Student behavior program offers tools for success

LHISD Special Education Director Elyse Tarlton is overseeing the implemention of Solid ROOTS. The program is designed to better support special education students in their transition into mainstream classrooms. (Dana Delgado Photo)

LHISD Special Education Director Elyse Tarlton is overseeing the implemention of Solid ROOTS. The program is designed to better support special education students in their transition into mainstream classrooms. (Dana Delgado Photo)

By Dana Delgado

A new student behavior program designed to assist and better support special education students in their transition into the educational mainstream will become fully implemented this school year throughout the Liberty Hill Independent School District.

The program, Solid ROOTS, was launched in the high school and junior high last year in conjunction with the district’s efforts to expand its inclusion program where students with disabilities receive instruction alongside their non-disabled peers. Inclusion in the regular classes has become critical for the district since special education students are now being required to take the same state-mandated tests as students without disabilities.

According to Stacey B. Morgan, co-founder of Emergent Tree, which is supporting the school district in its implementation of the new program, Solid ROOTS is firmly grounded in the research of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) that emphasizes looking for the motivation behind challenging behaviors and teaching students more appropriate and effective strategies to meet those needs. “Solid ROOTS outlines not only necessary student interventions,” Morgan said, “but also provides staff expectations for team collaboration, running efficient daily schedules and routines, and collecting reliable data.”

LHISD Special Education Director Elyse Tarlton became aware of the program prior to assuming her current position. “I had researched the Solid ROOTS Program and Emergent Tree when I was at Waco,” said Tarlton. “They are out of Pflugerville and I brought the program to Waco when I was Director there. We had success with it there and we were able to decrease negative behaviors and improve social situations.”

In its initial but partial implementation at Liberty Hill last year, Director Tarlton said she saw evidence of success, even though statistics were not reflective of the improvement and her office was swamped with concerns from campus administrators about negative behaviors of special education students who had been placed in regular classrooms.

According to Tarlton, the percent of discipline referrals of special education students involved in the new behavior program during 2014-15 escalated. Specifically, Tarlton said that placements of special education students in In-School Suspension (ISS) and the Alternative Education Program (AEP) were particularly high in light of the fact that they comprise less than two percent of the student population.

“We were way over 10 percent for in-school suspension (of special education discipline placements),” said Director Tarlton who also noted some encouraging results.

“We received very positive feedback from our campus administrators and general education teachers about Solid ROOTS,” said Tarlton. “We did see a decrease in the AEP placements by the end of the year.”

The Special Education Director described the students as an “intense group of students” who have emotional challenges.

“We wanted to reduce negative behaviors and punitive consequences and create real change in behavior. The focus is on changing instead of managing disruptions and ensures that regular education teachers can focus on the academic program,” she said.

LHISD special education teacher and behavior interventionist Jeff Walker who was immersed in the implementation of Solid ROOTS last year at Liberty Hill Junior High praised the program.

“It is an awesome program,” Walker said. “It’s a good game plan that helps us understand why students behave the way they are behaving and explains the functions of their behavior and teaches kids skills to handle their behavior on their own. We hit the ground running last year, but it’s not going to happen overnight; we are ahead of the game this year and we will get better every year. It will take time, but it’s going in the right direction.”

Jeff Conovan, an independent contractor hired part-time by LHISD as the district’s behavioral specialist who supports all campuses, said that there were “great successes in the program’s implementation.”

“We cut down on discipline referrals and improved attendance,” he said, “and gave students support when they needed support and got them back on task quicker. In the past, students would miss much more class time.”

As the high school and junior high ready for their second year of implementation, the school district has been preparing to introduce the program in the intermediate and elementary schools. Teachers, administrators, and other district staff who come in contact with the specific students have been undergoing dedicated training. As was the case last year, students diagnosed with emotional challenges will be the focus of support through Solid ROOTS at the intermediate and elementary levels.

Emergent Tree, the central Texas behavioral support company that is serving 51 other campuses across the state, will continue their support of implementing the program this year with regular training, on-site consultation, and assistance with setting up behavior systems. Morgan, the company’s founder, said that other districts that have implemented the program have experienced a variety of positive results including the reduction of discipline referrals and suspensions, reduction in the number of students requiring intensive behavioral supports and increased instructional time for students. Tarlton is counting on the program’s benefits and is looking forward to its full implementation.

“I think we are going to see some positive gains this year,” she said. “While the program is based on positive support and reinforcement, there still has to be accountability and natural life lessons and choices by the student. Solid ROOTS is a good product and we have very good support from Emergent Tree. After these two years of full implementation and training, we should have one comprehensive plan for the entire district.”

The Special Education Director said the keys to success of the program will be continued training, the establishment of campus management/support teams, and district expertise and collaboration. At each campus, one program team consisting of two paraprofessionals and one certified teacher will support and assist regular classroom teachers and monitor students every 15 minutes.