Incorporating Cultural Responsiveness into Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support Framework

Students in a library classroom.
Students in a library classroom.

Segregation in schools was abolished in 1954 in the Supreme Court’s historical decision in Brown v. Board of Education. But this decree from the court did not magically wipe segregation or racial prejudices and tensions away.

There are a variety of models schools around the country used to deal with student behavior problems, and while they have been successful in many cases, these models fail to account for specific issues caused by race-related behavioral problems.

In a collaborative grant from the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities for the University of Connecticut and the University of Alabama, assistant professor of the school psychology program in the UConn Neag School of Education Tamika La Salle and Sara McDaniel, associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama will work to look at ways to address this gap.

The five-year $2.4 million grant will work with 20 middle schools in Alabama with both homogenous and heterogeneous student populations in terms of race and poverty levels.

“We are including only middle schools in this project because of the importance of adolescence as a critical timepoint for intervention to prevent violent behavior,” McDaniel and La Salle say.

SWPBIS (Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support) has been implemented in more than 26,000 schools in the United States and has been shown to improve both student and school-level outcomes by using evidence-based practices, early interventions matched to individual student needs and ongoing progress monitoring to address behavioral problems.

While this program has generally been successful for decades, there is a gap in its effectiveness. SWPBIS does not adequately address specific issues related to racism and discrimination for both students and adults. In this project, La Salle and McDaniel will look at enhancing the traditional SWPBIS model with SWPBIS+: culturally responsive SWPBIS.

SWPBIS+ will introduce targeted modifications such as making the language schools use more culturally responsive, increasing parent and community outreach and holding ongoing discussions about implicit bias and tolerance.

The team will also work on training educators on implicit bias. Implicit bias is the set of stereotypes that unconsciously affect our understanding, actions and decisions. These biases are often deeply rooted in our early experiences and examples from media and can inform our actions, often in negative or discriminatory ways.

Research by other members of the research team working on this grant indicates racial discipline disparities are less due to explicit bias and more due to implicit biases. This training will help educators become more aware of their own implicit biases and how these biases may be seeping  into their practices in the classroom.

82 percent of teachers nationwide are white. This creates a majority culture among those teaching majority minority student bodies setting the stage for cultural conflict.

“Because of the race component, this is really important work for Alabama,” McDaniel said. “We want educators to understand the cultural mismatch and understand the mismatch of their culture and students of different backgrounds.”

Another strategy for addressing student behavioral issues is “coping power” (CP). CP focuses on students who are at an increased risk for negative outcomes such as delinquency and substance abuse. While CP has proven to be an effective model broadly, it does not specifically address interracial and intraracial aggression and violence.

Coping Power + will introduce additional lessons to the standard CP framework. These lessons will include a discussion about the unequal access to educational and employment opportunities for African Americans and how they overcome these barriers and lessons learned from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the progress that has been made since then.

“The primary focus is for students to be able to understand the historical context of race and discrimination in schools and to also make them feel empowered to be able to still be successful in school setting through targeted efforts on behalf of themselves, their parents and their teachers,” La Salle and McDaniel say.

John Lochman, UA professor of psychology who has implemented CP globally, will serve as co-PI on this grant. Co-investigators include: Daniel Cohen, UA assistant professor, school psychology; Kent McIntosh, professor, University of Oregon College of Education, and expert in PBIS; and  Sterett Mercer, associate professor of special education, University of British Columbia (Canada), will serve as a consultant.

La Salle holds a Ph.D. in school psychology from Georgia State University where she also received her Ed.S. She is a research scientist for the Center for Behavioral Educational Research. She serves as a consultant to the Georgia Department of Education. Her research interests include school climate, school improvement, culture and culturally responsive educational practices.

McDaniel received her Ph.D. in special education from Georgia State University. She is an associate professor in special education at UA. Her primary concentration is in universal prevention for school discipline and behavior and her secondary concentration is in targeted interventions for students placed at risk.

This project is NIH Grant No.: 1R01MD013806-01.

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