Teaching Students Needed Academic and Social-Emotional Skills: We Need to Sweat the Small Stuff

Teaching Students Needed Academic and Social-Emotional Skills

We Need to Sweat the Small Stuff

Dear Colleagues,


   Once again, I am writing this Blog while flying at 33,000 feet. . . this time traveling from Vancouver, British Columbia back to Little Rock, Arkansas (for about 10 hours until I fly to my next consultation in New Jersey).

   I spent a phenomenal week working with the school psychologists attending the British Columbia Association of School Psychologists’ Annual Conference. There, I guided some in-depth discussions regarding how to design and implement effective (a) school-wide Social-Emotional Learning/Positive Behavioral Support and (b) Multi-Tiered Academic and Behavioral Support systems, and how to differentiate among and address (c) student stress, anxiety, and trauma practically in the classroom as part of a multi-tiered process.

   As always, I benefitted as much from the experience as I think I contributed.

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   During our discussions, I emphasized a number of times the importance of “sweating the small stuff.”

   I “get” that the intent of the saying, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” is to encourage us to look at the “big picture of Life,” to take a deep breath, and to not obsess over the small irritants that seem to occur daily.

   But in education and psychology, and especially when working with students who are academically struggling or demonstrating social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges, we must drill way past the “big picture” into the details of why these struggles or challenges are occurring, so that we can link them to the how reflected in the specific services, supports, strategies, and interventions needed for change.

   In today’s message, I want to provide some school-related instructional or intervention examples of this theme to remind both educators and related services professionals that a focus on the “small stuff” is needed to generate the “big stuff” that maximizes students’ academic and social-emotional learning, mastery, proficiency, and independence.

A Brief Medical Miracle Analogy

   Before focusing on education, let’s start this journey by using medicine—and its focus at times on the “building blocks of life” as a metaphor for the need to “go small.”

   Just this week, it was announced that doctors were able to successfully treat in utero an unborn child with a rare genetic condition called Infantile-onset Pompe.

   According to the Hospital’s Press Release:

Pompe disease is seen in less than 1 in 100,000 live births, and is caused by mutations in a gene that makes acid alpha-glucosidase, an enzyme that breaks down glycogen. Without it or with limited amounts, glycogen accumulates dangerously in the body. After delivery, treatment to replace the enzyme is available, but the disease still often results in very low muscle tone, ventilator dependency and death.

The disease is one of several rare lysosomal storage disorders that can severely damage major organs before birth. Babies born with Pompe typically have enlarged hearts and die within two years if untreated.

   Two medical miracles actually occurred here.

   First, doctors have the know-how to complete genetic testing on unborn children that reveals different life-threatening conditions early in their prenatal development.

   Second, in this case’s new medical breakthrough, doctors provided this baby the enzyme replacement therapy well before she was born.

   The child is now 16 months old, and she has hit virtually all of her developmental milestones—for example, crawling, walking, talking, eating—at the expected times. More significantly, her cardiac functioning is normal.

   According to the attending doctor:

“This work also continues to expand the number and type of rare genetic diseases that can be treated prenatally. As new treatments become available for children with genetic conditions, we are developing protocols to apply before birth. I think of this as another step in expanding the repertoire of fetal therapy to treat genetic diseases that, while individually rare, are a large percentage of congenital anomalies.”

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   The point here is that many areas of science and medicine “travel” at the cellular (or smaller) level.

   Indeed, we are now treating illnesses and conditions that affect us at the “big picture” level—impacting our day-to-day functioning, our quality of life. . . indeed, our life itself—because doctors and other scientists are able to modify minute, microscopic biochemical, genetic, or physiological structures, pathways, and interactions.

   Ultimately, in many professions, success occurs because they attend to and “sweat” the small stuff. There just are no other alternatives.

Some “Small Stuff” Examples in Education

   Critically, the five “small stuff” examples below have all occurred during the last three weeks in some of the schools where I am consulting.

   Some of you may remember that I wrote the five-year U.S. Department of Education School Climate Transformation Grants that were awarded in 2019 to three different school district clusters in Oklahoma, Michigan, and New Jersey, respectively.

   As part of the Grant activities, I work on-site in these districts’ schools for up to 40 days per year—helping them design and implement effective multi-tiered academic and social-emotional learning/positive behavior support systems, using Project ACHIEVE’s (www.projectachieve.info) evidence-based model, from preschool through high school.

   Ultimately, to accomplish our student-centered goals, we need to get “small.” Here are five examples that we hope will motivate you to think “smaller” about some of your professional activities or interactions with your students, staff, or others in your workplace.

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Small Procedures

   When we are preparing to conduct a Case Conference on a specific struggling or challenging student involving the multi-disciplinary, school-level Multi-Tiered Services (or Student Services) Team, we always asked the student’s teacher(s) to complete the “First Things First.”

