MTSS/SEL/PBIS team lead from Charleston SC schools
To explore the fundamentals of an effective school climate and provide a formula for building trust with students.
What do SEL and School Climate efforts look like in practice and how can we continue to improve? Guest Heather Anderson discusses strategies used in the Charleston County School District and the “layers” school leaders should consider to realize a climate and culture that supports everyone.
Host Bio: Dr. Chris Balow is the Chief Academic Officer at SchoolMint. Dr. Balow has a Ph.D in Educational Psychology and served for 33 years as an educator in various roles with focuses on literacy, mental health, and the behavioral and emotional growth of students. He has worked the last 6 years in the educational technology field to promote student success on a larger scale.
Welcome to the podcast everyone I'm really excited today to introduce you to Heather Anderson from Charleston County school district in South Carolina. Heather is a certified school counselor, and she has spent nine years as a school counselor, five years in her current role in Charleston County schools. And before that, she spent many years in higher ed doing public relations work and working with students matriculating and so forth. So she's had a lot of varied experiences by heart and passion. She's a champion of social, emotional learning as a researcher practitioner and coach and trainer. She has seen firsthand how social emotional wellness can positively affect the trajectory of teacher and student relationships, academic success, and strengthening family and school relationships. She currently works in the department of alternative programs and services as a district climate coach supporting and collaborating with administrative and teacher teams. The scope of her work includes creating capacity around schoolwide implementation of social emotional learning, anchoring database problem, solving around the multi tiered system of support framework and supporting schools in their PBI S frameworks. So wow that is fantastic work so much for us to discuss today, Heather and welcome to the podcast.
Yeah, so, um, I have the privilege of working in Charleston County school district. Um, we have about 60,000 plus students. It's a very large district. Um, and my department supports all schools, um, early learning through high school and, um, that looks different and different buildings. Um, we like to call ourselves system coaches and supporting systems of implementation that are both intentional and sustainable. Fantastic. Um, so tell us a little bit about your team, the alternative program team, and who's on that team and how you guys function the roles across the team, et cetera. So the department of alternative programs and services, um, the team that I am and we're, we're a large team. And then the zoom in of my climate coach team, there are seven of us, um, who support all schools in our district through early learning all the way up to 12th graders. We support leadership and teacher teams. And we do that by this formula of support that also includes accountability and really creating this relational capacity. So forming genuine relationships around implementation frameworks and models. And what I can say about our coaches is that we're not as swoop in and swoop out. We spend a lot of time with our teams, um, before COVID-19 we called ourselves the road warriors because we spent a lot of times going from school to school and giving our undivided attention. When we're in buildings to support very targeted audiences, it could be leadership teams, MTSS teams, grade level, content area. Really. I like to think of us, like I said, as systems coaches, but also creating something that is not person dependent, that a system dependent.
Fantastic. That sounds like a really, really dynamic position you have. And I really liked the notion of relational capacity. I think building those relationships, it's true in the, in the classroom too, if you have good relationships with kids and the adults, you're more likely to accomplish great things together.
Great. Well, let's jump into this. Talk a little bit about school climate one or one of your areas of many areas of passion and maybe start off telling the audience, maybe some things you've observed or some of the research you've you've dug into around some of the negative impacts that negative school climate may have.
We operate here in Charleston around, um, the multi tiered system of support framework when we are problem solving when we are creating interventions and supports. And so we operate on this all, some are few framework when we are looking at data and we're trying to look at multiple data pieces. And so when we support teams, it's a zoom out view, definitely many different views when we're problem solving. But our role in the beginning is to look at universals of implementation. And then we problem solve on a tier two and a tier three that tertiary, um, the important piece of an MTSS framework is this it's a layering. So when we are working in supporting with teams, that framework is so important because we can't go right to the tier two or tier three problem solving. It's like building a house from the second story up. Our foundations are universals. Our tier one, um, are really important. And we do that by mirroring. What we do in academics is the same thing that we do and SEL and behavior. So again, that database problem solving, we're looking at multiple data points and we're also, um, progress monitoring our interventions and supports.
