An alarm is sounding — according to a recent APA survey, almost half of all teachers reported a desire to change jobs due to safety and climate concerns. Many schools are overwhelmed with the surge of mental health needs and challenging behaviors, leaving school leaders wondering what they can do to address student needs while supporting teacher well-being.

    I’ve been there, and although building a system of intensive behavior support for students who need it (and their teachers!) is a long game, it IS possible, and absolutely worth the investment. All student growth is exciting to see, but my most meaningful experiences as an educator were those where a child went from being unable to function safely, make friends, or participate in learning, to then getting the support they needed to become a thriving member of the school community.

    This guide will touch on the critical elements of an effective intensive behavior support system from a school leader’s perspective, along with practical tips and recommended resources to explore. Don’t miss the section on making Tier 3 behavior intervention actually practicable amidst the many day-to-day challenges of running a school or district..

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    1. Where Does Intensive Behavior Intervention Fit in MTSS?

    Intensive intervention refers to the highest level of individualized support offered along the continuum of interventions in a Multi-Tiered System of Supports for Behavior (MTSS-B), also called “Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports” or PBIS. These levels of support are often referred to as: Tier 1-Universal (prevention, instruction, and differentiation for all students), Tier 2-Strategic (targeted skill-building and support), and Tier 3-Intensive (individualized behavior plans with wrap-around services).

    An organized system of universal, targeted, and intensive behavior interventions, along with a data-driven continuous improvement cycle, enables schools to be both preventative and responsive to the behavior needs of all students, even those with very challenging behavior.

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    Critical MTSS-B / PBIS Features:

    • Clear behavior expectations and positive school climate

    • Effective classroom management

    • EL and behavioral screening

    • A continuum of interventions for students in need of additional behavior support

    • Regular progress monitoring

    • Data-driven decision-making

     

    All students deserve a safe and supportive school climate with clear expectations and positive reinforcement, but for students who struggle with behavior, this foundation is absolutely essential.

     

    Tier 1 universal supports provide a consistent structure that prevents many behavioral problems in the first place and allows for easier identification of students who truly need strategic or intensive help. Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention programs can then offer additional layers of support, with an increase in the intensity of instruction, feedback, and reinforcement around behavioral expectations.

    Without a solid foundation of universal and strategic supports, the “need” for Tier 3 intensive behavior interventions may quickly overwhelm any system you implement. Even worse, students may struggle to improve without the positive climate, strategic skill-building, and orderly, predictable systems that PBIS provides throughout the school, despite efforts to provide intensive intervention.

    Common Characteristics of Students With Intensive Behavior Needs

    Students with very disruptive or dangerous behaviors are hard to miss. This is certainly true of those students with aggressive “externalizing” behaviors. Keep in mind, though, that,

     

    students who are so withdrawn (or absent altogether) that they are not able to access instruction are also in need of intensive behavior support.

     

    Students who exhibit missing social, emotional, or behavior skills or who exhibit chronic severe misbehavior or withdrawal should be identified through a screening process and decision rules, typically by the campus Tier 3 Behavior Intervention Team (or combined Tier 2 / 3 Behavior Team.) Almost always, these students also have academic deficits, either because their behavior has prevented access to instruction, or because their experience of academic failure is a driver of their misbehavior, especially at the secondary level.

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    Behavior support that is paired with needed academic support is more likely to be effective, especially for secondary students. A whole-child approach allows educators to better understand, prioritize, and collaborate around student needs.

    Behaviors that indicate a need for intensive support:

    • Verbal aggression

    • Physical aggression

    • Elopement

    • Chronic withdrawal or isolation

    • Chronic truancy

    Most of these behaviors cause students to show up as “frequent flyers” in data trends for referrals, suspensions, attendance, and staff requests for assistance. Picture the students with very challenging behavior on your campus…many or most teachers on the campus will know exactly who they are. However, if the behavior is “internalizing” and not causing disruption, such as withdrawal or isolation, the student may fall through the cracks. Social, emotional, and behavioral screening is a must to catch these students and provide the support they need to be successful in school.

