Dr. Crimmins and Dr. Gamel-McCormick’s Conversation with Clay Whitehead

Photo of Dr. Daniel Crimmins and Dr. Michael Gamel McCormickThe second webinar in our Real School Climate Change: New Approaches For Better Behavior webinar series was led by positive behavior intervention expert Dr. Daniel Crimmins and early intervention specialist Dr. Michael Gamel-McCormick. During “Positive Behavior Strategies: The Real Road to School Climate Change,” both experts discussed positive behavior strategies that can help address problem behavior. After the webinar, our co-founder and co-CEO Clay Whitehead sat down with Dr. Crimmins and Dr. Gamel-McCormick to discuss questions submitted by the webinar participants.

Below is a summary of their discussion.

CW: There are literally hundreds of questions pouring in for you guys. Let’s get started with some of them. The first one is for Dr. Crimmins. Can the strategies you’ve recommended be used for all age groups?

DC: Thanks, Clay. The short answer – and since we have so many questions coming in, I’ll try to keep my answers on the short side – is yes, the individualized interventions have strong support for their use with all ages. The PBIS model and the tiered support model are a little bit newer and were first used with elementary students. Now they are also accepted by educators in middle school and high school and we have seen them extend down into preschool and even earlier. There are adaptations of the model for home use and for alternative settings. Some adaptations even work in the adult systems, both in this country and many places around the world. The strategies are based on behavior sciences and are grounded in values that we think are very important.

CW: Great. Dr. Gamel-McCormick, we have a question for you here as well. What are the alternatives to out-of-school suspensions?

MGM: Thanks, Clay. There are many alternatives, but let me go back to a principle that Dr. Crimmins alluded to before I offer some specific suggestions. If we’re going to create a consequence, it should be linked to the problem behavior. For example, a student destructed property. The alternative consequence rather than an out-of-school suspension might be to have the student help replace the property or contribute to its replacement. We shouldn’t be separating consequences so that they have no connection necessarily to the behavior. Other alternatives are certainly in-school suspension, but we want to be careful that it doesn’t take the individual out of academic instruction.

One of the real problems with any type of suspension is that it limits the knowledge and skills the student has an opportunity to gain. To make sure the student is learning from their consequences, districts are starting to provide additional courses after school or on weekends that focus on the student’s behavior. This mini-course concept has become popular in a number of districts around the country because the student actually begins to look at his or her own behavior and try to self-identify some triggers to recognize when something is escalating towards a behavior that is inappropriate.

Community service outside of school time and creating behavioral contracts with a student can be a substitute. There are many different strategies that can be used as alternatives to suspension.

CW: Dr. Gamel-McCormick, for those of our listeners who may not be familiar with mini-courses or may not have used them extensively in this context, can you suggest some individual mini-courses or resources to help them find mini-courses that might be helpful in their own context?

DC: Reece Peterson from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln has done some real nice work in this area.

CW: Dr. Crimmins, this next one is for you. Obviously prevention is the key to success, but in those moments when a student becomes aggressive and dangerous, how do we keep students and adults safe and deescalate without restraints?

DC: That’s a great question, and I appreciate the fact that the questioner put the prevention, and appreciation for prevention, at the top of the question.

We can’t be naïve in this, so we acknowledge we need crisis plans. We need people who are really skilled at de-escalation in all settings. There are training approaches that schools can use to help their personnel learn these skills. Also, every student is different. Some students when they become aggressive and dangerous need to be brought to a separate place and assisted in calming down and other students must be left in place while peers move to another place for safety. Creating a plan for this and then executing it in the middle of a crisis is hard.

If there is any chance that physical restraint will be used, staff must be trained on how to do this safely and then be made aware of the different considerations in the event of physical restraint. For example, the physical restraint should be as brief as possible. Also, both federal-level and most state-level legislations designate that parents be informed when restraint procedures are used so everyone is on the same page.

I don’t have exact data on this, but ironically, I have found that schools that have truly committed to training their staff on proper restraint have actually seen fewer restraints. I think this is attributed to the educators’ confidence and understanding that there are alternative techniques to de-escalating a student.

I also suggest that the faculty involved in the de-escalation of a student debrief once the student has calmed. Ask what it took to work through it and analyze what happened. Ask what could be done differently and what could be done to make things run more smoothly. The information that comes from these debriefs is important because it helps create prevention plans. It’s really important for us to try to anticipate and use that information for prevention tactics.

CW: Dr. Gamel-McCormick, do you want to chime in on that?

MGM: I think Dr. Crimmins’ points are exactly right. I really want to emphasize the last two points that he made – debriefing and then prevention planning are critical. When there’s an emergency, the first thought is to defuse the situation. The absolute next step should be discussing how a similar event can be prevented in the future. What policies and procedures can we put in place? Then you can go back to your functional behavioral analysis and behavior plans, tweak them and get really good feedback.

CW: How do you recommend communicating to the children who were in the classroom after that incident is over about what they saw and experienced?