So we have multiple different ways that we assess, um, behavior, social and emotional learning and or climate. And it actually is school dependent. Um, sometimes we do behavioral screeners. A lot of times we run a schoolwide, social, emotional learning curriculum that we're doing formative and summative assessments. We're looking at data points, such as attendance. We're looking at discipline data. We are looking at, um, teacher managed data positive and perhaps negative. So when we are trying to, again, that zoom out view, we're not looking at one specific data point. And then as we get into middle school and, um, even perhaps high school this year, we do some self reflection data from middle schoolers where they are actually self assessing they're internalizing behaviors and externalizing, and also their relationships and connectedness.
That's, that's fantastic, you know, as a licensed psychologist, I, I very much endorsed sort of the whole child approach and collecting those multiple sources of data that gives you that rich, uh, uh, sense of, of what's happening in, in the ecosystem for kids. That definitely. So you, you got, you were mentioning you meet in teams at the school and, and implementing a problem solving model. So was it difficult to really establish that at your schools and, and get people looking at data kind of dispassionately and then thinking about what are the things we need to do and, and organizing these teams in, I mean, you must have a hundred schools in, in your district.
We do, we have about 80. Um, I think that what a critical piece of this, um, for our success is that in our state, we have adopted that MTSS framework. So that really anchors us to this tertiary problem solving and being able to have different cohorts of adults coming together to problem solve. So while we might be looking at Universal's, um, and MTSS and problem solving, we're actually making sure, and this is part of our job as climate coaches, that, that communication is also going to our teacher, um, in either grade level or content area that, that information. And then that problem solving is an extension of what we're doing in MTSS. So we do a lot of support. We do a lot of coaching. We do a lot of training around MTSS frameworks, but really the proof is kind of in the pudding when we are problem solving and looking at what is working and what we need to modify data, drives those decisions. And it's very freeing to have the data around what teachers perhaps already know as a hunch, but they are bringing data to the table and we're making data informed evidence-based decisions and being able to really explain that to parents as well. Um, I think data can be the love language of a lot of people.
Yeah, absolutely. And, uh, so you, you mentioned earlier that, you know, I got the sense that you're, you're doing an MTSS framework and you're doing things like social, emotional learning and positive behavior intervention and supports. Um, so I, it sounds like you're, you're really focusing quite a bit on that behavioral side of the old MTSS triangle, which I think a lot of districts maybe focus less on.
Right. We really have worked really hard. And now even in our district, we, we don't look at a triangle and anymore, we look at a rhombus, so that rhombus is just a mirror triangle. Um, so when we are supporting students, we're supporting all students and on both ends. So let's just talk about the triangle for simplicity for a minute. When we're talking about culture and climate universals, we do have a social, emotional learning curriculum. We do have the PBI S framework, restorative practice. We have things that are in place. And I really like to explain this when I'm talking to different audiences, that these universals are not pieces of a pie. It doesn't mean that we, because we have an SEL curriculum that, that is taking away from our numeracy or literacy programs or core content area, it's a layering, it's not something to add to the plate, it's the plate. And I think that when we start talking to teacher teams and that becomes a really load off of their shoulders, that we are going to support because the number one response we get when we listen to teachers, and that's another big part of listening to educators is that we wish we had more instructional time. Well, by the laws in South Carolina, we cannot adjust instructional time. But what we can really manipulate is engagement time. And we use these universal supports and interventions to increase engagement. And so whether we're using an SEL curriculum or we're using a restorative practice circle, it's a layering of support to ultimately not only increase engagement, but also give these life skills that have all this data and research behind them to not only make people better students, but better contributing members, just like me of society.
Right. Right. And you know, my 30 plus years in education, I would hear comments periodically that, gosh, this was one more thing and how are we going to fit it in? But really what I'm hearing is that things like SCL and putting into place TBIs, these are like Maslow's hierarchy of needs. They they're they're essential. And in the long run, do you think it actually saves teachers time because they're not busy managing behavior in a negative way. And as you said, the engagement really increases therefore achievement can increase.
