Assistant Professor Virginia Walker was recently recognized by two leading professional organizations for her research and service to the field of special education.

TASH, an international disability advocacy organization, chose her for the Positive Behavior Support Award, honoring her in mid-December at its annual conference in Atlanta. In March, the Association for Positive Behavior Support (APBS) will honor Walker with the 2018 Ted Carr Initial Researcher Award at the organization’s conference in San Diego.

Both awards point to her promising research aimed at improving schoolwide positive behavioral interventions and supports (SWPBIS) for students with severe disabilities. It’s a pervasive area of need for K-12 schools yet to receive much attention from academia.

Walker, who is also a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA), is routinely asked by schools to develop behavioral intervention plans for students with severe disabilities. Her support is sometimes a school’s last resort, and requires tier 3 expertise, the highest level of intervention.

“After working with them, I couldn’t help but think about whether students with severe disabilities would benefit from more preventative practices at the tier 1 universal level,” she said. “When I began researching the issue, I was finding that students with severe disabilities were being excluded from various aspects of SWPBIS.”

About PBIS

The introduction of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) was an important step forward for the field of education in the late 1980s and 90s. It uses evidence-based practices to treat and prevent problem behavior. Previous methods often relied on aversive punishment-based approaches.

PBIS practices were initially used to improve behavioral outcomes for students receiving special education services, but were later adapted for all learners. Today, SWPBIS plans are now a crucial part of all K-12 buildings, and are created by a team of teachers and administrators. However, the most marginalized population of students, those with severe disabilities, are typically excluded from schoolwide plans.

“A lot of my work now is focused on understanding the factors that contribute to their exclusion or inclusion,” Walker said. “If schools are including them in SWPBIS initiatives, what are the successful strategies that they have used and what factors contribute to their inclusion?”

Causes and solutions

Walker explains that one of the potential barriers that prevents this population from being included in schoolwide plans is their educational placement.

“Students with severe disabilities are often in segregated self-contained classrooms, and their exposure to most supports offered to other students is severely limited,” she said.

Improving inclusivity for these students uncovers another issue—educators without adequate training may find it difficult to effectively support the behavioral needs of these students.

“Those who need to be trained in order to support these students would also include general education teachers and paraprofessionals who are providing supports in inclusive settings,” Walker said.

“We already have a pretty good understanding of evidence-based practices for this population. I think the challenge now is how to best support these individuals who are working with these students in schools so that they can apply these best practices to make SWPBIS accessible.”

Another obstacle Walker has observed is the educational background of SWPBIS teams. She has yet to come across one that includes a special education teacher who serves students with severe disabilities. As a result, these groups are often ill-equipped to make plans adaptable and accessible to students with severe disabilities.

“If you include a teacher with this expertise, the responsibility will also fall on that individual to share his or her knowledge about these students with others on the team,” she said. “With that educator as a resource, the SWPBIS team can make progress toward building supports that are accessible to all students, including those with severe disabilities.”

Next steps

Walker and her colleagues recently worked with several special education teachers to test the adaptability of a SWPBIS lesson plans at the tier 1 universal level. The educators made minor adjustments to include evidence-based practices for students with severe disabilities and implemented the practices across multiple inclusive school environments.

“When they implemented the lesson plans that incorporated evidence-based best practices for students with severe disabilities, challenging behaviors decreased within these inclusive schoolwide settings,” she said.

The results hold promise for preventing the most challenging behaviors and the need for more intensive tier-3 interventions for students.

While Walker admits that much more research is needed, she’s up to the task.