According to the most recent GAO analysis of the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, Black students, boys, and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended or expelled in K-12 public schools. The reasons for these disparities may not always be clear, but the consequences are stark—suspended or expelled students miss out on opportunities to learn. What can be done to minimize this opportunity gap?
In 2018, researchers at the University of Oregon received a grant to develop an alternative to exclusionary discipline for middle schools. The Inclusive Skill Building Learning Approach (ISLA) will function as a Tier I universal intervention in middle schools that use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). ISLA systems and practices will give teachers other options for dealing with misbehaving students along with strategies to support students when they return to the classroom following a trip to the principal’s office. I recently spoke with Dr. Rhonda Nese, the principal investigator for Project ISLA, about how she became interested in this work and how she and her colleagues are tackling this challenge of narrowing the opportunity gap in middle school classrooms.
How did you become interested in the issue of disproportionate discipline?
I had been deeply interested in the school-to-prison pipeline research for many years, but the light switch went on for me when I was spending time in a middle school through my work on another project. I started noticing a pattern of students, mostly boys and students of color, sitting in the office every time I walked into this school. And I’m talking about lots of students! This office would be flooded with kids; not learning, not speaking with anyone, just sitting and looking downcast. And it was disturbing.
When I asked the assistant principal what the students were doing in the office, she shared that, for whatever reason, the students were sent out of class and needed to meet with an administrator. So, I became curious. On average how much class time were they missing? I was floored to learn that the average was three days of missed instruction, which is the equivalent of over 1200 minutes of learning. And the deeper I dug the more I realized how pervasive the problem was. In addition to the racial disparities I saw in the kids being excluded, it was also clear that the students who were missing instruction were those who needed to be in class the most: students living in poverty, students struggling academically, and students receiving special education services. And the process of sitting and waiting was doing the students a tremendous disservice academically, behaviorally, and emotionally. I saw firsthand the issues I needed to begin addressing immediately, and I knew I found my passion.
How does Project ISLA extend or build on your earlier research?
I started developing ISLA during my postdoc years when I was deep in the PBIS literature, examining predictors of sustained implementation of evidence-based practices, and beginning to explore interventions to address implicit biases in discipline disproportionality. So, I was able to combine what I was learning from practitioners and from scientific findings to craft an intervention that was rooted in behavioral theory, embedded in preventative practices, and incorporated teacher and student voice.
I also became clearer with myself and others that ISLA is not about “fixing” kids: it is about changing adult behavior to improve student outcomes and relationships. Now through our iterative development process, our team is learning so much about what it takes to support school staff with making this work their own, how we get buy-in from the school community, and how we braid the ISLA work with other preventative practices they already have in place.
What are the core components of the ISLA intervention? What are its essential practices? What have you learned so far about what it takes to implement ISLA in middle schools?
One of our greatest goals is to help educators make this philosophical shift where they view sending a student out of class as a really big deal, and thus, should be reserved for situations in which the teachers and students need support with problem solving, skill building, and making amends. In order to accomplish this, we begin with spending a lot of time with our educators developing and revisiting preventative practices to improve the classroom environment, and in turn, reduce the need for exclusion. This includes working with educators to develop and implement universal relationship-building strategies, graduated discipline practices within the classroom, neutralizing routines to reduce the impact of implicit biases on their decision making, and mechanisms for supporting students in effective and respectful ways. We then layer on a systematized process for students and teachers to request breaks, and then on top of this we have our processes that are provided to students in the event that they are sent out to help them get back to class faster and with the skills to make amends with their teacher. This includes a debrief, skills coaching, and reconnection supports with a front office staff member and a process for their teacher to listen reflectively and agree on how they will problem solve with the student if there’s an issue in the future.
Getting folks to move away from exclusionary discipline practices takes a lot of time and a lot of patience, because suspensions and other forms of exclusion are deeply tied to systems of oppression that have been prevalent in the United States. And especially in middle school, there’s this pervasive myth that students should know how to behave by this point, and so anything to the contrary is seen as willful defiance as opposed to a skill gap. Unfortunately, there’s no quick fix, and ISLA is certainly not a silver bullet. In fact, we call ISLA Tier I+ because it starts with universal preventative practices and then adds supports for students and teachers who need more. Because of all the myth busting and support layering we’re doing, working with a team of educators in each school has been critical for buy-in and implementation. They help guide our iterative changes, give us strategies to consider, and are the voice to their colleagues. They are invested in the work because they are helping to develop it for their schools. And our work is so much more meaningful because of them.
Dr. Nese and her team are mid-way through their project. Now that they have completed the iterative development process they are testing the usability and feasibility of ISLA in new middle schools this year. In their pilot study of promise next year, they will see if ISLA increases instructional time for students and improves student-teacher relationships and school climate. In addition to creating ISLA user guides and materials, the team plans to develop technical reports, video tutorials, trainings, and webinars that will be available through the Office for Special Education Programs (OSEP) Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports website.
Written by Emily Doolittle, National Center for Education Research Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research. This is the third in a series of blog posts that stems from the 2020 Annual Principal Investigators Meeting. The theme of the meeting was Closing the Gaps for All Learners and focused on IES’s objective to support research that improves equity in access to education and education outcomes. Other posts in this series include Why I Want to Become an Education Researcher and Diversify Education Sciences? Yes, We Can!