Integrating Academic and Behavior Supports Within an RtI Framework, Part 2: Universal Supports

Universal supports and instruction are the core programs and strategies provided to all students within the school building to promote successful student outcomes and prevent school failure. As mentioned in the previous article in this series, an integrated Response to Intervention (RtI) model not only views academics and behavior as components of the same support system, but these components also influence one another. Unless discipline issues are at a minimum, instruction will be interrupted and teaching time lost (Scott & Barrett, 2004). Additionally, poor academic performance may lead to students engaging in problem behavior that results in escaping academic tasks (Filter & Horner, 2009; Lee, Sugai, & Horner, 1999; Preciado, Horner, & Baker, 2009).

The universal core system creates the foundation of a multi-tier school-wide model. Effective universal supports alone should be sufficient to meet the needs of most students to be successful in academics and social behavior (Sugai, Horner, & Gresham, 2002). By meeting the needs of most, through effective instruction and behavior supports, fewer students will require more intensified supports. This outcome results in improved outcomes for the general population, as well as more valid, manageable, and cost-effective systems of supports at the secondary and tertiary levels. Figure 1 provides a graphical example of the universal supports model.

Figure 1: Graphical Example of Universal Supports

figure 1 - universal supports

This article describes the practices, systems, and data components that create effective universal supports. Practices are implemented by staff and improve the competencies for all students. Systems help staff to implement effective practices (Ysseldyke et al., 2006). Data will differ based on content (e.g., math, reading, social behavior), but all practices are enhanced and maintained by the same structure of data-based decision making within schools (Sugai, 2009).

Universal Support Practices: Improving Competencies for Students

The strategies and practices provided at the universal level should be based on scientific research. Tilly (2008) wrote that "scientific-research based practice" in some variation appears in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) statute 111 times. This national focus gained additional support with the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA 2004), which also calls for scientific-research based practices and an RtI model. In an effort to help educators identify evidence-based programs, the U.S. Department of Education sponsors the What Works Clearinghouse. This Web site provides a summary of the research on such programs as beginning reading, middle school math, and classroom behavior management. Additionally, several technical assistance centers have developed tools to help with the appropriate selection of core reading programs (Al Otaiba, Kosanovich-Grek, Torgesen, Hassler, & Wahl, 2005; Simmons & Kame'enui, 2003). Programs should be selected that meet the educational needs of the students and that have an appropriate fit within the school organization. Given the complex needs of students, instruction involves identifying activities that maximize student achievement outcomes (Foorman, 2007).

Effective practices of universal supports have been described in detail for academic (Kame'enui & Simmons, 1990) and behavior supports (Horner, Sugai, Todd, & Lewis-Palmer, 2005). Key features of the practices within a core program include 1) clear goals and expected outcomes, 2) appropriate instruction, 3) monitoring, 4) feedback and encouragement, and 5) error correction.

Clear Goals and Expected Outcomes

Academic goals and expected outcomes are generally defined by state departments of education or by school districts through the use of curriculum maps, curriculum scope and sequence guides, and/or grade level content expectations. As mentioned above, scientific research should provide educators with guidance on what to teach. For example, according to the National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000), an evidence-based core program incorporates five components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. In universal behavior supports, three to five behavior expectations are identified that describe how students should interact with others (e.g., be respectful, be responsible, be safe; Horner et al., 2005).

Appropriate Instruction

Key features of effective instruction have been identified that are essential to universal supports (Brophy & Good, 1986; Ellis & Worthington, 1994; Kame'enui & Simmons, 1990; Rosenshine & Stevens, 1986). Programs and strategies should be implemented with fidelity by trained instructors. In addition to quality content, consideration should be given to effective instructional delivery, instructional grouping, and adequate instructional time (Simmons, Kuykendall, King, Cornachione, & Kame'enui, 2000). Teaching behavior expectations is accomplished much like teaching academics (Langland, Lewis-Palmer, & Sugai, 1998). Students are presented information on behavior expectations, including examples of appropriate and inappropriate behavior so that students clearly understand the concept being taught. Students are then provided with opportunities to practice appropriate behavior to build fluency. Lessons take place in the settings in which appropriate behavior should occur and are taught by the adults responsible for monitoring students. At the high school level, older students may take an active role in teaching younger or new students (Bohanon, Borgmeier, Fenning, Flannery, & Malloy, 2009) through an "orientation" process.