   This involves a set of activities where the teacher(s) supported by select MTSS Team members (a) complete a Student Record Review, (b) Interview parents and previous teachers (or interveners), (c) determine the current functional academic and social-emotional skill level of the student, (d) identify or discount critical medical (or related) conditions, and (e) do classroom observations so that others can see the depth and breadth of the problem.

   One of my schools recently prepared for and conducted an MTSS Team Case Conference that I observed so that I could provide feedback on their use of our data-based problem-solving process.

   The Case involved a Second Grader who was way behind academically (e.g., she was “reading” at the end of kindergarten level), who was still reversing many numbers and letters, and whose First Grade teacher had recommended retention—which the parents had rejected. The child had been in this school since kindergarten, and she was only receiving periodic academic intervention supports.

   Nonetheless, when the School Counselor interviewed the mother three days before the Case Conference, for the very first time, the parent shared that the child had had significant breathing difficulties at birth, that her developmental milestones (e.g., walking, talking, etc.) were very delayed, and that she had had occupational therapy services before starting kindergarten.

   Small procedures means that we break, here, the MTSS process into the specific steps needed to collect the initial background and historical information needed on every student for every case.

   Everyone around the MTSS table acknowledged that the developmental information above should have been common knowledge at least two years ago. Indeed, this was a case of a parent not knowing the importance of this information, coupled with no one at the school ever asking for it. This not a case of a parent withholding the information.

   The MTSS Team immediately initiated a referral for special education and accommodation services and supports that would include (a) the completion of cognitive, processing, and academic achievement assessments; (b) a complete social-developmental history with the parents; and (c) a neurological screening to determine other potential concerns in that area.

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Small Gestures

   In another one of my Grant districts within the last two weeks, we were reviewing the results of a school climate survey completed by all of the students in Grade 5 and above.

   The Superintendent was very concerned because, among a number of troubling outcomes, a large percent of the student body agreed or strongly agreed to a statement, “My teachers care about me and my peers.”

   Noting that even if this was a student misperception, something needed to be done.

   A discussion ensued that focused on (a) some questioning the validity of the results, and wanting to re-write some questions and re-survey the students; (b) some expressing frustration that the students were not recognizing what the staff was already doing for them—suggesting that they were ungrateful; (c) some saying that the results had to be from a small minority of students—completely missing that eliminating these students’ results would not appreciably change the data; and (d) some generating interventions to “fix” the problems.

   The Superintendent patiently waited for the discussion to subside and then she asked me for my reflections.

   I first told the group that we should not be responding or making changes to the survey just to make us feel better.

   I then briefly explained that this survey—just like a thermometer—was a screening tool. . . it was simply identifying some “hot” areas within the school that concerned the students.

   Moreover, even if we re-wrote specific survey items and re-surveyed the students, the results—just like a thermometer—would not likely or fully tell us why we were getting the “hot” results. And this “outcome” would occur after spending (wasting) a lot more time in re-writing, re-surveying, re-analyzing the data, and re-discussing “the problem.”

   In the end, I suggested that we “get small”. . . that we begin to connect with the students and show them that we care by setting up a series of focus groups to listen to their concerns, their analyses, and their suggestions.

   In this way, everyone would experience two wins. First, the win of demonstrating to the students that the staff care enough to listen to their voices, and to entertain their suggestions on how to improve the school’s climate for them.

   This would then pave the way for a second win. . . an improvement of the school’s climate that would result in greater student attendance, engagement, motivation, and—hopefully—learning.

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Small Goals

   Another one of my Grant schools has a period each day at the secondary level for either academic remediation or enrichment.

   Relative to the latter, the staff have struggled—for the last two years—to figure out how to maximize the benefits of this intervention time.

   In fact, the outcome data suggest that there have been minimal academic benefits to the students, and that the staff are pretty frustrated with the entire endeavor.

   For me, the core of the problem is that the school is (a) focusing on reading and then math intervention weeks for all students on a rotating basis; (b) the intervention groups are organized by students’ scores from a computerized academic screening and progress monitoring program; and (c) the students in the intervention groups seem to be constantly changing (as are the assignments to intervention teachers).

   Rather than focus on the flaws embedded in the processes above, I—again—suggested that the school “get small.”

   This entailed the following:

  • Identifying the specific and core-essential skills in reading and math that each student needed remediation in;
  • Prioritizing—for each quarter of the school year—whether a student would focus on either reading or math during their intervention time; and
  • Mapping all of the students with different reading or math skill needs on a white board, and clustering the intervention groups so that each one would focus on a homogeneous set of skills, targeted intervention materials, evaluation approaches, and expected outcomes.

   Thus, “getting small” here meant focusing on a small set of skills to remediate, small student groups that would stay intact for at least nine weeks—with the same teacher, and small goals that had a high probability of being successfully attained.

