A Collaboration Focused on the Education of Children With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

This study is an example of a collaborative partnership among several entities and started as a result of a common interest in the implementation of school-wide positive behavior support (SWPBIS) in programs dedicated to educating students with emotional and behavioral disorders. The primary individuals involved include Drs. Shelley Neilsen Gatti and Todd Busch with the Department of Special Education and Gifted Education, CELC; Dr. Char Ryan with M-RIP, Dr. Kimberly Adams director of Special Education Programs with Minneapolis Public Schools. In addition, two graduate assistants at St. Thomas, a school psychologist in Minneapolis Public Schools and a statistician from Georgia have participated in various aspects of the study. In this study we examine the impact of SWPBIS on special educators’ sense of efficacy and feelings associated with burnout.

SWPBIS is a set of intervention practices and organizational systems for establishing a positive social culture and intensive individual behavior supports needed to achieve academic and social success for all students (Sugai, Homer and Lewis, 2009). It is based on a three-tiered prevention model designed to match the needs of the student with the intensity of the intervention. Through this social culture, educators aim to create an environment that will support appropriate behavior and minimize problem behavior and prevent an existing condition from worsening (tertiary prevention).

To date, over 16,000 schools nation-wide are implementing SWPBIS (pbis.org), and in Minnesota over 300 schools are involved in training or are trained and actively implementing SWPBIS (MDE, 2012; Neilsen Gatti, Ryan and Adams, 2011). The majority of participating schools are typical public schools; however there is an increasing variety of alternative schools, juvenile justice programs and Federal Setting 4 schools participating. For example, in Minnesota, of the 300 schools implementing SWPBIS, seven schools involved in the MDE-sponsored initiative are Federal Setting 4 schools.

Federal Setting 4 schools are programs in which all students have IEPs and are placed in these programs due to their significant needs and supports for challenging behavior. In all of the Federal Setting 4 programs participating in the study 50 percent to 93 percent of the students are eligible to receive free or reduced lunch and approximately half of the students served in these programs are students of color. One component of the mission of our college is advancing the common good. By conducting research at these programs and addressing issues of teacher efficacy we are addressing this important part of our mission.

Several researchers have examined the efficacy of SWPBIS on student outcomes, systems processes and structures to support teacher implementation in these alternative sites (Joliette and Nelson, 2010; Lewis, Jones, Horner and Sugai, 2010; Nelson, Sprague, Jolivette, Smith and Tobin, 2009; Simonsen, Britton and Young, 2009); however, there are no published studies examining the relationship between SWPBIS and special education teacher factors of burnout and perceptions of efficacy. This is particularly important in the field of EBD where burnout is significant, teacher retention is a challenge and a large number of teachers are not fully licensed.

This project started as a Community of Practice (COP) with leaders from the first five sites involved in Minnesota’s Project on SWPBIS getting together to share common challenges and solutions for similar issues in implementing SWPBIS in their programs. Kim Adams, Char Ryan, and Shelley Neilsen Gatti initiated this during fall 2010 and continue to communicate with these leaders on ways to continue the COP. Due to the challenges associated with different school calendars, different day start and stop times and geographical challenges (over 40 miles across the metro) the teams are exploring creative ways to stay in touch. In addition, we have established a WIKI to share common documents.

Ryan, Adams and Neilsen Gatti presented information regarding the COP at a regional conference last winter. At this conference, we attended a presentation by Rob Horner, one of the founders of SWPBIS, where he discussed fidelity of treatment and various ways to measure the impact of SWPBIS. During this presentation he discussed the use of teacher burnout and efficacy as one dependent variable of SWPBIS. Ryan, Adams and I brought this back to our COP to see if they would be interested in participating in a study on this. Last spring we began researching the issue and invited Busch to assist us in this project.

The purpose of this study is to examine the relation between outcomes of teacher well-being (burnout and perceptions of efficacy) and the implementation of SWPBIS in separate site schools for students with EBD. The research question is: What are teacher perceptions of self-efficacy and burnout in Federal Setting 4 programs and how do these differ in SWPBIS schools at different phases of implementation and during different times of the year?

