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Research-Based Practice

Role of the School Psychologist: Orchestrating the Continuum of School-Wide Positive Behavior Support

By Kelly McGraw & Danel A. Koonce

The Blueprint for Training and Practice III (Blueprint III; Ysseldyke et al., 2006), attempts to pinpoint the vision for the field of school psychology through highlighting our role as consultants engaged in activities ranging from individual to systems-level change. Although the literature is replete with calls to restructure our role from eligibility assessment to providing more consultation and prevention-oriented services (e.g., Bradley-Johnson & Dean, 2000; Fagan, 2000; Reschly, 1988), the reality of the shift is quite challenging given that most school psychologists still work beyond the school psychologist to student ratios recommended by the National Association of School Psychologists (2010):

Generally, the ratio should not exceed 1,000 students to 1 school psychologist. When school psychologists are providing comprehensive and preventive services (i.e., evaluations, consultation, individual/group counseling, crisis response, behavioral interventions, etc), this ratio should not exceed 500 to 700 students for 1 school psychologist in order to ensure quality of student outcomes. Similarly, when school psychologists are assigned to work primarily with student populations that have particularly intensive special needs (e.g., students with significant emotional or behavioral disorders, or students with autism spectrum disorders), this student to school psychologist ratio should be even lower. (p. 10)

One exciting venture that some school psychologists have undertaken is participating in developing empirically supported interventions to address academic, behavioral, and mental health needs of students across a continuum of tiered supports. Schoolwide positive behavior supports (SWPBS) offers a proactive systematic approach to supporting students’ social, behavioral, and learning outcomes via a continuum of supports, including targeted training for both students and adults in the school community (Sullivan et al., 2009). With training and skills at implementing systems-level programs, particularly in the areas of preventing problem behavior and school violence (Bramlett, Murphy, Johnson, Wallingsford, & Hall, 2002; Leff, Power, Manz, Costigan, & Nabors, 2001; Poland, 1994; Ross, Powell, & Elias, 2002), school psychologists are well positioned in supporting the initiative of response to intervention (RTI) on the behavioral side. By attending to the entire continuum of interventions, school psychologists help promote better outcomes for students, as well as solidifying the essential value of the school psychologist to the broad school community (Cowan & Cohn, 2009).

Systems Approach

In adopting SWPBS, schools build a service delivery system that is comprehensive rather than problem-specific (Bastche, et al. 2005). Teams evaluate current policies, existing structures, and leadership roles to assess current practices and set goals for school-wide adoption. The task is to create a system that is proactive in design and meets the needs of all students: students who are at risk and students with long-standing problems (Shinn & Walker, 2010). Acknowledging that this is a difficult task, teams are charged with the task of establishing a structure that encourages consistency among staff and promotes common expectations and reinforcement for all students. The role of school psychologists is crucial, because when well positioned, they act as facilitators, supporters, and leaders of change.

A school-wide approach maximizes the academic and social–emotional outcomes of all students at school through its defining characteristics of collecting data, evaluating systems, and establishing effective practices (Sugai & Horner, 2002). Data are collected regularly to assess implementation of SWPBS practices, screen and monitor student behaviors, and develop action plans (Sugai & Horner, 2009). Assessments administered within a school-wide model are preventive in nature, used regularly, and are dynamic by design. Some of the data collected include measures of social behavior (e.g., office discipline referrals, suspensions) and measures of implementation fidelity (e.g., Team Implementation Checklist, School-Wide Evaluation Tool, Benchmarks of Quality), which are used by individual faculty, school teams, and administrators as methods of identifying and applying a continuum of supports within the school to improve the climate and culture (McIntosh, Horner, & Sugai, 2009). Consistent with overarching goals of the Blueprint, school psychologists can confidently engage in efforts requiring the use of "consultation and evaluation skills to facilitate implementation of effective, research-based educational and mental health practices" (Meyers, Roach, & Meyers, 2009, p. 204) in promoting students’ academic and social–emotional competence and developing systems capacity.