In academic and behavior supports, it is important to monitor student progress to determine whether students are performing behaviors (e.g., decoding, requesting attention) correctly and whether those responses meet a standard for acceptable quality. Frequent monitoring allows school personnel to intervene early to correct errors and encourage students to continue correct responding.

Positive Feedback and Encouragement

Successful skill development requires providing students with feedback on their performance that is timely and understandable. Students are encouraged by scores, comments, and icons (e.g., stars, happy faces) as a result of their completed academic work. To improve academic task performance, it is necessary to know how well the task was completed. The feedback and encouragement should follow the desired response immediately so there is a clear understanding of what is correct and should be repeated. In both academics and behavior, younger students or students in early stages of skill development will require more frequent feedback and encouragement. Students also benefit from encouragement for correct behavior in the same manner as that for academic feedback (i.e., frequent feedback that is understandable). As a feature of behavior supports, many schools create an acknowledgment system based on tickets given to students for engaging in the behavior expectations (George, Kincaid, & Pollard-Sage, 2009). Tickets are used in a raffle, with selected students receiving items or activities for chosen tickets. The benefit of a tangible acknowledgment system is that it helps to prompt staff to acknowledge students and makes the acknowledgment more apparent for the students.

Correcting Errors

Errors are identified and corrected so students do not spend time practicing incorrect responses. In academics, the presence of errors provides staff with an opportunity to further investigate a student’s understanding of the subject. The instructor helps the student correct the problem and then provide additional practice to ensure the content is mastered (Carnine, Silbert, & Kame'enui, 1997). In behavior supports, discipline problems are first assumed to be behavioral errors. This approach suggests that staff should remind students of behavioral expectations, review teaching of the expectations, and reinforce students for engaging in appropriate behavior before providing negative consequences for inappropriate behavior (Sugai, Horner, & McIntosh, 2008). It is interesting that errors in academic content are viewed as inadequate learning by the student; however, behavior errors (inappropriate behavior) may not be perceived as a behavioral skills deficit.

Sometimes multiple students have academic or behavior errors within the same context. The presence of multiple students engaging in similar errors indicates a problem within the system rather than multiple individual student problems (Newton, Horner, Algozzine, Todd, & Algozzine, 2009). Efforts involve improving instructional delivery to improve future student success. Doing so will allow for a more efficient universal system of supports.

Support Staff: Developing Systems Capacity

The implementation process for universal supports is managed and coordinated by a building leadership team. Building leadership team membership includes the building administrator and a representative group of individuals (i.e., teachers across grades and support staff). The members of this team should have leadership capacity to support the staff in implementing effective practices with fidelity. A team (rather than just the building administrator) approach to implementation supports is helpful to increase staff "buy-in" and sustainability. A large enough team can continue on even if one or two members change over time. Also, a team may increase staff buy-in when team members are seen as representing the best interests of all within the school community. The building administrator's role on the team is to help secure the resources that ensure staff can implement the core programs with fidelity, as well as to promote the visibility and priority of implementation efforts. This leadership team obtains commitment from the rest of the school community and creates an action plan for implementation of a school-wide academic and behavior supports model. The action plans and implementation activities should be embedded within the school improvement framework. Improving the quality of practice at the universal level may include facilitating a common vision with clear goals and objectives, professional development, feedback on implementation efforts, and appropriate tools and materials (Fullan, 2005). Staff need to understand the priorities of what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach it. Problems occur when the priorities are not communicated or there are competing demands on staff time.

