Questions to ask before implementing a school-wide program

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Multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) typically include school-wide or universal support (tier 1), targeted interventions for at-risk students (tier 2), and individualized services for students with intensive needs (tier 3). Read our post for more information about multi-tiered frameworks. MTSS have been increasingly adopted across schools in the U.S. and show promising social-emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes for students.

The Foundations program, developed by Safe & Civil Schools, is a tier 1, school-wide behavior support program that guides members of the entire school staff in developing an environment that is safe, civil, and conducive to learning. Our SRI Behavior Research Team has been studying whether and how this program is effective in improving student and staff perceptions of school climate and safety, student behavior, and academic outcomes across two randomized controlled trial (RCT) studies: one we are conducting in CA, OK, and NY, funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), U.S. Department of Education (DOE), and one conducted in TX, funded by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). You can read more about recent evaluation findings here.

In addition to evaluating the efficacy of Foundations, our team is also asking what it takes for successful and sustained implementation to occur.

Are there key questions to address before implementing a school-wide program?

To explore further, we recently had the opportunity to have deeper conversations with several school staff who are in their second year of implementing Foundations at their schools. Based on their valuable insight and input, as well as our own experiences, below are four questions for you to consider before implementing a school-wide program.

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1. Who will lead and champion the program?

The Foundations program involves creating a school leadership team that attends in-person trainings, teaches all school staff about Foundations, and ensures that the staff implement behavior support practices consistently. Other school-wide programs may have similar types of representative school teams that lead implementation efforts, so you may want to consider “sharing” or integrating members across these teams to reduce duplication of work.

When thinking about such teams and leaders, consider people who have a genuine desire to improve school culture. This commitment unifies and motivates the team to prioritize student and staff well-being and persevere through challenges together. Also consider members who have diverse skills and roles—for example, teachers from different disciplines, administrators, and campus aides—as well as those with different levels of experience to include a range of long-term and relatively new staff. Having this kind of diverse perspectives contributes to creative thinking and solutions and helps to spread the mission and practices widely across school staff.

In addition, think about how the team will get along—it is important to enjoy each other’s company, share humor, and laugh together throughout this challenging yet important work! Another characteristic of successful teams are ones that include members of school leadership, especially the Principal, who are actively involved and supportive of the program. Finally, having team members who have positive relationships with other staff and students can be quite helpful. These trusted and respected members advocating for the program facilitates buy-in for the rest of the staff and students, which brings us to our next question…

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2. How will you develop buy-in for the program?

Even if research says that a program will likely be effective, how you “sell” the program to the rest of the school community is crucial for success. Consider discussing current areas of concern with students and staff and explain how the program will benefit them specifically in their day to day work. Sensing the high priority needs of your team and colleagues is critical and setting up early “wins” can go a long way to encourage buy-in and excitement. So be sure to focus initial efforts on remedying the problems that plague your school the most; try to produce immediate positive gains from the very beginning, perhaps by starting with straightforward, less demanding strategies that yield high payoffs. For example, with Foundations, teaching and reinforcing one-liners like “walk on the right” for students and staff can result in safer and more orderly transitions in the hallways, increasing instructional opportunities when students arrive to class on-time and on-task.

As you embark on the program, remember to consistently highlight successes. Over time, staff and students may need reminders of how far they have come and the positive progress that they have made. In addition, it is important to continually get ideas and feedback from other staff and students for decision-making, so that everyone feels a sense of ownership of the program—make everyone a part of the team! For example, have conversations with small groups of staff and students to check in with them and solicit their suggestions and input regarding the program.

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3. How much time do you need to dedicate?

Leadership teams should meet regularly to review training and program materials, discuss progress and examine data, and plan and strategize. This may be best achieved through separate, targeted short meetings led by a different team member throughout the week, rather than for example, one longer weekly meeting. Members also need time to involve other staff, which can include presenting data on progress made, planning next steps, and troubleshooting.

Implementing school-wide strategies works best when everyone is on board and feels involved in the collaborative effort. Don’t underestimate the amount of time planning and preparation will take to pull off all of these important duties, and be sure to “protect” time for your team (and subcommittees) to meet regularly, so that your team members are not frustrated with the amount of after-school time they have to dedicate to get the job done.

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4. How will the program be integrated with other practices at the school?

There are likely other initiatives and practices going on at your school at any given time. Consider how the program will be tied together with these practices, thinking about whether certain practices or terminology may clash or be incompatible, and if so, whether there are ways this can be resolved. Programs will likely work best when integrated with practices (and leadership teams) that have similar goals, strategies, and areas of focus. This contributes to common efforts and interests, which likely increases school-wide support and involvement. You may also consider having a few team members/leaders overlap across the different practices to combine efforts, for example, through joint school-wide assemblies and activities.

Not sure whether and how to integrate, especially if there is a lot going on at your school? Using data to make decisions, which is a key component of school-wide programs like Foundations, can help you figure out which programs are working and make informed choices about which ones to keep (or ditch). In this way, it helps you to be as resourceful as possible and dedicate your valuable time and effort on practices that are actually working for your staff and students.

Planning and asking questions like those above before embarking on school- or classroom-based programs and strategies may require a bit more time and thought in the beginning but will likely set you up for long-term success.

As the saying goes, “Go slow to go fast.”

Once staff and students develop a sense of ownership and motivation through a school-wide collaborative effort, evidence-based programs can become part of your school’s fabric, likely resulting in lasting positive changes for your students and community.


The information presented here is supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305A160005 to SRI International. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute or the U.S. Department of Education.

Topics: Multi-tiered systems of support Research design School-wide prevention

Tags: Implementation Sustainability