    2. How to Build a Tier 3 Behavior Intervention System

    It is important to consider the systems that support staff behavior along with the practices/ interventions that support student behavior. Without an underlying framework for teaming, data collection, and problem-solving, it is unlikely that individual student behavior plans will be carried out successfully or that the overall intervention program will be sustainable. (www.PBIS.org)

    The School-Wide PBIS Tiered Fidelity Inventory (Algozzine et al., 2019) is a freely available rubric for both systems and individual student planning. Here are important system features for Tier 3 intervention:

    Tier 3 Behavior Intervention Team (or combined Tier 2 & 3 Team): Includes staff members with applied behavioral expertise, administrative authority, multiagency or wrap-around services supports, knowledge of students, and the operations of the school across grade levels and programs including academic intervention. This team will oversee the Tier 3 program, ensure that student plans are carried out, monitor data, and schedule individual student support team meetings as needed.
    Screening: The Tier 3 team uses universal and targeted screening data along with additional data such as office discipline referrals, Tier 2 intervention data, academic progress, absences, teacher/ family/student nominations, to identify students who require Tier 3 supports.
    Individual Student Support Teams: These are multi-disciplinary teams unique to each student that will design and implement the behavior intervention plan. These teams include school staff, family members and other natural supporters, wrap-around service providers, and the student when possible. Student perspective is vital in creating a plan that works, even if the student is not ready to participate in a team meeting.

     

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    Student Overview Page in Branching Minds

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    For continued buy-in, teachers need to be regularly informed of progress, successes, and changes in the Tier 3 behavioral intervention program as appropriate. This is an outward recognition that behavior intervention is a team effort and that everyone has a role to play in creating a safe and supportive school environment.

    Staffing: Each student with a behavior support plan needs an assigned person to coordinate and facilitate that plan. Intensive behavior plans typically require a high level of coaching, data collection, family communication, and more — it is the job of the plan coordinator to ensure consistency and fidelity of implementation. See more on staffing for behavior below.
    Professional Development: All staff need a basic understanding of how to help students with challenging behavior and how the Tier 3 behavior program is structured on their campus. Those who work directly with students with Tier 3 behavioral intervention plans need to be trained in their specific responsibilities. A formal process for teaching and coaching staff on all aspects of intervention delivery must be created to ensure that plans are implemented with fidelity.

     

    3. Designing Individualized Behavior Support Plans

    Individualized behavior support plans must be comprehensive in nature in order to be effective for students with really challenging behavior. That doesn’t mean that you will try to fix everything at once! In fact, that might be the least effective thing to do. Instead, it means that whatever behavior the team decides is most important to tackle first, there is a comprehensive plan to help the student change that behavior.

    A comprehensive behavior support plan includes:

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    Hypothesis statement: If the behavior is the smoke, the underlying cause of the behavior is the fire. Address the fire, not the smoke! The “hypothesis statement” is the team’s best guess as to what factors are triggering a specific behavior and causing it to continue. Everyone on the team should have some basic training in determining the function of behavior, and at least one person on the team, such as a behavior specialist or school psychologist, should have significant training and expertise to help guide the discussion and provide a clear, operational definition of the problem.

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    Preventive and proactive strategies for teaching and reinforcing new skills: This is the meaty part of the plan involving direct services to the student. The team will ask:

    • What can we change in the environment to make the behavior less likely to occur?

    • What new skills and coping strategies does the student need to learn, and how will we teach those skills?

    • How will we motivate the student to use their new skills?

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    Wrap-around services: Students with intensive needs typically require outside service providers to coordinate with the work being done by school staff. This includes mental health providers, medical professionals, homeless services, case management, or other community supports.

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    Natural supports: Family and community members are a vital link to the child’s life outside the school setting and can help provide the connection and consistency needed for the student to “generalize” newly learned skills, that is, to take their new strategies and apply them widely across different settings in the school, home, and community.

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    For continued buy-in, teachers need to be regularly informed of progress, successes, and changes in the Tier 3 behavioral intervention program as appropriate. This is an outward recognition that behavior intervention is a team effort and that everyone has a role to play in creating a safe and supportive school environment.

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    Measurable goals and data collection methods: The data needed to drive decisionmaking around very challenging behavior needs to be much more finely grained than typical behavioral data collection methods like a daily count or rating. Detailed information about the frequency, duration, and intensity of behaviors is the only way to detect patterns, make predictions, and know whether the student is making the slow growth that can lead to big changes over time.

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    A safety plan: How will staff organize to keep this student safe, and how will staff respond in the moment to known dangerous behaviors such as aggression and elopement? In addition to the general campus safety plan, an individualized behavior plan should have a plan for both preventing and responding to specific student behaviors, including de-escalation and emergency procedures to keep the student, peers, and staff safe.