You know, in theory, that is what the research says, but there's two pieces of this. It's the fidelity and the quality of implementation and integration. So we know that research shows that three and a half years of implementing an SEL curriculum or implementing an SEL program or integrating SEL. But the 3.5 years, it really has to be intertwined with high fidelity, high quality. And it's like, I use this example a lot of times when I'm a first grade teacher is teaching phonics. If they began by teaching the S sound, they're not going to teach the S sound to students and never revisit that S down, they're going to build upon it. They're going to reflect, they're going to anticipate, and then they're going to reinforce, and then they might add a blend to that. That's exactly what culture and climate and SEL are. It's not a one time thing that you do on a Monday morning, it's integrated into your entire day.
It does. And so PBIS, um, I think a lot of times it's often associated with one of the super six, and those are the super six practices that the PBIS um, for classroom output, the one that we often associate that is affirmations, but there's five other very important pieces to this framework. So PBIS is just that it's a framework. It's not a ticket. It's not a token. It is a framework. And actually to increase academic engagement, it's respond to inappropriate behavior and responses. It is to affirm, but also it's about physical environment and there's this trauma lens, and there's an equity lens. So I think more, the more we can educate teacher teams about the framework of PBIS and again, it's not a hunch. This is our research, um, about best practices that ultimately again, deliver high academic outcomes.
And I've read, uh, Heather along those lines, is that with PBIS, the clear rules and expectations really create a sense of equity for, for all students, because there's been a lot of talk over the years about inequitable discipline and teachers providing more positive reinforcements to some kids or others.
Absolutely. There's classroom and school wide matrices are again a foundational piece of explicit expectations. So not only if I'm a new kid at elementary school, X, Y, Z, in Charleston, not only do I know what's expected of me, I also know how to, to engage with my classmates, how to engage with my teacher and having those explicit expectations makes me think of a formula that I think about a lot. And basically that is predictability plus consistency equals trust. And to me, that is what PBIS and SEL are really all about that predictability plus consistency equals trust. And when we have that in the classroom, I just feel like our prefrontal cortex. And I know I'm getting into the brain science a little bit around PBIS and SEL, but that prefrontal cortex is that's what starts throbbing. That's when we, that's where we're really able to be ready to learn.
Yeah. I, I love that equation. I wrote that down predictability plus consistency equals trust. And when you have trust that positive school climate ensues, um, the, another, I was reading a study recently, um, a series of studies that, that predictability and consistency is also really important to support mental health for students because, um, kids with anxiety, depression, um, kids that have experienced a traumatic events, that those, uh, factors can really be, uh, helpful for kids.
Absolutely. And I think that when we talk to teacher teams and educators about the brain science around PBIS and SEL, and we explain where and what the amygdala is, and that's that small almond size piece of our brain between behind our left right ears, it's the fight flight or freeze. And then when we start saying, how does this look in your classroom? How can we move from flight fright or freeze into that critical thinking into that engagement, moving from that amygdala to that prefrontal cortex. And then again, just reiterating, Hey, this is not a hunch. We're talking about science, and we want to give you the tools we want to empower you to be able to create that trust around that mental wellness piece that you were just speaking about Chris.
Right? Yeah. I love the brain science stuff. And, you know, when you think about kids who have been in very traumatic conditions that essentially there's operant conditioning and some classical conditioning going on in the brain, and when some of these kids may become, uh, you know, quite agitated or angry, upset it, it's, it's almost an automatic biological neurological response that we have to help. And, you know, pure punishment strategies are effective in helping these kids learn how to develop that self management. Would you agree?
Absolutely. And I think that that's a such an important part of this continued conversation is that these are skilled deficits. It's like, you know, when, when someone doesn't understand how to tell Tom, and second grade is one of our core standards, we teach them how to tell Tom when someone doesn't know their multiplication tables, we help teach them in the same thing for literacy and more numeracy, but we have to answer their question. And it's often posed a lot when someone doesn't know how to behave, act respectfully, we can fill in the blank over and over. Do we teach, or do we punish? And I think social and emotional learning layered with PBIS and all of these other things that we're doing to be able to teach to the skill deficits is very, very empowering.
