Response Ability Pathways (Brendtro & du Toit, 2005) training was provided for all staff working with emotionally challenged students in a large county-wide school setting. To generalize these new skills and imbed them in the school culture, specific strategies were used to engage parents, students, and staff in building a climate of respect.
In order to thrive, organizations must undergo significant change at various points in their development. Such is the case with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Emotional Disability Services in the beginning process of implementing Response Ability Pathways (RAP) with staff and students.
The impetus for change originated from an understanding of the immense challenges that students with emotional disabilities (ED) face. In particular, these students graduate at a much lower rate than either regular education students or students with other disabilities. Graduation is impacted by many factors such as absenteeism, low academic skills, lack of academic supporting behaviors, and limited home support. Students with ED often have a past history of trauma which makes them distrustful of adults, and they push away concerned adults. In addition, they also experience significantly more stress, crises, hospitalizations, and suspensions.
Within two years of implementation of RAP, significant changes were seen. Alternative placements and hospitalizations were reduced by half, as was the number of students who failed to graduate. Risk behavior of students was reduced by a third, and the training was highly rated by staff (Shields, Milstein, & Posner, 2010). Even so, an ongoing challenge has been to generalize the training into the cultures of the various school settings serving this challenging population.
Montgomery County Public Schools serves a total of i37»745 students with the the ED Unit comprising 560 students who experience significant emotional challenges that impair their ability to adequately access their educational programs. Services for students with ED are delivered at six elementary schools, nine middle schools, and nine high schools. In addition to special education teachers and paraprofessionals, the unit employs nine behavior support teachers, ten social workers, and eight school psychologists to provide a full continuum of services. MCPS addresses the needs of these students in the least restrictive environment, encouraging them to access a rigorous curriculum in general education classrooms.
In order to effect change, MCPS ED Services secured state funding to implement RAP with staff and students. Between 2008 and 2011, MCPS executed a total of eight RAP workshops, training over 200 staff members from 24 schools. While the trainings were highly regarded and given excellent evaluations by workshop participants, follow-up focus groups and needs assessment data indicated that schools were not uniformly implementing the new skill set. As staff returned to their schools and were immersed in their daily regimen, RAP skills and philosophy did not generalize easily due to the hectic and intense nature of student and programmatic needs.
Making RAP a Reality
Beyond initial training, educators need ongoing support in implementing restorative approaches with challenging students. An earlier article described how Montgomery County Public Schools employed coaching sessions to help teachers move from punitive strategies to build respect and accountability (Currier et al., 2012). Here are described additional strategies to increase the fidelity of RAP implementation.
The goal was to create a RAP culture at each program through a variety of strategies designed to move RAP from vision to reality. The ED Services leadership recognized that a solid logistical strategy was needed to organize and coordinate the overall change effort, to build and maintain strong enthusiasm about change, and to remind everyone about the benefits that come from the transformation process. …