Systems are the structures and routines that support adults in implementing evidence- based practices (Sugai, Horner, & McIntosh, 2008). They should contain elements that constitute an ongoing cycle of support to teach, reinforce, acknowledge, and assess adult behaviors (i.e., funding, political support, training). From a systems perspective, SWPBS treats the school as the unit of analysis. Each environment in the school, including classroom systems, nonclassroom systems (e.g., hallways, cafeterias), individual student systems (problems unique to the individual student), and school-wide systems (factors applying to all students in all settings), possess specific expectations that require behaviors to be taught (McIntosh, Filter, Bennett, Ryan, & Sugai, 2010; Sugai & Horner, 2006).

Practices target a "big ideas" approach that emphasizes the connection between the elements of effective instruction, ongoing monitoring, and positive feedback (Sugai & Horner, 2009). Moreover, the practices incorporate interventions and strategies for acknowledgement of appropriate behavior and establishing consequences of problem behavior. In doing so, intervention design is formalized so that students are exposed to evidence-based instruction that is monitored across time, as well as being provided recognition for their performance.

Outcomes refer to the essential question, "Is what we are doing working?" Multiple studies indicate that rates in problem behavior are reduced when schools adopt a SWPBS approach (Colvin, Sugai, Good, & Lee, 1997; Heck, Collins, & Peterson, 2001; Kartub, Taylor-Greene, March, & Horner, 2000; Leedy, Bates, & Safran, 2004), and improvements in student behavior are also related to improvements in academic outcomes (Fleming et al., 2005; Kellam, Mayer, Rebok, & Hawkins, 1998; McIntosh, Chard, Boland, & Horner, 2006). An equally important component of positive outcomes is the commitment to lifestyle change embedded in the values of family and youth receiving support, including their natural supports. When these four elements are combined effectively, schools adopt a proactive, efficient approach that improves student outcomes (e.g., social, behavioral, and learning).

Orchestrating While Building Secondary and Tertiary Supports

Consistent with the school-wide application of PBS and the tenets of prevention science, the focus of implementation is the whole school population. However, to prevent severe problem behaviors, schools should begin planning the implementation of a continuum of interventions beyond Tier 1 leading to Tier 2 and Tier 3 procedures for students at risk (approximately 5%–15% of the student population) and students requiring individualized levels of support (approximately 1%–5% of the student population), respectively. Considering the need for greater collaboration and consultation activities, school psychologists play a key role in facilitating the implementation and training of school personnel in a Check- In–Check-Out approach (a Tier 2 intervention; modification of the Behavior Education Program), which provides ongoing structure and feedback to students at risk for engaging in mild problem behavior (Crone, Horner, & Hawken, 2003; Hawken & Horner, 2003). The school psychologists’ role might involve collaborating with the school administrator and representatives of the school team (e.g., special education teachers, regular education teachers, paraprofessionals) to discuss the rationale for the program and to gauge staff commitment to adopting the intervention. Hawken (2006) emphasizes that the critical role of school psychologists is to systematize the intervention and participate in the data-based decision-making used to evaluate student progress and subsequent ongoing evaluation of the program’s effectiveness. Since school psychologists have developed expertise in areas that are critical for social and emotional learning, engagement in systems-level consultation and prevention is aligned with their training and field experiences.

Equally important along the continuum of SWPBS is wraparound, a Tier 3 intervention for students with complex emotional/behavioral needs who, along with their families, might require comprehensive mental health supports. Wraparound is a unique process because the team composition is based on family voice and choice, and capitalizes on the strengths and needs of the youth and family with the focus being the connection of families, schools, and community to build a comprehensive, synchronized plan over time (Eber et al., 2010). Tier 3 practices and interventions involve an ecological perspective, promoting strong connections between schools, families, and communities. School psychologists, who possess the training, knowledge, and skills, are the professional team members who are able to both facilitate wraparound planning processes (Sheridan & Gutkin, 2000) and to advocate for earlier identification of students with special needs. Similar approaches are woven throughout the school psychology literature (Meyers, Meyers, & Grogg, 2004; Meyers & Nastasi, 1999; Minke & Bear, 2000).