Yeah, absolutely. That's so, so well stated. And along those lines, talk about how a lot of districts have jumped into the SEL realm. And, and that's a great thing. Uh, but, but I've noted, you know, some implementation issues. And, uh, and I noted that you've read the implementation science literature, which is fantastic. A lot of educators aren't aware of that, but, um, PPIs the tenants in the structures, do you think they can really amplify the impacts of SEL programming?
Absolutely. So I'd like to think again, a PBIS as a framework, just like MTSS and that SEL as a layering of what we can do to support students. So for instance, if we're talking about a classroom matrix and we're talking about what respect looks like and feels like an a second grade classroom, I can then layer that with what focus might look like and feel like in an SEL lesson, and actually teach students around how to look at the speaker, how to use, um, we call them focus, binoculars, how to use positive self talk for focus. So again, it's like, it's another layering, so it's not an either, or, but how does focus look and feel, or how does respect look and feel as that layering of those SEL skills?
Yeah, exactly. And I was thinking too about some of those super six practices in PBIS, and some of the things I've seen around acknowledgement systems and reinforcement, it seems like that could really help generalize those SEL competencies that the teachers are, are working on with kids across lots of environments.
Absolutely. And you bring a really good point when you said teachers, so there's positive acknowledgements. Really the research shows that while they are very important to students, because I know how to positively get your attention, being an adult and being able and reminded to recognize when students are doing the right thing and actually saying that out loud and very specific, that actually creates a different dialogue instead of saying what students are not doing. And I think that's another really important piece about that acknowledging appropriate behavior of the super six practices within the PBIS it's really for adults.
So you, everyone, um, we have, uh, we have a different story and, and this is how I came to SEL and we became SEL multipliers. And my department is that in 2013, when I was hired as a school counselor, I came into a school, um, that was terribly noted as an inverted triangle, meaning that 80% of our students were not ready to learn. And so when I started thinking about systems of support, I started thinking about sustainability and intentionality, and I was able to research with my school, school psychologist, an evidence based research driven SEL curriculum that actually I taught as a school counselor, 16 lessons a week to every class and my school. And then I started collecting data. And then I was asked to start to present my data, my MTSS meetings, and then as well as district symposiums and then state conferences. And so it was really a grassroots effort, but I was able to get the attention because I had the data, I had the implementation, and then I had the testimony from teachers. So again, the fidelity of implementation was high. The quality of the quality of implementation was hot. And we started seeing teachers say things like I'm not having to problem solve for students. Therefore I can continue my lesson and there's a peace corner. And I've actually been able to teach skill sets for naming feelings and problem solving. And I could keep rolling with my small groups or my, you know, my, whatever whole class instruction, whatever I was doing. And then we zoomed out. So then we started thinking, how can we multiply this in multiple schools and create a training module? That again, as coaches, we're not school-based. So I left the school. I'm no longer a school based counselor, but creating these implementation models again, anchored in our MTSS framework. And that's how our district does our training. We have a very, which they call it a vertical articulation. It's almost a flow chart of how we have created support. And again, accountability around social and emotional learning and our other cultural climate initiatives.
So we, again, we have a layering right now. Um, one of the curriculum that we use as second step. And that's used there early learning through eighth grade. We also team up with, we have, um, instructional based coaches, either school based or district level. And we are going to continue to work with them because again, it's that modeling. They work on the academic side of the triangle, we're on the behavioral cultural side of the triangle. But what we do to support teams is exactly the same, that problem solving through that tiered implementation, a progress monitoring. And that looks like best practices of implementation around academic integration, you know, um, inclusive practices as the students in the morning, that's an SEL that's PBIS. And that's why I keep saying this is a layering. It's not an either or those inclusionary practices. How do we include SEL climate in our academic integration through T think, turn and tell? Through using the interventions or these supports of jigsaw? How do we do the S and M and digital now, maybe through Flipgrid? So all of these things, and again, following this model, how do we close out the day and embed culture, climate PBIS, S E L and that's through an optimistic closure. And, um, these are not new concepts. What we're trying to do is support teachers around implementation.
