Grant-funded program implements system, resources to improve student behavior

Over the past four years, a program aimed at improving school climate and student behavior has been successfully implemented into schools in the Choctaw County school district. Though the schools have faced their share of challenges – from a period of turnover and transition to COVID-19 and the difficulties that come with virtual learning – they have persevered and accomplished what the School Climate Transformation project intended.

With support from a five-year $2.8 million grant provided by the U.S. Department of Education in 2019 and partnerships with the Center for Interconnected Behavioral and Mental Health Systems (CIBMHS) and The University of Alabama Department of Special Education and Multiple Abilities, Choctaw County Schools began training faculty and staff to incorporate a three-tiered support system using positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) and social-emotional learning framework as well as other resources that will positively influence its students.

CIBMHS Director and UA Professor of Education Dr. Sara McDaniel assisted with writing the grant and is one of the project’s principal investigators while Clinical Instructor DeAna Byrd is project director for both the School Climate Transformation program and CIBMHS and Assistant Professor of Communication Studies Dr. Anneliese Bolland serves as the project evaluator. Dr. Holly Morgan at the West Alabama Regional In-Service Center facilitates the project and connected Dr. McDaniel with the Choctaw County Schools federal programs director, leading to the three of them organizing the grant while being able to target specific needs of the schools.

As project director, Byrd assisted in professional development in each school and coaching teams of faculty and staff through the implementation process so they could then teach the methods to the remaining school employees.

“I think, with the educators, it provides them with the framework to make things consistent so everyone’s not doing it a different way,” Byrd said. “Those kiddos that have their social-emotional behavioral issues, they thrive off the consistency.”

Choctaw County is very rural and due to poverty issues is considered a high-needs area. This can affect school climate as well as student performance. Choctaw County Elementary, Choctaw County High, Southern Choctaw Elementary, and Southern Choctaw High schools serve roughly 1,242 students per year, according to the project abstract. With high rates of attendance, the schools have also faced a plethora of behavior issues and disciplinary incidents in addition to substance abuse cases.

“The communities in Alabama that are rural also tend to be forgotten by not just researchers, but implementers,” Dr. McDaniel said. “… I think it’s a really interesting partnership, and (Choctaw County) welcomed us with open arms. So, that was the other end of it. We were really interested in helping them, but they also had to be interested in allowing us in and allowing us to be a part of the community and the partnership.”

Overall, the program framework is the same, though it is left up to the individual schools to determine what their principal needs are and what the focus of the positive behavior curriculum should be. The support system features three tiers to address those needs and help determine which students in the school have behavioral issues and need additional support and assistance. The students’ strengths and difficulties are then identified, and a specialized behavior plan is designed for each individual student, though parental permission does need to be obtained before the behavior plan is set forward. Once the initial training is complete, Byrd said, a school-based project director oversees the school’s progress.

“I do know (the Choctaw County School faculty and staff) are super proud of themselves, and they have every right to be with the progress that they’ve made,” Byrd said. “They’ve overcome the challenges of a new superintendent, having to change staff multiple times, and they’ve been able to maintain and are doing so well at it.”

Through the grant funding, the school district has been able to hire mental health-based behavior specialists for each of its four schools who work with students having behavioral issues while also forming relationships with them that will positively influence their performance in the classroom setting.

“I recently came from a district where they only had one mental health service coordinator,” said Dr. Jamara Wright, Choctaw County’s new federal programs director.

“There is a huge difference in what they did and what the school-based therapists do here,” she said. “… These people are at the schools five days a week, all day. They actually get to build those relationships. The former federal programs director shared some stories with me of how they have literally saved lives where students were suicidal – just huge improvements. The students feel comfortable coming to them.”

I do know (the Choctaw County School faculty and staff) are super proud of themselves, and they have every right to be with the progress that they’ve made.  They’ve overcome the challenges of a new superintendent, having to change staff multiple times, and they’ve been able to maintain and are doing so well at it.

— DeAna Byrd

Disruptive and disciplinary behavior has decreased across the schools since the program began four years ago, as has attendance, academic performance, and self-worth, said Southern Choctaw Elementary School Behavior Specialist Janice Chapman.

“(Because of COVID) this year is really the first year that we have worked with the students face to face,” she said. “Since the inception of the program, we have been able to implement a successful crisis protocol policy that has been instrumental in helping students that have social-emotional (needs), suicidal ideations, and homicidal ideations.”

The behavior specialists engage with parental figures and the community – by attending basketball or football games and other events – which can influence positive behavior to continue in the home setting while also helping parents realize just how important mental and emotional health is.

“Now they know that when Little Johnny comes to school, he has a safe place. Not only will academic needs get met but also social-emotional needs, the whole child,” Chapman said. “That’s important because if Little Johnny is having triggers or behavioral meltdowns, don’t even try to think that he’s going to focus on anything academic, until you can get him stabilized.”

Different programs, such as drug and alcohol prevention and intervention, have also been incorporated into the schools in an effort to increase students’ safety and better their health.

“I think (the program has) been vital,” she said. “I do believe if they didn’t have this here that there would have been a lot of tragedies. It has been, I say, the heartbeat of this school system.”

The other behavior specialists Latisha Spencer, Tywana McGrew, and Lasandra Hill agreed. There was resistance from some of the students in the beginning, however.

“… They thought they were coming (to the principal’s office) because of discipline, and we were going to punish (them),” Chapman said. “So, we established that relationship to let them know – one of the key things we always tell them – we’re not disciplinaries. We give you the tools and the resources that you can use to be successful in the school system. Now, it’s up to you whether you apply those resources that we provide to building that social-emotional state. The whole child, we’re looking at the whole child.”

With these “positive office referrals,” students are now called in to be praised for meeting expectations or to receive a “Shine Report” for good behavior. Sometimes parents will even get a phone call telling them that their child did something they should be proud of.

“Just having that positive feedback is really good and implementing positive things,” Chapman said.

Everyone involved with the School Climate Transformation project is proud of the progress that has been made in Choctaw County Schools over the past four years.

“It makes my heart so happy. I would have probably never have known anyone in Choctaw, Alabama, without this project, and without (Dr. Morgan) connecting us, so I’m just glad to know the community,” Dr. McDaniel said. “They are hardworking educators, they’re super smart, and they care so much. Wherever I go in Alabama, where we are able to work with educators, it always makes me happy, but this project made me extra happy because they were getting so much support. This grant was able to provide the small community with support that they really needed.”