DC: This is one of those times that I think the truth works pretty well. You can say something like, “Clearly, students, we saw that little Johnny was having a really hard time today. Thank you for cooperating with us. Be assured that we’re working with little Johnny to help him better control his behavior, and we’re all in this together. He needs your support. Please give it.”

CW: Good message. Here’s another question I would love for both of you to answer. How do we get buy-in from staff and reluctant teachers, counselors, and administrators for positive behavior strategies?

MGM:  This is about systems change and organizational change. As Dr. Crimmins said during his presentation, it’s a very complex process. Individuals in an organization do not always change in the same way. I would actually recommend a multi-pronged approached.

The first prong is to get people information. The U.S. Department of Education funds PBIS.org, which includes a ton of information about the prevention components and what a school can expect to see after implementing a school-wide positive behavioral approach. For those individuals who value data, PBIS.org has it. The evidence of its effectiveness in terms of reduction of certain types of behaviors, the increases in academic accomplishments, the general tenor and the overall feel of the school is all there. There is also a lot of good documentation for each positive behavior strategy approach.

Secondly, I recommend reiterating to staff that these positive behavior strategies are not just for students with challenging behaviors – it’s about creating an academic environment where everybody can succeed. That’s one of the real benefits of a school-wide approach. It’s not only about students in special education or students with specific challenging behaviors. It’s really a benefit for everybody, including the staff and the families. There will be cases in which you need to do a one-on-one discussion with certain people who have been through multiple initiatives in schools. However, this is not an unusual occurrence. The good thing is that if you look at what Dr. Crimmins was saying about 22,000 schools in the country implementing this, or more, you’ve got real clear data that says this is a recommended practice. This is an effective practice overall.

Lastly, I suggest building a top-down system for buy-in. I have not been to a school using positive behavior strategies that was able to implement the initiative from the ground up. Administrators really need to buy into this. As you’re beginning to put this together, it needs the support of building administration. It needs the support of district administration to be able to work.

DC: I think that’s great. I would add just a couple of things to that, Dr. Gamel-McCormick.

One of them is that in the world of implementation research and this idea of going to scale, there is a dedicated stage that is called exploration in which I would really want teachers talking to teachers, parents talking to parents, administrators talking to administrators, and if possible, students talking to students. This will help a school considering the implementation of positive behavior strategies to say, “What is in it for me? How will my life be better? How will we be more effective in working together? How do we create a win-win-win situation for all involved?”

We get cynical sometimes saying that new curricula will come and go. However, we don’t want folks saying, “Oh, positive behavior strategies are just the latest fad.” People should study it and understand it. It is in everyone’s best interest to improve school culture.

MGM:  Dr. Crimmins, I want to add one more component. The one buy-in tool that has been very effective for the implementation of positive behavior strategies is to have a coach that teachers and administrators can go to when there’s an unseen glitch or bump that happens. This coach could be from another district or an outside expert. This coach or expert can help individual classroom teachers or administrators work through the challenges that eventually pop up when positive behavior strategies are implemented.

CW: Great. Here’s another tactical question. Dr. Crimmins, can you please tackle this one? What types of questions should we be asking ourselves at team meetings and IEP meetings when discussing students who have multiple disciplinary issues?

DC: That’s an interesting framing of the question. I think I’m going to answer in a way that many may not predict. People will assume that I will say, “What are questions associated with the functional behavioral assessment?” However, I would actually back up and ask, “Who in this room is here for this student and is really committed to their success?” I’m sometimes concerned that when we start planning, we find out halfway through the meeting that no one likes this student very much. However, in order for the planning to be successful, someone has to care about this student in the planning room. Someone really has to be connected and want this student to succeed.

Once we determine that, we have plenty of resources to refer to for questions regarding a student with multiple disciplinary issues. There is plenty of literature, books and questionnaires to go through when planning for these students. These resources will help us determine if there are one or more behavioral functions we should be addressing in our educational efforts.

CW: What a great insight. Dr. Gamel-McCormick, can you give us some examples of when the use of restraint is appropriate and when it is not?

MGM:  I would argue that there are very few appropriate times when a restraint should be used. It would be an emergency situation. When there is imminent danger to a student, to another classmate or to a staff member. Beyond that, there really is not an appropriate time. By imminent danger I mean someone will quickly be physically harmed if the student is not restrained. That would be the only case in which I would see restraint as being used. Then we need a quick transition to a “cooling-down” period to make sure that either a staff member or another trusted adult can help de-escalate the behavior quickly and help the student get to a point where he or she is feeling more positive and more in-control.

We have to remember that when a student reaches this point of frustration, it is very unpleasant for them, as well. We also have to remember that this behavior is a risk to not just the staff and other students, but to the student acting out, as well. It’s essentially a form of trauma. We need to make sure that we’re beginning to turn around that experience as quickly as possible.


To watch Dr. Crimmins and Dr. Gamel-McCormick’s entire 90-minute webinar, click here. Make sure to register for the final Real School Climate change webinar with Dr. Barry Prizant, Emily Rubin and Amy Laurent on November 17, 2015 here.