Beyond Behavior: The Next Generation of Behavioral RTI

Educators have long recognized the importance of student behavior as a necessary foundation upon which the “real work” of academics can be completed. Most educators now appreciate that behavioral skills are as important as—and perhaps more important than—academic skills. Whether we label them non-cognitive skills, self-regulation, executive functioning, social-emotional learning, grit, self-control, or social intelligence, student mastery of these behavioral skills better predicts success in school, college, and life than test scores and measures of intellectual ability. We must collectively embrace this reality and better nurture these skills within our students. But the question is, how?

The principles and practices of Response to Intervention (or Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports), which are dedicated to the nurturing of behavioral skills, are most impactful and efficient when processes mirror the ways in which we have successfully served students’ academic needs. We have developed and implemented a blueprint to help schools prioritize, define, teach, model, nurture, and reinforce positive behavior to achieve better student outcomes and create productive school cultures. (We must honor and acknowledge the debt that we owe to Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports , or PBIS. As described below, our work addresses a broader range of behavioral skills in a slightly different manner, but our starting point for behavioral RTI has always been PBIS.)

Educators must gather evidence regarding the extent to which students are mastering behavioral priorities and diagnose the needs of students who are not yet meeting behavioral-skill expectations, so we have designed and employed simple evidence-gathering tools. Research-based strategies exist to target specifically diagnosed needs and can be used at all tiers and with all students, so we have created a library of instructional, differentiation, and intervention strategies that match likely areas of student need.

There is a great need for behavioral supports for students, and a great need to build our capacity to support student needs. As educators, we have simply not been well enough equipped and prepared to support students’ behavioral needs and to help students develop mastery of critical behavioral skills.

The Power of Motivation

At ICLE, we passionately believe that the most important principles and practices for student growth are inextricably related—including differentiation, growth mindset, student self-assessment, metacognition, and perseverance—and are mutually reinforcing concepts that will improve student engagement, nurture non-cognitive skills, and lead to better academic performance. We should celebrate these similarities and encourage staff to interpret and implement best practices as connected sets of supports for students.

There is as much research in the specific behavioral area of motivation as there is in mathematics: Dweck (2010), Duckworth (2016), Ericsson and Pool (2016), and Farrington, et al. (2012), have described the interconnectedness of non-cognitive factors, or behavioral skills, and report that they are “teachable” and “changeable.” We have recreated Farrington’s framework in diagram-form below; this flowchart has influenced our identification of essential “behavioral skills.” As noted above, while we are indebted to Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS)—and PBIS’ processes are as sound and as relevant as ever—schools’ implementation of PBIS has focused on social skills. We know that there are other domains of behavior that are critical to student success and that we can and must nurture them if all students are going to ready for success in school, college, career, and life. We must commit to ensuring students learn these skills—by modeling, teaching, reinforcing, nurturing, assessing, providing feedback, differentiating, and intervening—so that they are optimally prepared.

Community, School and Classroom Contexts 

From Research to Reality

There may be educators who feel that a focus on behavioral skills is unnecessary, given the rise of facilitated learning experiences, project-based learning, the maker movement, and competency-based education. They may hope that more contemporary pedagogies and practices (present in a growing number of future-ready schools) represent the answer to the question, “How do we nurture non-cognitive factors within students?”

But while these next-generation teaching strategies may be more facilitative and learning may be more experiential, students still need to be guided, habits need to be modeled, and behavioral skills need to be taught.

So, how do we do it? What magic formula will support teachers and schools in helping students develop these habits? While there may be yet untapped strategies, the practices that will most likely develop critical behavioral skills are the very same research-based best practices we’ve read about but may not have found time to implement—such as rigorous and relevant teaching, collaborative learning, differentiated instruction, and most comprehensively, the principles and practices of Response to Intervention.

The research is clear. The realities are understood. The nature of the future for which we are preparing students is undeniable. And, we as a profession know what to do; we already have the answer within our reach.


I will be presenting on this topic at the 25th Annual Model Schools Conference on June 25, 2017!

Each June, 5000+ educators come together at the Model Schools Conference to learn about effective strategies and develop an action plan for change. The participants come with different challenges, but focus on the same future-focused question: What do our children need to know and be able to accomplish to be successful in work and life?

I invite you to explore your answers to this question and many other topics with us next June!