Principles of Change

Because of the complexity of SWPBS and its multifaceted approach, school psycholo gists are essential in helping to define and teach the core components of this model and encourage systemic changes in behavior among staff. School psychologists can assist in the process of evaluating, creating, and maintaining an effective host environment where school-wide practices are in place to reinforce and maintain behavior change over time (Sugai & Horner, 2002). As schools make the transition to new practices, there will necessarily be a transition period, a process that staff experience as they fully adopt, implement, and maintain the new practices. The following principles, described by Hall & Hord (2006) in their book, Implementing Change: Patterns, Principles, and Potholes, can assist the change process and, when combined with the tenets of social psychology described by Robert Cialdini (2007) in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, position school psychologists to support school-wide change.

Administrator leadership is essential to long-term change success. The involvement and leadership of administrators play a central role in the adoption, implementation, and maintenance of SWPBS. Without the support of the administrator, the effectiveness and the maintenance of the intervention can be significantly compromised. In supporting change, administrators possess the power to secure the necessary infrastructure, identify long term resource supports, and design policies that support and encourage the implementation and continued use of the intervention (Hall & Hord, 2006). Specific to SWPBS, administrators assist with establishing a leadership team that works, identifying a team member who acts as a coach, securing support from at least 80% of the staff, and employing a system of data collection that facilitates analysis and interpretation (Simonsen, Sugai, & Negron, 2008).

Administrators’ effectiveness in supporting SWPBS can be extremely variable based on their level of commitment to and understanding of the SWPBS process and their ability to allocate time and resources. When a trusting relationship has been established between the administrator and the school psychologist, and when the skills of each are used effectively, there is a strong likelihood that SWPBS can be successful.

Skilled practitioners are most successful in their practice when they have relationships with their staff that are based in trust. Cialdini (2007), in his discussion of the principle of "liking," offers several recommendations for building relationships that are based on trust.

First, sharing common attitudes, values, and beliefs can influence "liking." When the school psychologist and administrator share beliefs about school-wide approaches and service delivery models, the school psychologist is more likely to be effective in working with the administrator. Second, praise is a powerful component of the "liking" principle, and when it used in a genuine manner, the relationship between the school psychologist and administrator can be enhanced. Finally, increasing the frequency of one’s interaction with a building administrator can increase the likelihood that a collegial relationship may be established, with the result being the collaborative development and implementation of an effective SWPBS plan.

Facilitating change is a team effort. In order for leadership teams to be effective, they must promote regular attendance, use a structure for meetings, follow agendas, use a problem-solving process, and create action plans to complete after the meeting (Horner & Sugai, 2004). When these processes are not established as the norm, objectives may not be accomplished and agenda items may not be addressed. As Handler et al. (2007) state, "The successful completion and initial presentation of the SWPBS plan is dependent on a team of dedicated staff members who possess credibility and leadership among their colleagues" (p. 30).

The leadership team can increase the success of the implementation of SWPBS by engaging in the following: (a) relying on PBS principles to guide decision making and practice, (b) understanding skills needed for effective team process, (c) holding regular team meetings and creating action-focused agendas, and (d) identifying specific goals that contribute to sustained PBS implementation (Handler et al., 2007). The ultimate goal of SWPBS is to create a school environment that is safe, predictable, and socially stable for students (Horner, Crone, & Stiller, 2001). The same should be true for the adults in the school. An environment where the expectations are clear, where positive behaviors are recognized, and where feedback is direct and specific can help create an atmosphere where high expectations, trust, and a commitment to high quality work is valued. With an effective leadership team, schools can move forward quickly when SWPBS is adopted and implemented.

