Pivot to In-Person Instruction

PI #3: A Collaborative Start to Behavioral Supports When Returning to the School Building

TIES Center: Pivot to In-Person Instruction.

To support educators who are returning to in-person instruction this school year we are refreshing selected articles from the Distance Learning (DL) series. Refreshed articles will be identified as Pivot to In-Person Instruction (PI) articles. This article is a refresh of DL #2: A Collaborative Start to Behavioral Supports. It is intended to support the instruction of students as schools pivot from distance learning to in-person instruction, possibly more than one time. We learned many things during distance learning that should be considered as we move ahead. There are also new nuances that need to be considered as students return to school, particularly if schools switch between in-person and distance learning again. 

Returning to in-person instruction? Pause and think!

What has been working during distance learning? What do we need to remember and expand upon now that students are returning to the school building?

Behavior is a big topic. Since the beginning of time, one could argue, children have behaved differently in the comfort of their own home than they have at school. As adults, we behave differently at home than we would at work, around our peers, or outside of the comfort of our places we call home (and there are many reasons for that). Why would it be any different for our children? How do we ensure that behaviors that have been supported at home during distance learning can be supported well within the school building, or when students pivot between the two environments? 

Families supported their children at home even more than usual during the time of distance learning. This included providing behavioral supports as well as assisting with instruction when necessary. Families’ relationships at home are integral to what makes a home - home. You are mom, dad, brother, sister, guardian - but not usually the one who teaches academics and IEP goals.  That being said, what you have learned and experienced during distance learning is important once children are back in the school building.  

School team professionals are an important part of what makes school - school. Your understanding and relationships with your students can now include what you have learned from supporting them outside of the school building, as well as what you know and do on an everyday basis to engage students in instruction within and across the school day. 

Understanding the Need for Positive Behavioral Supports

Positive and consistent behavioral supports are needed by all students and, for some students, are absolutely vital to support meaningful engagement in academics. Behavioral supports offered to all students provide structure to routines and activities. They are threaded throughout the way we teach, are shown by how we know when to push and increase expectations, or when we give breaks and allow for downtime and reflection. We can also see it in how we prompt, wait and fade our support of students while they are engaging in learning. 

An initial task before us is identifying and transferring the knowledge of things that worked for us during distance learning to support behavior that we can now apply within the school building. Collaboration and communication are key. Also key is deliberately revisiting what those supports have been, both prior to, and during distance learning, and what they should be when we return to the school day in the brick and mortar school. These supports can now include thinking about the whole child the whole day, informed by behavioral supports that have been successful at home and school so that families can continue to best support their children. By intentionally identifying and consistently providing these supports, students with significant cognitive disabilities will be more able to participate and engage academically and socially with their peers.

Supportive Reflections Between School Teams to Families

The first step in creating behavioral supports for children who need them most is for school teams to reflect, identify, and discuss with families what the essential practices have been to support behavior at home, especially during distance learning. From these conversations, the school team can adjust and apply what has been used throughout the day at home, when the students are in the school building. 

Now is also the perfect time for teachers and specialized support personnel to reflect on what mantras they use, jokes they have that create space for laughter when students get stuck or need help persisting, guidance they give to creatively bring students’ attention back to the task at hand and try their best. These supports and strategies can be shared with families to maintain and enhance behavioral supports that are consistent between home and school, ultimately creating more robust supports across both environments. This enhancement of collaboration and conversation between home and school is one positive result of distance learning.   

Teachers, what do you do that sets up the learning situation for the most success? How do you set up the learning environment so that it is organized, consistent and responsive to students? How do you anticipate the needs students may have? What specifically, with an identified student in mind who requires positive behavioral supports, do you know about fast or slow triggers that they may have within a learning environment (for example, fast are ones that are predictable and happen quickly, slow are those that simmer and build over time)? Are there situations that the family may have new insight into that they have come to understand during distance learning? Things that are pitfalls? Things that are super positive?

