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More Important Now Than Ever

by Ami Flammini

Let's reflect for a few moments. It has been a long eight months. There was the spring school semester crisis, educators worked all summer long to prepare for fall, and there was the death of George Floyd (among many others). Then, the school year started, the election season went into full swing, and here come the holidays and the peak of the epidemic—deep breathing. I hope there has been a lot of deep breathing. (Here is a ppt deck about self-care in case you need a reminder).

When was the last time you patted yourself on the back for being so flexible? A pat on the back for returning to what we know Maslow taught us about the hierarchy of needs and then shifting into IEP mode (virtual and in-person) and all other duties as assigned. One of my best friends is a school social worker. She has been delivering meals, helping make videos to increase student engagement, is the tech support person for her building, and is doing everything she was doing before the pandemic. It's one of the beautiful characteristics of a school social worker, the ability to address needs as they arise. In conditions we could have never imagined. Today I am going to say flexibility and resourcefulness are two of the school social worker superpowers. School social workers are more important now than ever.

Early in the fall, SSWAA sponsored a town hall with the University of Illinois Social Work department, CASEL, and the MWPBIS Network. Remarkably, a few hundred people participated in a conversation about equity, the clinician's role, teaching social, emotional skills, and the use of universal screeners. Great thoughts and questions were shared. It has led me to think about how important it is to rely on what we already know works in education.

One of the questions I have been asking myself since the SSWAA townhall is, “why would people want to think about, talk about, meet about MTSS/PBIS when so much else is happening." Well, just like we have had to return to the most basic needs of students and families, we need to return to the essential foundations of what we know works in education. We may not have researched how education works in a pandemic, but we can (and I would say should) return to the studied components of what we know has historically worked. Returning to what we know works seems more critical now than ever.

This morning, I saw a study done for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) that surveyed 816 public school teachers. It showed that 1/3 of those surveyed say the pandemic has made them more likely to exit the professional or retire early. However, the study was small; in my mind, it speaks volumes. Did you know that the systems we set up in schools (as part of implementing PBIS) are about how we support teachers so they can do their jobs? Did you know that schools implementing PBIS have shown to have improved teacher outcomes (perception of efficiency, school organizational health, and climate and perception of school safety)? Setting up systems to support teachers so they can do their jobs seems more important now than ever.

In a PBIS school, we look at how we support all (Tier One PBIS), some (Tier Two PBIS), and few (Tier Three PBIS). Let's turn our attention to how we support all youth. Schools implementing universal PBIS have a team that regularly meets to discuss how all youth are doing. This team looks at school-wide social, emotional, behavioral data. This team needs to ask, "what is happening to support the social emotional wellness of all youth during the middle of the pandemic"? How do we teach all youth how to cope with this world we live in, how to maneuver between virtual learning and online learning, teaching all youth that Black Lives Matter? How are we teaching youth to act on Zoom calls and read body language when people wear masks? How have we educated and supported ALL families? By the way, your data can tell you where to start. Without this view of how we are supporting all youth, we will most certainly become overwhelmed. We have to keep all youth and families in the foundations of social, emotional wellness; otherwise, we won't identify which youth and families need extra support. Everyone can't possibly receive additional help. Clearly taught expectations and social, emotional skills seem more important now than ever.

As a result of the SWAA town hall, I have also been thinking about finding all the different youth who may need extra support. (see above paragraph about first supporting all youth). In a fully implementing PBIS school, universal screening is part of the puzzle. In other words, we are systematically finding who needs more support. There isn't research about doing universal screening during a world pandemic. However, the PBIS team could use some of their time to develop a systematized way to check in with youth and families. The team can develop ways to identify if youth need more academic help if they need more emotional support, if they feel anxious or depressed and feel safe. We have to rely on what we know, which is that we have to find ways to find them RIGHT NOW. We have to find a way to screen our youth, formally or informally. Finding who needs extra support to be successful seems more important now than ever.

So much came up at the SWAA townhall that I can’t possibly touch on all of it in one blog post. However, I do want to end on the issue of equity. Dr. Kent McIntosh recently did a presentation (you can listen to it here) at the National PBIS Forum about equity. He indicated the most significant predictions of decreased disproportionality in schools includes (1) regular use of data (2) classroom PBIS systems (shared vision, focus on clearly defined and taught expected behaviors, a discipline system that is more about support than punishment, an ultimate focus that is about all youth being successful and a formal reward system that addresses the praise gap. Implementing PBIS with an equity focus can reduce disproportionality. I recently heard Dr. George Sugai (former co-director of the National PBIS Center) say that if we are doing our jobs well in a PBIS implementing school, we will be creating a more just, equitable, and more diverse environment. You can watch a video of Dr. George Sugai here. Did you know that PBIS implementing schools has shown to reduce exclusionary discipline (office discipline referrals, suspensions, and restraints/seclusions)? An equitable environment seems more important now than ever.

So, what do you do when so very much seems “more important now than ever”? You keep what was working, focus on being efficient and equitable, use data, set up systems, and use a decision-making framework (PBIS) with twenty-some years of research. A decision-making framework can make all of this work possible. It is possible. Many of you have been doing it already. You are more important now than ever.


Ami Flammini is a Technical Assistance Director with the Midwest PBIS Network. Ami has a master’s degree in social work and is a licensed clinical social worker. She has been working in the field of education for twenty-five years. Fifteen years working in rural and urban schools and ten years training and consulting with an emphasis on positive school culture designed to support our most vulnerable youth. Additionally, Ami had a psychotherapy practice for six years, focused mostly on work with adolescent girls. Ami has been one of the people leading the Midwest PBIS Network team towards integrating trauma-informed practices within an equitable multi-level system of support and is a strong advocate for educator self-care.

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