It is widely recognized that students' sense of well-being plays an important role in learning outcomes. Therefore, it is no surprise that schools have a growing need for systemic practices that better support students' social, emotional, and behavioral needs. In a lot of cases, classroom teachers are the first people to recognize when students have an escalated need for support. Yet, most teachers do not have the training or available time that is needed to address intensive social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students on their own. This is why schools need to ensure that a system of support is in place along with practices and procedures for early identification and the implementation of supports and services before issues become escalated.
Below, we outline some of the issues with traditional teacher referral processes and provide an alternative framework for effectively addressing students’ social-emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs. Finally, we outline specific steps for the successful implementation of an interconnected systems approach.
Traditional Referral Processes and Their Limitations
It is very common for classroom teachers to work with students who are struggling with their behaviors. In a traditional referral process, teachers are often provided with a list of classroom management strategies that they need to implement over a period of time before they are allowed to make a referral to their school’s behavioral team. This “box-checking” approach can sometimes be a barrier for students to get the support that they need.
Although there are many evidence-based classroom behavioral management practices, classroom teachers often need support with effective implementation. This is especially true when teachers are working with classrooms where a number of students are having behavioral difficulties. Sometimes the behaviors that students are displaying are not going to be addressed effectively through classroom-based approaches. In these situations, students need targeted interventions and supports that are aligned and coordinated with the behavioral approaches that teachers are using in the classroom.
Another issue with traditional referral processes is that they can be subject to biases. Research shows that students of color are more likely to have reported behavior incidents and office discipline referrals. This is due to many reasons, some of them stemming from issues of systemic biases and racism within educational institutions, but also issues around cultural awareness and competencies and the use of inclusive approaches to learning and education in general. This is especially problematic given that these biases can lead to students receiving a diagnosis or label that is not accurate and is likely to stay with them throughout their time in school, likely impacting their educational outcomes and self-concept.
Within traditional referral processes, students who are displaying externalizing behavioral problems, such as aggressive behaviors, defiance, and issues with self-regulation, are often referred more quickly and often than students with internalizing symptoms. Behaviors associated with depression, anxiety, and stress can be more difficult for teachers to detect, unless they are trained to do so. It can take longer for students with internalizing issues to display behaviors that might concern a teacher.
Finally, when students are “referred” it often means that they become the responsibility of someone else, usually a school psychologist, counselor, social worker, or other type of clinician or specialist. This is also known as a “handoff” from one individual or team to another. Even if a student is receiving support, interventions, or services outside of their general education classroom, teachers should still be involved or at least aware of components of the student’s support plan. There are likely strategies and approaches that the teacher can use within the classroom to help the intervention that the student is receiving outside of the classroom and reinforce consistent expectations across settings.
What Is the Interconnected Systems Framework?
Supporting students’ behavioral and social-emotional development involves several components. This is why the Interconnected Systems Framework was developed as an approach to providing a single, integrated model for addressing the needs of students and educators. ISF brings together PBIS and mental health under one umbrella to address issues of disconnected or siloed supports for students while also promoting the use of school-based mental health programs.
One of the benefits of ISF is that it promotes collaboration among key stakeholders, such as clinicians and other mental health specialists. The model provides a structure for clinicians and educators to work together and engage in decision-making to support students. It also helps ensure that mental health promotion is integrated across all tier levels of support while taking into consideration the unique needs of students and including both their externalizing and internalizing behaviors.
Moving From a Referral Process to an ISF
The thought of changing your current RTI/MTSS referral process may be daunting. Making any kind of shift in practice will take time as well as coordination across many teams and stakeholders. Below, we outline a few steps that can be taken to help with this transition in practice.
1. Use an Evidence-Based Universal Screener
Districts are accustomed to screening students for academic skills. It is becoming increasingly common to include behavioral health and social-emotional screeners as part of a multi-tiered and interconnected system of support.
Instead of waiting for major behavioral issues to occur, screening tools allow for early identification. Educators can then use the data to inform their decision-making practices. The process of completing these screeners can also make educators aware of certain externalizing and internalizing behaviors that they may not have recognized otherwise. Finally, the results from screening assessments can be used to support Tier 1 social-emotional and wellness promotion for all students by recognizing patterns and trends across campuses, grade levels, and demographic groups.
There are evidence-based screeners available that allow for quick assessment, usually completed by classroom teachers. The DESSA-mini is an example of a brief universal screener of students’ social-emotional competencies. There are also some free evidence-based tools available, such as the SRSS-IE. When selecting a screening tool, ensure it has solid research supporting its reliability and validity. Screeners should also be quick and not take more than a few minutes to complete per student.