Fantastic. You mentioned second step. I used to use that when I was a school psychologist many years ago, a great evidence based program. And what I love too, when you described, you know, we get together and our problem solving teams, just like students with academic concerns and we analyze, is it a skill deficit versus a performance deficit? I feel like, at least in historically that it was always viewed as a performance deficit and lets you know, level of consequence. And so you're approaching it from data open-mind, let's really analyze.
Absolutely. And you know, there's always room for growth. Don't I want to be transparent. I mean, we are always trying to grow this system of support and I feel like we definitely are on the right track, but I think anybody worth their salt is always trying to do better and support students better.
Yeah. One of the things I hear from schools that, yeah, we're always trying to get better. And part of it is managing just the, um, when you're meeting and problem solving teams, all the information and keeping track of who's who's responsible for which followup tasks and just sort of, uh, the infrastructure, if you will, of, of, of the meetings. Is that a challenge for you guys? Or have you figured that out?
I don't think that anyone's figured that out, that I've come across. I think you're absolutely right. I think it is that whole logistics and then also really getting bogged down. I mean, you know, we, we tend to want to look at the tier two and the tier three, but we always have to go back to those tier one because of our universals are not in place. We certainly, we use this phrase and I hope I don't misquote somebody, but we can't tier ourselves out of a problem. We can't tier ourselves out of an intervention. You know, you have to really anchor to those universals.
That's so good to hear. I know when I started in the world of MTSS back in the nineties, we went right to tier three, focusing on those most severe kids. And that was the mistake we made back in the day. And so I really appreciate that, that great advice back to SEL. I was wondering about, are you guys doing an assessment of SEL competencies and how do you go about that?
So that's on our list of things upcoming this year to really match the skills that are being taught and facilitated to see about, um, where the progress is. I do want to say that, you know, SEL is not a mastery skill set though. And so when we're looking at formative summative assessments through second step, we can tell those who are focused or those who are having barriers with emotion management or perhaps those who are struggling taking on a different perspective. Those are all things that we are, we are assessing, um, weekly and all of our classrooms. However, when I think about mastery, um, and academic standards, you know, I've been a student and a practitioner of SEL for many years and I am still a work in progress. I'm still trying to name and process my feelings. I am still trying to problem solve and not problem solve when my emotions are too big. I think that it's just a work in progress. So when we are looking at different assessments this year, we also are having that conversation.
Yeah. That that's a great point that we're all progressing and improving being flawed human beings and trying to get better all the time. And also developmentally as kids change new challenges, uh, confront them from a SEL perspective and then they need continued, uh, kind of help developing.
Absolutely, absolutely. And we do have weekly objectives and we do have monthly objectives. So we again are progress monitoring. I just want to put myself in students' shoes if I really am going to practice empathy and action, I need to, as an adult understand too, that sometimes I struggle with being ready to learn. And sometimes I struggle with managing big emotions and um, and really making sure we're looking at through that lens of the student.
Awesome. Um, you mentioned about one of your things you're looking at this coming year is assessment for SEL. What are some other initiatives you see coming down the road for Charleston County schools?
I think that, um, one of the things that we're talking about is making sure that we again are, are always growing and looking and zooming out and making sure that SEL culture climate, it's not a one size fits all. And so right now we're really looking to make sure that we are supporting our adults there, the SEL competencies we're looking at. Um, we do a lot of work around the trauma informed classroom. We're looking at, how can we make sure that we have second step running throughout our school, but we want to make sure we're holding educators and students accountable through support. And that might look like fidelity checks. And then also, how is this going to look at a tier? We know that, um, we've got some strong universals around second step in many of our schools. And um, how did these tier two supports look through perhaps an SEL lab in a school or small group where we are having, um, discussions around external and internalizing behavior, emotion management, really anchoring data to this different tiers.
