By Stacy Champey, Manchester Public School MTSS District Coach, and Dana Asby, Education Coordinator, New England MHTTC
Educators and administrators are increasingly asked to deliver more than the academic instruction their teacher preparation courses readied them for to provide the holistic education we now understand best serves students. Providing a single day of professional development and a thick curriculum manual rarely leads to fidelity in the implementation of social emotional learning (SEL) and behavioral health support services. Coaching might be the missing piece that helps schools and districts better meet students’ social emotional needs.
Researchers from Brown University and the University of Maryland did a meta-analysis of 60 studies about coaching and found that it can improve instructional effectiveness. When a novice teacher receives coaching, their practice improves to match that of a teacher with five to ten years of experience—a much higher level of improvement than traditional professional development efforts achieve (Kraft & Blazar, 2018).
Another important finding from this study highlights the difficulty of scaling up coaching programs, something the professional development field has also struggled with over the years. While large effect sizes can sometimes be found in small studies of promising training programs, these effect sizes often diminish as they are introduced to larger and more diverse groups of students, schools, or districts. A possible cause is the lack of fidelity of implementation that occurs as those providing instruction become further removed from program developers. Kraft and Blazar (2018) found that this challenge plagues coaching programs as well. Studies that looked at programs involving 100 or more teachers averaged effects one-third to one-half as large as studies with fewer than 100 teachers. How can we retain the positive effects of SEL coaching while introducing the practice to a larger number of teachers in a school or district? Involving educators in the design and development process of the coaching program, using data to determine school or district needs as programs and practices are chosen, and ensuring administrative buy-in has enhanced the effectiveness of coaching around one behavioral health framework in New Hampshire.
A Successful Coaching Program to Bring Effective SEL Practices into Classrooms
Stacy Champey works in a large urban school district, housing twenty-one schools and over 12,000 students, with 60% of the students considered to be economically disadvantaged. In her role as Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) District Coach, in order to address the growing needs around supporting student behavioral health and wellness, the district is adopting an MTSS framework with a coaching component. One of the elementary schools is acting as a demonstration site to inform and improve the work before replicating the model in additional schools. Stacy has been coaching in this demonstration site over the past year to help establish school-wide positive behavior support, social emotional learning, positive relationships with students, and to identify a clear referral pathway for students who are in need of targeted support.
This work is a process that involves coaching staff through small, or significant, changes in a school’s system and practices. No matter how large or slight of a change is needed, critical to the success of this work is ensuring that there is targeted professional development aligned with the practices that schools are being asked to implement and that all staff participate in this training, including administrators. In addition, ongoing technical assistance and coaching for staff are essential to increase teacher efficacy in applying concepts learned in professional development to their practice and to continue to refine their work around these new concepts. According to an article on improving teacher effectiveness and school systems, “To bridge the gap between professional development events and actual practice use in classrooms and schools, coaching is suggested as an important means or driver for addressing many of these limitations and improving the impact and sustainability…” (Freeman et al., 2017, p. 30).
District Implementation Teams: A Key to Increasing Fidelity of SEL Coaching Programs
Many educators work hard every school year to organize their classrooms and understand the expectations around the curriculum and operations of the school. Frequently, new school or district initiatives are also added to the annual list of “to-do’s” that the educator must complete. During her time as a special education teacher, Stacy experienced the start and stop cycle with new initiatives that fall flat as quickly as they began. It is frustrating to invest time and materials into a program, and within a few months, pack it away never to be used again.
Research has found that the sustainability of new practices must have the support of building administration; however, it is equally important to have district backing for new practices in order to build a systemic and sustainable model. This model includes time allocated for teacher training, coaching, and performance feedback in order for educators to continue to improve in their practice (Han & Weiss, 2005). The backbone that will support the success of this model and the implementation of evidence-based practices is a district implementation team (Sugai & Horner, 2006). Representation from district, community, and school stakeholders sit on this team and create a shared mission and vision, as well as goals and action steps to work toward goal completion.
Without district-level participation, carving out time for targeted professional development around new school practices, efforts are splintered across a district which hurts sustainability (Chaparro et al., 2012). In order to address this, the district implementation team reinforces a systemic coaching model to enhance teacher performance around professional development efforts. This level of systemic support will build a sustainable model that moves district administrators, school administrators, and teaching staff all in the same direction—progress!
Approaching Trauma-Informed SEL and Behavioral Health Coaching—Regardless of District Buy-In
Stacy has been learning alongside other school mental health providers, educators, and administrators interested in enhancing the social, emotional, and behavioral health of their students and staff as a Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative Fellow. She has shared some of the great work bringing compassionate school practices into schools that she is doing in New Hampshire and gotten ideas to inform that work from her colleagues throughout New England. As Stacy developed her coaching blueprint to implement the MTSS framework in her schools, she used the Compassionate School Mental Health Model to ensure that the recommendations she was making at each tier were trauma-informed, and considered not just the treatment of mental health challenges, but the reduction of trauma, ways to develop protective factors against the negative effects of trauma, and how to help students and their families increase their resiliency.
From Compassionate School Practices (2021), as modified by the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center
The district-wide approach Stacy has been able to take because of the support from her administration and the state Department of Education has allowed her to guide the schools she works with to become more trauma-skilled, using more culturally responsive, compassionate practices to create a sense of belonging and a positive environment. While many districts are recognizing the importance of SEL and behavioral health supports, some administrators must take a more local approach and choose from a menu of SEL evidence-based practices or determine an SEL program or behavioral health support system that meets their needs and implement it as a school community. In these instances, universal professional development and coaching practices can still be used to enhance teacher efficacy and program or practice fidelity. For schools and districts with funding or staffing restrictions, consider train the trainer models where one or two school staff members receive training directly from program developers or certified trainers and then train local staff.
When schools and districts invest in high-quality professional development and complimentary coaching programs and administrators provide continued support through staff time and resources, SEL and behavioral health support programs can be implemented with higher fidelity and have a greater impact on the holistic well-being of students.
Chaparro, E., Jackson, K., Baker, S., & Smolkowski, K. (2012). Effective behavioral and instructional support systems: An integrated approach to behavior and academic support at the district level. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 5(3), 161-176. DOI: 10.1080/1754730X.2012.707424
Freeman, J., Sugai, G., Simonsen, B., & Everett, S. (2017). MTSS coaching: Bridging knowing to doing. Theory into Practice, 56(1), 29-37. DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2016.1241946
Han, S.S., & Weiss, B. (2005). Sustainability of teacher implementation of school-based mental health programs. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 665-679. DOI: 10.1007/s10802-005-7646-2
Kraft, M. & Blazar, D. (2018). The effect of teacher coaching on instruction and achievement: A meta-analysis of the causal effect. Review of Educational Research. DOI: 10.3102/0034654318759268
Sugai, G., & Horner, R.R. (2006). A promising approach for expanding and sustaining school-wide positive behavior support. School Psychology Review, 35, 245-259.