2. Develop Cross-Disciplinary Teams To Engage in Problem-Solving
A core feature of ISF is having clinicians and other mental health and behavioral specialists engage with educators across identification and intervention planning practices. This helps all individuals working with a student stay on the same page as well as implement similar approaches and strategies. Clinicians and specialists can share specific strategies with teachers regarding how to respond to certain types of behavior they encounter in their classrooms. Educators can also provide feedback and classroom data for progress monitoring to help clinicians understand the impact of Tier 2 and 3 interventions.
3. Strengthen Tier 1 Support for All Students
There are several ways schools can improve and build on their universal mental health and behavioral support for all students. Some of this can be accomplished through professional development for teachers. School or classwide programs or interventions can also be used to promote mental health. When selecting these programs, make sure that they have a solid evidence base, and the content is developmentally and culturally relevant and appropriate for the target population. Given the importance of implementation fidelity, ensure that there are tools in place to monitor elements of implementation and ensure that any barriers to program delivery are addressed.
4. Implement Evidence-Based Targeted Interventions as Soon as Students are Identified as Needing Additional Support
A common issue that schools face is a lack of resources to implement certain Tier 2 and 3 interventions. If schools do not have enough specialists with clinical and behavioral expertise, they might need to explore the use of external service providers. Especially when working with specialists outside of the school, education leadership should consider ways that providers can still work within an interconnected framework. This will also help expedite the process of developing and implementing a support plan for students who need one. There are also evidence-based Tier 2 strategies that classroom teachers can implement. Early intervention, along with proper documentation and progress monitoring, is essential within an ISF.
💡 Check out theseTier 2 Behavior Support Resources:
Check In Check Out and Beyond: Tier 2 Behavior Interventions That Build Relationships and Foster School Connectedness
5. Align Tier 1 Classroom Strategies With Tier 2 and 3 Interventions
In an effective ISF and MTSS, there should be alignment across all tier levels of support. Evidence suggests that aligned interventions are increasingly effective for students with increased behavioral or emotional needs. This can be achieved by having a shared understanding across stakeholders of the students’ skill gaps and how a specific program or intervention addresses that need. From there, classroom teachers can work with the larger team to identify strategies they can implement in the classroom that reinforce and support the skill the student is working on. There are also social-emotional learning programs that provide materials across each level of support. What’s important is consistent goals, expectations, and strategies being used across the entire system and a common understanding amongst stakeholders.
Students’ social-emotional well-being and behavioral health contribute to their learning and development. Educators play an important role in supporting the development of these foundational skills as well as recognizing when additional help and resources are needed. However, teachers cannot do this work on their own.
Although traditional referral processes were developed to help manage and regulate how students receive targeted support, they usually result in delayed action and disjointed planning and problem-solving. Holistically supporting students is a collaborative practice, requiring coordination across many stakeholders as well as a system of support. An integrated approach offers a systematic way to ensure that students continuously receive the type and level of support they need.
As an educator or administrator, consider advocating for the implementation of an interconnected systems approach in your school or district to better support students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs. This may involve working with stakeholders to identify evidence-based universal screeners and professional development opportunities, as well as promoting collaboration among key stakeholders. By doing so, you can help ensure that all students receive the support and services they need to succeed.
It is important for schools to have a system in place to support students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs
Traditional referral processes have limitations, such as biased reporting, a delay in students receiving support, and a focus on externalizing behaviors rather than internalizing ones.
The Interconnected Systems Framework (ISF) is a comprehensive approach to addressing students’ needs that brings together PBIS and mental health under one umbrella.
Transitioning from a referral process to an ISF requires evidence-based screening practices, collaboration among key stakeholders, and alignment across tier levels of support
Educators can promote social-emotional wellness for all students by recognizing patterns and trends across campuses, grade levels, and demographic groups.
Interested in Learning How an MTSS Platform Can Support Your Behavior Staff?
The Branching Minds RTI/MTSS tool allows for the tracking of academic, SEL, and behavioral data to better identify students who are lacking specific skills hindering their success. With the use of the BRM platform, behavior staff and leaders can more effectively support staff and students in creating an inclusive environment. Visibility and progress monitoring becomes simpler. Hundreds of free evidence-based strategies, activities, and resources can be found in the BRM library. This allows behavior staff to focus on placement, progress monitoring, and celebrating the success of students who meet their academic, behavior, or social-emotional growth goals. Learn more about how Branching Minds can support your district with behavior.
Essie Sutton is an Applied Developmental Psychologist and the Director of Learning Science at Branching Minds. Her work brings together the fields of Child Development and Education Psychology to improve learning and development for all students. Dr. Sutton is responsible for studying the impacts of the Branching Minds on students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional outcomes. She also leverages MTSS research and best practices to develop and improve the Branching Minds platform.