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    An action plan: Who, what, where, when…HOW? It’s the details and the follow-up that will make or break the plan. Include information about specifics in the written plan itself, or if available, make use of your district’s MTSS software. An MTSS platform makes it far easier to have plans accessible, assign tasks, and track both plan implementation and student progress. In my case, the Branching Minds platform allowed me to monitor Tier 3 plans at a glance and quickly see where plans were either missing or not being monitored.

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    Free Downloadable Resource:

    Appendix: Tier 3 Behavior Support Plan Template (in PDF) 

    4. Staffing for Behavior Intervention

    Many schools do not have adequate behavioral staff or expertise, although this is changing as campus and district leaders recognize and prioritize behavior support as crucial to improving student outcomes, school safety, and staff retention. When there is a pattern of significant misbehavior, and any time that behavior is very disruptive and dangerous, teachers can not and should not be expected to manage on their own. They need the support of a team, and when it comes to intensive intervention, teachers need direct support from someone with the time and expertise to actually help.

    Depending on the size and specific needs of a particular school, a full-time interventionist for behavior may or may not be indicated, but intensive behavior intervention should be a part of someone’s job description on every campus so that when the need arises, there is the capacity to provide support. District-level staff can also be extremely helpful in providing an additional set of eyes along with modeling and coaching for staff on how to provide interventions with fidelity.

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    A Caution With Behavior Staffing

    Unskilled or overwhelmed behavior staff may actually make things WORSE unless they are trained and protected in their role as a positive intervention support, not a hallway “heavy.” You can unintentionally escalate student behavior and disciplinary removals if there is a high level of reactive, negative behavior staff interaction with students.

    Instead, with appropriate staffing levels and training, behavior staff can move out of a reactive disciplinary mode and focus on what makes a lasting difference for students: a Multi-Tiered System of Supports for Behavior that provides a continuum of proactive behavioral interventions. When professional and paraprofessional staff implement research-based interventions and are on a mission to create a positive and supportive school climate, this is when you see lasting improvement and a change in mindset towards students with behavioral needs.

    5. Making Tier 3 Behavior Intervention Actually Practicable

    Many schools do not have adequate behavioral staff or expertise, although this is changing as campus and district leaders recognize and prioritize behavior support as crucial to improving student outcomes, school safety, and staff retention. When there is a pattern of significant misbehavior, and any time that behavior is very disruptive and dangerous, teachers can not and should not be expected to manage on their own. They need the support of a team, and when it comes to intensive intervention, teachers need direct support from someone with the time and expertise to actually help.

    Depending on the size and specific needs of a particular school, a full-time interventionist for behavior may or may not be indicated, but intensive behavior intervention should be a part of someone’s job description on every campus so that when the need arises, there is the capacity to provide support. District-level staff can also be extremely helpful in providing an additional set of eyes along with modeling and coaching for staff on how to provide interventions with fidelity.

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    The staff members responsible for Tier 3 Behavior intervention need protection from “emergency response” mode for issues that don’t involve their specific students identified for Tier 3 support. Otherwise, consistency in implementing the behavior plan will quickly fall away, and students with Tier 3 needs will likely not improve.

    Here are the most important factors:

    Designated staff and space

    Kids with intensive behavior needs must have a predictable place and people for both planned social skills instruction and unplanned de-escalation.

    Interventions that are designed for and appropriate for school staff.

    School is not a clinical setting, and teachers are not therapists. But school staff can absolutely provide appropriate behavior interventions that support student skill development, and can collaborate with mental health professionals to ensure students have a cohesive plan of care.

    Recommended Reading: Interventions, 3rd Edition

    Highly responsive monitoring and coaching

    By definition, these students need significant instruction, practice, and coaching to learn new patterns of behavior. Real behavior change happens in the context where the behavior was naturally occurring (not the controlled environment of the intervention room), so students need on-the-spot coaching in the classroom. Teachers typically cannot provide this level of support while leading a class, so a system for monitoring and coaching is essential. If the teacher or student needs assistance with escalating behavior and no help is available, confidence in the plan will quickly erode.

    Example: A highly effective structure in several of the schools I served involved a behavior specialist and aide working as a pair to provide continuous monitoring across the school for the students involved in the Tier 3 behavior support program. They had eyes on each of their students every 5-15 minutes all day, gathered data, stepped in and coached in the moment when needed, and staffed the behavior room for scheduled social skills lessons and unscheduled cool-downs when one of their students was in crisis. They put miles on their pedometers each day. In fact, it became a contest between behavior staff for the most steps! Teachers and students knew they could trust their team to be there when needed, and students made remarkable progress, exiting the program as new positive behaviors became habits.

