Heightening School Culture and Climate in Washington State

A state Department of Education implements evidence-based behavioral intervention practices with promising early results.

Statewide PBIS training event offered as part of the Washington School Climate Transformation grant. Photo Courtesy of the Washington Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events that strongly link to adverse outcomes for children. These can range from short-term effects on children like developmental delays and poor physical health to long-term impacts such as substance abuse, chronic illness, depression, and other mental illnesses. In the state of Washington, over one-third of youth have experienced one or two ACEs, with 11% experiencing three or more ACEs.

The impact of ACEs on school culture and climate cannot be under-estimated. Recent survey findings show that over one-quarter of 8th graders who responded to the Washington State 2016 Healthy Youth Survey were bullied at school, with a significant majority bullied electronically. Moreover, studies show that almost one-quarter of Washington children ages 2-17 have one or more emotional, behavioral, or developmental conditions (Kids Count, 2016). Among high-school-aged youth in Washington, depressive feelings and thoughts of suicide have increased over the past six years.

Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Improve School and Student Outcomes

Research demonstrates that the use of evidence-based, multi-tiered behavioral frameworks, such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), can improve school climate and safety. With grant writing support from Metis, the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction was awarded a five-year grant from the US Department of Education’s School Climate Transformation program. The goals of the grant are to build capacity at the state, local, and school levels to support the effective use of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support as a single delivery system for all social, emotional, and behavioral initiatives.  

The School Climate Transformation grant is expected to impact 30 high-need school districts and eight Educational Service Districts, which collectively serve almost 100,000 students in 228 schools. As part of this grant, the WA Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction formed a partnership with the National PBIS Technical Assistance Center, Northwest PBIS Network, and the University of Washington’s School Mental Health Assessment and Training Center. Together, this partnership supports the alignment of PBIS implementation and provides training and coaching for state, regional, and school staff.

Statewide Evaluation Studies Capacity Building Efforts

As the grant’s external evaluator, Metis is implementing a full set of data collection activities to inform the work of the State Leadership Team. In particular, the evaluation focuses on continuous program improvement efforts and supports internal and external reporting activities. The evaluation leverages insights through the following data sources and respondent groups:

  • The Tiered Fidelity Inventory, created through the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) Technical Assistance Center on PBIS, which measures the extent to which schools are implementing critical components of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports
  • Washington state report card and school/district data on student outcomes
  • Annual surveys of State Leadership Team members, trainers/coaches, and district/school staff
  • Program data and documentation review

Early findings of the evaluation are promising, and speak to the effectiveness of the State team’s capacity-building efforts:

  • The work of the State Leadership Team resulted in increased collaboration at the state level
  • State-level staff participating in grant-sponsored professional development reported substantial increases in their knowledge of PBIS implementation and coaching
  • School and district-level staff members participating in grant training increased their understanding of PBIS implementation and almost all reported plans to use what they learned in their roles