consultation conference call to help you clarify these needs and your potential directions on behalf of your students.