    Recommended Reading: PASS: A Positive Approach to Student Success

    Positive reinforcement for students to use new skills

    A reward is technically defined as anything that works to increase the desired behavior. If the behavior isn’t improving, you haven’t found a real reward yet! Some kids like tangible rewards and treats, some like free time, special privileges, sports or games; it really depends on the specific student. But whatever the reward is, be sure to pair it with positive social interaction and relationship-building activities. Students need to associate their positive behavior with personal connection and a feeling of belonging.

     

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    A reinforcement system can be a point of contention for teachers and parents who don’t want to see kids with challenging behaviors “rewarded,” but keep in mind that students have developed behavioral patterns over years, and it is difficult to change without a strong incentive. Getting a taste of success along with positive social interactions can provide the momentum needed to build new habits.

    Easily accessible plan details and resources

    This includes the who, where, what, when, why, and how. Meetings, progress monitoring data, notes, family communications, and wrap-around service information should all be available to the staff members supporting the student. This information should also follow the student if the student changes schools or is placed in a disciplinary alternative setting for a time. Timely communication about student needs and supports in place can prevent regression in student progress and duplicated effort.

     

    6. Conclusion

    A system of intensive behavior intervention is working when the students involved are measurably improving, AND teachers report feeling safe and supported. Challenging behavior is, by definition, challenging and resistant to change, and there are many ways to contain, ignore, or remove students with behavior problems without actually addressing underlying needs. The concerns of staff and students should not be opposed to one another. Everyone in the school environment, students and staff, deserves a climate conducive to teaching and learning. An intensive behavior support system can help you reach that goal.


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    Behavior & SEL: Supporting the Whole Child With Branching Minds

    Educators around the country are using Branching Minds to help address students’ behavioral needs. Our comprehensive platform empowers school leaders, teachers, and interventionists to seamlessly integrate Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Behavioral Health assessments with academic evaluations, intervention strategies, records of behavioral incidents, progress tracking, and all pertinent correspondence. This integration equips educators with the necessary tools to make informed decisions about students’ requirements, and supports a series of actions that can be taken to ensure students are receiving the type and level of needed support.

    Because of Branching Minds our teachers are finally able tosee the whole child in one place. Not just RTI for academics but behavior,communication with parents, at-risk coding like homelessness, etc.Our teachers have this at their fngertips and are able to collaboratewith each other.
    — Pennie Graeber, RTI Coordinator, Waco Independent School District, Waco (Texas)
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    Understanding Students' Social-Emotional Strengths & Challenges

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    Using SEL Data To Guide Decision-Making & Planning

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    Finding and Implementing Evidence-Based Resources

    Learn more about how you can support your students with Branching Minds. 


    References

    Algozzine, B., Barrett, S., Eber, L., George, H., Horner, R., Lewis, T., Putnam, B., Swain-Bradway, J., McIntosh, K., & Sugai, G (2014). School-wide PBIS Tiered Fidelity Inventory. OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. www.pbis.org

    Walker, T. (2022, March 18). Violence, Threats Against Teachers, School Staff Could Hasten Exodus from Profession | NEA. National Education Association. Retrieved August 7, 2023, from https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/violence-threats-againstteachers-school-staff-could-hasten-exodus-profession

    About the Author

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    Trudy Bender

    Trudy Bender is the MTSS Content Manager at Branching Minds. She has extensive experience as a teacher, school psychologist, and district administrator. Most recently, she served as the Coordinator of District Behavior Intervention at Waco ISD, where she facilitated the implementation of a Multi-Tiered System of Supports for behavior along with initiatives to improve school climate and to build teacher capacity in classroom management through peer coaching. She is passionate about helping teachers and administrators to develop systems that reduce disproportionality while improving social-emotional and academic outcomes for all students. Trudy is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and holds an Ed.S. in School Psychology from Baylor University.


    With the Branching Minds partnership, we are gaining both a thought partner who will help us enhance all of our MTSS practices, structures and approach, and a platform that will help make the work easier and more efficient for all of our educators at CMS - from classroom teachers and support staff to school and district administrators.
    — Dr. Frank Barnes Chief Accountability Officer at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, NC

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