For many school districts, their mission statement aims to help students reach their full potential through academic achievement, character development, and social-emotional well-being. In the simplest terms, educational goals involve helping every child achieve and feel a sense of belonging at school. Nevertheless, schools continue to struggle to meet the academic and social-​emotional needs of all students. 

Over the past several years at LaSalle Springs Middle School (LSMS), a large suburban middle school outside of St. Louis, MO, we have found that both school culture and organizational systems must be more supportive and responsive to meet the diverse needs of our students. School culture must be rooted in the belief that all children are unique, important, and talented individuals who are capable of growing academically and social-emotionally, while the organizational systems are comprised of structures and processes that allow staff to ensure all students develop the desired skills.

Strengthening Culture Through Collective Efficacy Beliefs

Our approach to improving school culture has been rooted in strengthening collective efficacy beliefs. According to Jenni Donohoo in her book Collective Efficacy: How Educators’ Beliefs Impact Student Learning, collective efficacy is the belief that—through collective actions—educators can influence student outcomes and improve student learning. Over the past decade, research on collective efficacy has gained attention within the education field, notably supporting researcher Robert Marzano’s conclusion that highly effective schools produce results that almost entirely overcome the effects of students’ backgrounds. Additionally, education professor John Hattie has found that collective efficacy is the single greatest factor impacting student achievement, outranking other factors including socioeconomic status, prior achievement, home environment, and parental involvement. 

According to Donohoo, when educators within a school believe that they can make a difference for students, they convey high expectations, show greater effort and persistence, demonstrate a willingness to try new teaching approaches, and attend more closely to struggling students’ needs. At LSMS, we engaged the staff in conversations around this research. In doing so, we came to realize that addressing students’ lagging skills was too great a job for any individual educator but was certainly attainable through collective effort. In other words, we needed to work collectively and systematically to ensure all students developed the academic and social-emotional skills necessary to achieve their full potential.

Multi-Tiered System of Supports

Given that our purpose is to promote students’ academic and social-emotional success, we decided to focus our efforts on strengthening our multi-tiered system of supports structure and problem-solving process.

The phrase “multi-tiered system of supports,” or MTSS, is commonplace in contemporary education. This framework aimed at improving outcomes for students is most commonly accomplished within a three-tiered structure. Tier 1, the universal tier, refers to supports that all students receive for academic, behavioral, and social-emotional growth. Tier 2 provides some students with targeted support to address skills that are identified as areas for growth. Tier 3 refers to intensive support needed for students who have significant or chronic needs to achieve essential outcomes or standards.

To effectively provide universal Tier 1 support, schools and teams must begin by collectively agreeing upon the academic standards, behavioral expectations, and social-emotional competencies that are considered crucial for all students. We know that core academic content is only a portion of what educators ultimately teach students, as Sharon V. Kramer notes in her book, How to Leverage PLCs for School Improvement. “Essential standards do not represent all that teachers teach. They represent the minimum a student must learn to reach high levels of learning.” 

In addition to devoting time and attention to identifying essential academic standards within our content-area teams, we adopted CASEL’s social-​emotional learning competencies to ensure that all students develop essential skills in the areas of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. 

With improved clarity and consistency in what was being taught, we shifted our attention to how we were teaching essential skills. We found that we were often merely “communicating” rather than “teaching” behavioral expectations and social-​emotional competencies. When students did not meet the expectations, we responded by imposing punitive consequences, such as detention or suspension. To improve our system, we have found that a more effective approach is to provide all students with intentional and consistent teaching of social-emotional skills that they are expected to demonstrate at school and in life. 

Alternatively, imagine that all the students in the classroom have been taught strategies to help them regulate their emotions when feeling uncomfortable. The teacher may start the lesson by saying, “We will begin an activity in class today that may make you uncomfortable and that’s okay. If you are feeling uncomfortable, here are some strategies that you can use …” In this scenario, students are equipped to handle the uncomfortable emotions that sometimes arise when working collaboratively or making a presentation. Students can use their new skills, rather than act out or avoid the task.

Intentionally teaching essential skills is important regardless of which tier of support a student receives. Before we established our MTSS system, if a student demonstrated challenging behaviors, we were quick to “intervene” with some form of a behavior chart to monitor the student’s progress without teaching the lagging skills. We now recognize that a systematic approach to ensuring all students feel a sense of belonging at school necessitates intentional instruction at the universal, targeted, and intensive tiers.

With increased confidence in our MTSS structure, we shifted our focus to the process of identifying how to support students at each tier. We needed to improve our system by reemphasizing the need for collecting and analyzing relevant student data. Once a problem is defined, the team develops a plan and specifies goals with the baseline data in mind. Data is collected as the plan is implemented to monitor progress. And, ultimately, the plan’s effectiveness is evaluated by comparing the data collected following implementation to the baseline data. During the evaluation phase, new problems may be defined as data is analyzed, continuing the problem-solving cycle.

Similar to problems being addressed at the universal tier, teams now use data to inform targeted and intensive intervention plans for students needing Tier 2 and 3 support. Based upon the data already collected, the team develops a plan to target the underdeveloped skill. Once agreed upon, the plan is implemented for a period of time, usually between four and eight weeks, while the student’s progress is monitored. At the conclusion of the intervention plan, the team evaluates the effectiveness of the plan based upon the data collected and determines how to proceed by identifying any remaining or new problems.

Collective Results

Devoting time and attention to strengthening collective efficacy beliefs led to systematic improvements in how we approach students’ academic and social-emotional development at my school. Embracing our ability to collectively help students grow led to greater cooperation among staff to meet the unique needs of our entire student population. What once may have been viewed as the responsibility of individual teachers is now accepted as the collective responsibility of our system. This is what ensures that every child who enters our school achieves, grows, and feels a sense of belonging. 

Chris Colgren is the assistant principal of LaSalle Springs Middle School in Wildwood, MO.