Examples of this could be:

  • Affirmations you give to identify what is going well with an activity, behavior, or choice a person is making in any given moment
  • Words, phrases, gestures, or body language that you use to tell students you want to see more of something (or less of something) as it pertains to behavior, persistence, patience, and engagement
  • When do you speak or prompt, gesture, wait or pause? What scenarios make you choose one over the other? For example, if you ask a student to answer a math problem and frustration happens, do you ask in a different way? Provide a gestural cue? Pause to let the student think and decrease language in the moment?
  • Gestures you use, how long you pause and wait
  • Visuals you have that symbolize expectations or routines
  • Warnings or words you use when you need a group or individual to think about what they are doing and make good choices in the moment
  • Things you have noticed that this particular individual really enjoys or things where the opposite is true
  • Songs you sing when it is time to clean up, move on, transition from one activity to another
  • Brain-break and body movement activities you use that could be utilized at home, timing of when you use them, and how can you tell by a student’s posture or engagement that more might be needed?
  • Songs or sayings you use to assist in remembering content or teach social-emotional learning and behaviors

Family/Home Considerations to Support Behavior at School

Another step in creating behavioral supports for children who need them most is for families to think about and be able to communicate to the school team about what the current realities are within the home and school learning environments, as well as what worked during distance learning. Collaboration and communication have always been central to setting up successful programming for students. Now is a great opportunity to continue the open and clear communication about what strengths, needs, and challenges are presenting themselves for our students from day to day. Continuing to have structures in place for that robust communication to happen between home and school is important.

Similar to school teams describing what works/doesn’t for a particular student, we need to have a way for families to identify, communicate and suggest ideas to address what they believe their child is experiencing from day to day and things the child and/or family might be needing from their school team as supports, learning or feedback.

Here are some guiding questions for families to consider and then discuss as a team:

  • What are the behaviors you need help with problem-solving?
  • What was your child doing?
  • How long does the behavior occur? When does it happen? How often?
  • What happened before the behavior (these are known as antecedents) that might have influenced the student's behavior? (think about time of day, activities, locations, materials, people, requests, and commands)
  • Were there other things that happened that might be contributing to the behavior such as not sleeping well, not being able to get outside, or other things outside of what is currently a normal routine?
  • How did you handle the situation?
  • What do you think they might have been trying to communicate to you? (ideas: wanted more/less attention, needed help, frustration, anger, pain, or discomfort)
  • Are there behaviors that have increased, decreased, regressed, or presented themselves during times of distance learning that the team should know?

High and Low Tech Ideas for Collaboration and Communication for Behavioral Supports

By now, teams have established ways to collaborate regarding behavioral supports and needs. Continuing to use the high and low-tech options that families and schools utilized while the student was learning at home will be beneficial. Some examples include:

  • SeeSaw (high-tech) is a great tool for communicating between home and school. Pictures, videos, and notes can be sent back and forth between people, and students themselves can post things that they want to highlight or ask questions about. When it comes to behavioral supports, sometimes SeeSaw can respectfully capture things in the moment, that can then be discussed at a later time. This allows for calm discussion and reflection about what happened, in situations where that would be beneficial. 
  • Creating a form that teachers and parents could utilize that creates a space for thinking objectively about behaviors; specific positive behavioral supports that are being utilized or could be tried; potential communicative functions of behavior; as well as what the possible antecedents are to a challenging behavior
  • School teams can help families continue to offer consistent, organized, and respectful learning environments and routines. This could include structures, such as places to put completed work, folders to help with organization, assisting with setting times of day, and routines based on the individual student and their person-centered needs in this regard.
  • Establishing a way for families to keep track of data if there is a behavior that needs to be problem-solved so that the conversations can be based on what is happening at home and adjustments that could be brainstormed together utilizing that data. This could be creating a Google form (high-tech) or pencil/paper (low-tech).

Regardless of the technology used or the forms created, the most important thing to remember as you continue to collaborate and support behavior at this pivotal time is to create spaces for reflection, listening, and problem-solving together. Families and school teams are in a position of working together on behalf of their collective children like they never have been before. Remain positive, student-centered, and strength-based...the rest you will figure out together!

Pivot to In-Person Instruction Series

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Sommerness, J. (2021). PI #3:  A Collaborative Start to Behavioral Supports When Returning to the School Building. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

This overview was posted previously as a part of the Distance Learning Series, DL #2: A Collaborative Start to Behavioral Supports. Content has been adapted by the author(s) for application to in-person instruction as well as distance learning.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education (# H326Y170004). The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership.  Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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