There were a variety of reasons why this sparked our interest. First, all of us had various experience with Federal Setting 4 programs, with Adams having the most recent and firsthand experience as the director of a Federal Setting 4 program. As a result of this experience we all understood the unique nature of this type of setting and realized that it was one of the most high-stress settings in which special educators worked. In addition, we were all excited about the potentially positive impact SWPBIS could have on the working conditions of teachers in SWPBIS. Finally, Adams’ school participated in the state SWPBIS training, as the second Federal Setting 4 program trained in SWPBIS, and recognized the issues these programs were dealing with were significantly different than those of the typical public school. Ryan has taught in Federal Setting 4 and served as the Minnesota specialist in EBD where a priority was placed on teacher retention, supply and demand of teachers for students with EBD. Due to Adams’ immediate experience, Ryan’s experience as a trainer and Neilsen Gatti’s work with teachers in training, we realized the importance of examining SWPBIS in these programs.

To date, we’ve collected and scored the survey data for fall 2011, and we’ll collect spring data during April and May. We’ve had a number of developments over the past six to nine months. We continue to have support from the MN ECSU, and our department funds a graduate assistant to assist on various aspects of the project. Recently, Busch was awarded a Faculty Development Grant to fund our consultation with Dr. James Appleton in Georgia. In addition, Ryan has been in correspondence with Horner throughout the planning and implementation stages of the project, and he has offered his support. Finally, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reception of the administration and staff at the programs. They are excited that they are getting acknowledged for their work, that their perceptions are valued and believe they are making a contribution to the field.

We all feel strongly about conducting research that impacts students and educational professionals. This project focuses on teachers on the frontline of providing services to students with EBD and how professional development models allows them to be better teachers by increasing their sense of efficacy and decreasing burnout.

On a different note, and as described below, one important insight is the importance of collaboration as a research team. We couldn’t do this project alone, and this established collaboration should provide the conduit to continue future research and collaboration between St. Thomas and schools. We think this research will have an impact on the field. It builds off the work already completed on the use of SWPBIS in alternative and separate sites, and it will increase the knowledgebase on how SWPBIS impacts teachers’ perceptions of efficacy and burn out. This may have immediate impact in our state by providing important ways to retain licensed and experienced EBD teachers in these Federal Setting 4 programs. In addition, this research may give us important information on how programs refine the implementation of SWPBIS in Federal Setting 4 programs. Finally, each of the sites will have more information on the impact of SWPBIS on their staff, which may lead to improved professional development and support of staff.

We each have various aspects of this project that have been fascinating for us. The use of teacher efficacy as a dependent variable to examine how individuals/adults benefit from PBIS has been particularly fascinating. Secondly, we are learning about and using new statistical methods to analyze data. We each have played an important role in the project and really need each other’s expertise and connections to pull this project off.

We’re excited about the next steps of the project. First, we will finish the spring round of data collection and score all of the data. We will work with Appleton to analyze the data and write the results of the study. We plan to present the results of the study at various conferences, namely the Association for Positive Behavior Support, the Council for Exceptional Children and the Midwest Symposium Leadership Conference on EBD. In addition we plan to submit our results to Exceptional Children and the Journal for Positive Behavior Interventions. Finally we plan to continue COP with leaders of the programs by putting together a strand at a fall and spring conference so we’ll have regular and ongoing opportunities to communicate with one another, which will allow us to put this knowledge in the hands of practitioners.

Over the course of the project, two graduate assistants have participated in the project. One student was from the English Department and helped collect, score and enter data. The second student is in the Department of Special Education and Gifted Education. She has and will continue to help with data collection, scoring, entering and writing various manuscripts and presentations proposals.

Neilsen Gatti and Todd W. Busch are both assistant professors in the Department of Special Education and Gifted Education in the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling. Char Ryan is a coaching coordinator and evaluation specialist for the Metro Regional PBIS Implementation Project (MRIP) and works at the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health (MACMH). Kimberly Adams is director of special education programs (behavior) for the Minneapolis Public Schools. Additionally, she is an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas in the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling.

 From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.