Fantastic. Yeah. And I know from experience, you know, designing a tier two with can be challenging. Um, there may be some great research tools out there, but resources always seem to become a question, um, with we've got some great ideas, but how do we resource it?
Absolutely. And you know, and it's different for every school. So it's not a one size fits all. Again, when I was school-based as a school counselor, we did implement a tier two model with a SEL lab. And then we did what was called an SEL extension lesson. Where in live time created these centers that students could practice their SEL skills around the different five competencies. And that looked like I would create a crate of puzzles or games that would support students. And they thought they were, they were playing the game, but my support was around big emotions when you didn't win or the trouble when you couldn't, um, needed to persevere. And he couldn't figure out the puzzle or even just creating stories around paper dolls and having different perspectives and listening to people through charades. So it was very powerful. I'd like to, I'd like to see something like that continue with, with different supports in that tier two.
Sure. SCL lab. That's a new one. I wrote that down as well. Heather, that's great. One of the challenges historically with social skill SCL is generalization where we, we, we work with kids in a classroom, but they're out on the playground, they're on the bus, some of these other situations and they may not exhibit that behavior. Um, have you guys done any specific things around generalization? I always inquire because I'm always trying to figure that out.
So the centers that I created and that was a mobile SEL center as their school counselor, so it was mobile. So I'd create these centers. Um, and basically I would roll my cart into different classrooms and while it wasn't exactly like a tier two support, but I worked with small groups. And so it was based on the five competencies. I had five different grades and it wasn't lot of time. So while we weren't on the playground, I was able to anticipate based on what was built in the crate for different grade levels, what barriers they may have around their social, emotional competencies and a lot of time help them problem solve. So it kind of goes from that academic where if a teacher is teaching you something, and then all of a sudden you are now doing peer teaching. That's what kind of was thinking the basis behind these SEL centers or crates. That was, that was the logic behind those.
That's fantastic. So essentially kind of anticipating all the things that kids will run into out there in the big, the big world and then practicing that's exactly ahead of time. So they're, they're ready to go when the time comes.
We do that positive self talk as a, as a real big momentum. It's a game changer. And as adults, I think that again, talking about not that being a mastery skill set, but you know, really, um, the gratitude journals, the positive self talk about thinking that we can do something and, um, it's such an important piece and to really help us just, you know, avoid distractions. That's how we teach them in school as well.
That's right. That intrinsic, that intrinsic. And that's what we really want is that intrinsic change to happen. And, um, you know, just creating different pathways when, uh, teach SEL and PBIS lessons to middle schoolers, we really talk about that. They have the ability to change pathways in their brain, and that's such a, um, what a positive thing to talk to young kids about is neuroplasticity. Again, some more that we can actually control and just because I've never been good in math, positive self-talk along with, um, academic supports, we can change how we might feel about that. I think that's where the STEM world comes in.
Absolutely. Well with that super positive message, I think we'll end our interview for today, Heather. Um, I want to thank you. I think people are gonna glean a lot of great ideas and my guess is they're going to be reaching out to you personally, to kind of get your advice on, on how to really look at this from that systemic level and put those systems in place.
I could not thank you enough. It is my pleasure. Um, I always like to talk about culture and climate and SEL, and I want to continue to be an SEL multiplier and widen my circle. And again, it's not about me personally, as Heather Anderson, it's about creating intentional systems to support all adults.
Well, I really appreciate that sentiment. And I know our listeners do as well now, before I let you go, you have to play our little game here on our podcast called this or that. It's very simple. I'm going to say two things and you tell us which one you prefer. And if you like, you can explain your rationale, but that's not required. So let's start with an easy one dog or cat?
You know, it's funny in the middle of all this COVID you would think that we would want something really big, but maybe that's also molding our molding, our answers. I don't want to be around any, I don't want to be around any large groups right now.
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