According to the principle of "social proof," people often view a behavior in situations where others are performing that behavior (Cialdini, 2007). School psychologists should be aware that social proof is most influential under two conditions: (a) when people are unsure of the appropriateness of their behavior and the situation is ambiguous, they are more likely to observe the behavior of others and to accept that behavior as correct and (b) social proof is operative when there is similarity between the leadership team and the rest of the staff, as people are more inclined to follow the lead of others who they perceive as similar to them (Cialdini, 2007). It is important, therefore, for the leadership team to model and demonstrate those behaviors they would like staff members to adopt. With consideration of these principles that school psychologists routinely use in their work, school psychologists are in a good position to help administrators choose the staff members who will comprise the leadership team.

Appropriate interventions reduce resistance to change. The training that school psychologists have in behavioral theory is of significant value to school teams that are designing new discipline and behavior support systems (Todd, Horner, Sugai, & Colvin 1999). The process of creating change may cause some people to be resistant for various reasons. By taking a proactive approach and understanding the reasons for the resistance, school psychologists can be helpful in moving the process forward as the team develops appropriate interventions.

Hall and Hord (2006) have conceptualized three reasons that people are resistant to change. First, people may be dealing with a sense of loss because of the perception that they will be expected to engage in new behaviors, thereby reducing their level of comfort. Second, individuals may have concerns about the changes, questioning if the new procedures will actually result in an improvement over previous methods. Finally, people may be resistant to systemic change simply because change is painful. When adopting SWPBS, one must be aware that individuals may exhibit resistance because they are missing the comfort and predictability of previous practices, a process that is often seen when change occurs.

There are several ways that school psychologists can assist in moving the change process forward so that SWPBS can be more efficiently and effectively implemented:

  • The school psychologist can assist the leadership team in creating professional development opportunities focusing on SWPBS as a strategy that may represent new work, but not more work.
  • The school psychologist can show people how to move forward in adopting and maintaining the new behaviors that are required by SWPBS.
  • The school psychologist can address individuals’ questions about the changes by validating their concerns and helping the staff members to understand the rationale for and the content of the changes.
  • Finally, school psychologists are aware that some people will need more time than others to adopt and fully implement the changes. In the same manner that different tiers of intervention are considered for students, tiers of intervention should be considered for adults as well. Time, training, and incentives should be provided to all, but modified for some. There are some individuals who will require more time, more training, or more incentives to fully implement SWPBS. The school psychologist can be sensitive to the needs of these individuals and help them adjust to the changes.

Cialdini (2007) writes of the "Rule of Reciprocity," meaning that one person will try to repay what another person has provided. By obligating the recipient to an act of repayment in the future, one individual is able to give something to another with the confidence that the initial favor or concession is not being lost. This sense of future obligation allows for the development of continuing relationships and exchanges that are beneficial to society.

The rule can be applied to systemic school-wide change. If individuals feel that something has been done for them, then they will be more likely to do something to reciprocate as part of a culture of support, reflecting an environment where people feel acknowledged and recognized for their work. Moreover, when effective teaching practices are cultivated and evidence-based instruction is provided, teachers are reinforced for their efforts. Thus, the administrator, leadership team, and school psychologist should be engaging in the work of providing reinforcement all of the time. When the administrator, leadership team, and school psychologist promote a school culture that is defined by high expectations and rewards for meeting expectations, staff members will be more willing to reciprocate in kind and engage in the new behaviors that have been proposed, a systemic change that directly relates to adopting SWPBS strategies. Through the staff–administrator reciprocal respect and acknowledgement for high quality work, school-wide change with implementation of SWPBS can be most effective.


Without a contextual fit, schools are left with few answers on how to utilize and sustain SWPBS practices that can significantly help students succeed over time. Using the principles of change and tenets of social psychology, school psychologists are able to guide SWPBS adoption and implementation. The most important goal is to support students in changing their behavior in ways that are comprehensive, durable, and socially significant. By enlisting the cooperation of staff members first, a collaborative effort in school-wide change will be most successful.


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Kelly McGraw, PhD, NCSP, is an assistant professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

Danel A. Koonce, PhD, is an associate professor at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.