What we’re waiting for

ibestt puts a powerful suite of behavioral supports in the hands of schools — and schools keep making it better



ibestt puts a powerful suite of behavioral supports in the hands of schools — and schools keep making it better

Douglas Judge, Highline School District’s director of social-emotional learning, remembers the frustration he felt more than 20 years ago as an elementary school social worker, and again a decade later as a special educator teaching high school students with ongoing challenges related to their social-behavioral interactions.

“In most student support meetings, teams would primarily focus on variables and solutions that were outside of the control of the classroom teacher. Given the complexity of behavior, and without easy access to classroom-based interventions or coaching, solutions were often focused on moving students to more restrictive settings, or on people outside the school to come and help. This was disempowering for teachers, students and school teams.”

Video spotlight

Learn how ibestt helps teachers and schools implement a team-based student support process. Using a web-based system, a team of coaches and teachers move through the steps of the behavior planning process — from student assessment to intervention and then progress monitoring.

New possibilities started to emerge for Judge in 2012, when he came to the UW to pursue a PhD under advisor Professor Carol Davis. At the time, Davis and her team were in the early stages of developing an innovative tool to help educators support students with persistent challenging behaviors, based on several years of extensive research in Seattle-area schools.

That tool, called ibestt (Integrating Behavior Support and Team Technology), has been developed and revised over time into a richly featured, web-based behavioral support system (see sidebar “How ibestt Works”) used by five school districts in Washington and Oregon, primarily at the elementary level, as of spring 2020.

carol davis
Carol Davis

Highline, a district with a strong history of positive behavior supports spanning nearly 20 years, had already successfully piloted ibestt at individual schools for a number of years when Judge came into his position in 2018. But with his deep experience of coaching teams and evaluating ibestt’s capabilities — and knowing how welcoming the ibestt team was to suggestions for improvement — Judge suggested a shift in its use that has nearly doubled the capacity of Highline’s central office team to address challenging behaviors. His team decided that, in addition to school-based teams using ibestt, Highline could also use the tool at the district level to guide the work of behavior specialists and to shift their role to teacher coaches, rather than primarily working with students on a case-by-case basis.

“Before our shift to coaching using ibestt, our interventions sometimes focused on developing effective supports when provided by behavioral specialists, but without getting the teachers as involved to provide guidance to the students.”

Judge said that although his team of experienced, central-office behavior specialists provided intervention plans for students that often led to positive outcomes, the model had several limitations. Highline’s staff of five behavioral specialists only had time to work with about 30 children a year. Students quickly bonded with their behavioral specialist, which often didn’t address the child’s relationship with the teacher.

In addition, because of the focus on supporting student behavior, the deep knowledge and skills of the behavior specialists often didn’t transfer to building the teachers’ capacity to deliver effective, function-based interventions in the classroom.

To sustainably build the district’s capacity to respond to these behaviors, Judge turned his small team of specialists into coaches, using ibestt’s powerful planning and progress-tracking tools to keep all stakeholders informed and able to contribute — and using ibestt’s specific intervention guides to teach teachers lasting skills they can apply to multiple situations and children.

“We use a peer-to-peer coaching model that’s not evaluative,” Judge said. “In a district with nearly 19,000 students, the shift to focus more on building adult capacity, at both the central office and school levels, has big implications for increasing our ability to more equitably meet the needs of more students over time.” Critically, behavior specialists also work side-by-side with two Social Emotional Learning specialists to help schools build and expand their own school-based teams to engage in assessment and coaching using ibestt.

Partnerships are key

scott spaulding
Scott Spaulding

“What Highline has done is a development we’re excited about because we’re starting to see it replicated in some other districts,” said co-investigator and Associate Teaching Professor Scott Spaulding, who has been part of the ibestt team since 2010.

“We didn’t create the tool and say, ‘Hey, check this out, it’s great!’ Since the beginning, we’ve worked with schools to see what they were doing. We’ve spent a lot of time observing and getting feedback about things that worked and didn’t work to create the ibestt web application. Our partnerships have pushed the tool in so many ways we’re excited about.”

“We’ve worked with districts for so many years,” Davis said. “They are critical to developing ibestt to address the needs of teachers.”

A focus on function

Davis said one of the most important elements of ibestt is its focus on recognizing that every challenging behavior has an important reason, or function, for the student who engages in it.

Judge says it’s easy to let emotion and subjectivity drive the way we talk about behavior. “Good students and bad students — we’d never say that about a student who was struggling with fractions.”

Judge shares the example of a boy who was an English Language Learner and would act out every time he was asked to read. Using ibestt’s library of easy-to-use interventions, Highline’s behavioral specialists determined that the reason for the child’s acting out was his desire for positive attention from his peers, something unlikely during an activity where he struggled to perform as well as other students in his class.

As the teacher and team worked to improve the child’s reading skills, a solution was found not through reading, but by designating the boy the class’s official greeter, meeting and greeting each student on their way in and out of the classroom. This role gave him plenty of positive peer attention, and he no longer acted out to get peer attention. Importantly, he was better able to access his reading instruction.

Using ibestt’s visual tracking tools, the teacher and behavioral team were easily able to monitor the boy’s progress over time.

“By the end of the year his engagement with reading was 100%,” Judge said. “But we’re really trying to be humble about the ability any of us has to get the function and intervention just right on the first try. If we try something and it doesn’t work, the data and routines in ibestt make it easy to try something else.”

“If students are working on math problems, we show them how to do it. We give them practice,” Spaulding said.

“It’s really the same thing if you’re talking about a challenging behavior — but we often don’t as readily understand that these are skills that students can learn.”

We are who we’ve been waiting for

“The biggest thing I’ve learned from ibestt reminds me of something Barack Obama said,” Judge said. “’We are who we’ve been waiting for.’

“We can get stuck and wait for other people to come fix things for us. But ibestt shows us that with the right supports, we can better develop the skills needed to solve these complex challenges.

“One truth about social interactions is that they are always complex. Students, classrooms, social contexts and dynamics — these are ever-changing, and ibestt brings clarity and simplicity to help us as adults become the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

How it works

According to Professor Carol Davis, ibestt’s web-based system helps coaches and teachers tackle every aspect of addressing challenging behavior, from initial intervention to long-term record keeping.

The ibestt system is visually appealing and collaborative, enabling everyone on a team to contribute to and communicate about a student’s plan and any changes to that plan, while also offering individualized coaching and support from UW researchers and access to a rich library of intervention resources and tools.

Web Application

  1. Organizes and documents student supports
  2. Coordinates team efforts, including in-app communication
  3. Simple, visually rich data collection and monitoring

Coaching Support

  1. In-app comments and feedback from experts
  2. App-based messaging between team members
  3. Optional onsite and remote consultation and training

Resource Library

  1. App training videos
  2. Intervention guides
  3. Support videos
  4. Coaching protocol
  5. Training, action planning and implementation guides

Remote possibilities

School closures drive new home-bound supports

nullLast year, UW researchers — who developed ibestt with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education — received additional funding from the Institute of Education Sciences to adapt the ibestt system for use in early childhood settings. Part of that process, according to Associate Teaching Professor Scott Spaulding, was adding the ability for parents to access and contribute to their child’s plan through the app.

That process of bringing families into the ibestt system may become even more timely following school closures caused by COVID-19.

null“Students’ challenges with behavior don’t stop at school,” said Professor Carol Davis. “Schools are working to provide parents with support they can implement in the home. We’re partnering with our Highline team remotely to develop a long-term model of support that includes remote learning.

“Whether it’s academics or behavior, we’re trying to think about how to support overall social and emotional health and wellness.”