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Small Behaviors

   While presenting at the British Columbia Association of School Psychologists’ Conference, I talked some about our Stop & Think Social Skills Program, and why social skills instruction needed to target specific, observable, and measurable skills.

   Yes. . . we got small.

   I first made the point that an effective Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) initiative or program would be unsuccessful—relative to students learning and demonstrating actual interpersonal interactions—if it focused only on behavioral constructs—for example, respect, responsibility, safety, caring, honesty, cooperation, altruism.

  Indeed, to attain any goal related to behavioral constructs, teachers would (a) have to determine what respectful behaviors, responsible behaviors, safe behaviors, caring behaviors, honest behaviors, cooperative behaviors, and altruistic behaviors they want students to demonstrate; and then (b) teach their students these skills using sound behavioral instruction practices.

   This then led to my second point.

   In order to get the desired student behavior outcomes, social skills need to be taught from preschool through high school, using a scaffolded scope and sequence taught across the school year, the instruction needs to focus on behaviorally teaching—not just talking—about desired goals and expectations, and the instruction needs to use the same behavioral strategies that are used when we teach sports teams, theatre groups, painters, or musicians their crafts.

   To be sure. . . getting small is not always easy, but it is always necessary.

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Small Steps

   Staying with the social skills theme above, within the past two weeks, I was doing demonstration Stop & Think Social Skill lessons in one of my Grant middle schools.

   In one 6th Grade classroom—organized by the school as a self-contained general education classroom because the students had a hard time transitioning to seven different periods and teachers during the school day—I taught the “Dealing with Teasing” skill.

   [Note that I had never worked with these students before. In addition, while I wanted to teach this skill to the students, another purpose for the demonstration was to model an effective social skills lesson for the classroom teacher.]

   When we got to the role play part of the lesson, I chose two willing students at random to come up in front of the class and role play a scene where one of them would “tease” the other, and he (in this case) would verbalize and then demonstrate one of the “good choice behaviors” embedded in the Dealing with Teasing skill script.

   I noticed that the student who was going to be teased in the role play was somewhat quiet and a bit awkward. At the same time, as I always stay with the students doing a role play—to guide them through the script and the skill (as needed), and to ensure that a “positive practice” of the skill occurs—I was confident that this “teachable moment” would be a successful one for him.

   In the end, I needed to provide a fair amount of guidance and “scripting” for this student, but he did a great job and really seemed to both embrace and understand the skill, its intent, and its importance. He also appeared to be very pleased with his performance.

   Later in the day, I met with the 6th Grade Teacher to debrief the training. It was at this point that she told me how proud she was of the roleplaying student because he is on the autism spectrum.

   I was actually really surprised because, while I noted his awkwardness, I did not pick up his developmental-behavioral challenge during our interactions earlier that day.

   So. . . the “small stuff” lesson here is that (a) teaching students social skill behaviors is a step-by-step process; (b) even some of the students who most need these skills (e.g., those on the spectrum) can learn them when the skill steps are broken down and systematically integrated; and that (c) virtually all students can learn when we “sweat the small stuff” as we build their skills toward “the large stuff.”


   Educators consistently talk about the importance of evidence-based practices. This is complemented by discussions noting that evidence-based practices—in order to work—need to be implemented with fidelity. And yet, in order to attain fidelity, educators typically need to attend to and follow the specific implementation steps that (full circle, here) are the reasons that the practices in question are evidence-based.

   Said a different way:

In order to make big and meaningful academic and social, emotional, and behavioral gains with students in our classrooms and schools, we need to sweat the small details that make effective practices work.

   In this Blog, we shared five school-related instructional or intervention vignettes to demonstrate the importance of this theme, and to remind educators and related services professionals that a focus on the “small student stuff” is needed to generate, as above, the “big educational stuff.”

   The vignettes described actual situations that I have experienced over the past three weeks—many in one or more of the schools where I am helping to implement effective multi-tiered academic and social-emotional learning/positive behavior support systems as part of three different five-year U.S. Department of Education School Climate Transformation Grants.

   The five vignettes focused on five “small” areas: Small Procedures, Small Gestures, Small Goals, Small Behaviors, and Small Steps.

   We hope that this discussion will encourage educators to look at and evaluate their current practices with students, and ask two Questions:

  • Am I attaining the success I am having with students because I am “sweating the small stuff?”
  • Where I am not having my desired success with students—or where I know I could have greater success, is it because I am missing, ignoring, or not “sweating the small stuff?”

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   I hope that the reflections in this Blog are relevant and useful to you.

   In many ways, one of the reasons why I write these Blogs is that it gives me an opportunity to “Stop &  Think” about my work in the field, why I have been successful in specific cases, and how I could be more successful in others. This makes my future work more intentional, planful, and impactful.

   As always, if you and your colleagues would like to “get small” and reflect on your students, schools, or professional settings with me—please feel free to send me an email, and let’s set up a time to talk. I would be honored to assist.