The building leadership team monitors the effectiveness of supports provided at the universal level, through the evaluation process described in the next section of this article. An emphasis is placed on developing implementation capacity and systems of supports that are sustained over time (Adelman & Taylor, 2003). At the universal supports level, one team often coordinates all components of core programs (e.g., reading, math, behavior). Larger schools may involve work groups to address separate components, but these work groups report back to the leadership team. At the high school level, work groups are arranged around departments or incorporate subcommittees to distribute leadership and responsibilities (Bohanon et al., 2009). It is important that the leadership team communicates the goals and current status of the universal system with the school community to create a culture of supports within the school. The communication and feedback helps to ensure that staff keep a common focus on the integrated core program.

Evaluation of Universal Supports

Effective systems use information for continuous improvement (Curtis & Stollar, 2002). There are two main questions that are used to evaluate effectiveness of universal supports. First, are the programs that comprise the universal supports implemented with fidelity? Second, are students achieving the desired student outcomes? To establish the current level of implementation, the school may conduct an audit of existing practices to evaluate what is in place (Simmons et al., 2000). An audit developed by Kame'ennui and Simmons (2003) for beginning reading is the Planning and Evaluation Tool for Effective Schoolwide Reading Programs. The tool addresses seven elements of an effective school-wide reading program: goals and objectives, assessment, instructional practices, instructional time, differentiated instruction, administration, and professional development. Sugai, Horner, and Todd (2003) created a similar audit for behavior called the Effective Behavior Support Self-Assessment Survey, which examines the status and need for improvement of four behavior support systems: 1) school-wide discipline systems, 2) nonclassroom management systems (e.g., cafeteria, hallway, playground), 3) classroom management systems, and 4) systems for individual students engaging in chronic problem behaviors.

Once a universal supports plan is created, strategies are used to measure implementation effectiveness (Kaminski, Cummings, Powell-Smith, & Good, 2008; Newton et al., 2009). A common standard for evaluating effectiveness of universal supports (for both academics and behavior) is that 80% of students meet the criteria of success and 95% of students stay at this level across the school year. Formative evaluation tasks may take place monthly or quarterly depending on content and the natural cycle of the school calendar. Some schools evaluate universal supports by student marking period or by semester. Formative evaluation can involve curriculum-based measurement (CBM; Shinn, 1989) in systems such as Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS) or AIMSweb, which includes math, writing, and spelling, in addition to reading. A similar Web-based approach to tracking behavior data is the School-Wide Information System. Summative evaluation of universal supports includes district assessments and high stakes state level tests. Summative evaluation should take place at the end of each year to effectively plan for the next school year.

An example tracking form used by a universal supports building leadership team to monitor student academic and behavior outcomes formatively during the school year is provided in Figure 2. The example is for illustrative purposes. It may be beneficial to expand the academic core programs by content area (e.g., reading, math, science).

Figure 2: Yearly Form for Tracking Universal Supports

Initial Data End of First Semester Data End of Second Semester Data
  • Percentage of students with 0-1 major discipline referrals
Previous spring data
  • Status of behavior systems supports
Beginning of year data
  • Percentage of students performing at grade level
Beginning of year data
  • Percentage of students remaining at grade-level performance based on previous assessments
Beginning of year data
  • Status of academic systems supports
Beginning of year data

Continuous Improvement of Universal Supports

The leadership team looks at the data and modifies the existing school-wide plan to improve universal supports (McIntosh, Reinke, & Herman, 2009). Adjustments may be made to strengthen the system capacity so that staff are better able to implement practices with fidelity. Such capacity improvements provide staff with adequate direction, resources, and encouragement for quality performance and skill development (Gilbert, 1978). One strategy to sustain implementation quality is to provide staff with frequent feedback on program outcomes. Sharing school-wide data with the school community should take place on a regular basis (Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, 2004). Sometimes, staff have been punished by data, so it is important to use the presentation of the information as an opportunity to reinforce the work done by staff and also as a continuous improvement process. Steps for sharing data include 1) summarizing data, looking for trends and patterns; 2) investigating the validity of the data; 3) reinforcing staff behavior for collecting accurate and timely data; and 4) sharing a plan for acting on the data.

Adjustments also may take place around specific practices to better address student need. Through evaluation, a core reading program may be weak in a specific skill development area, such as word attack strategies. The core is strengthened with the addition of specific strategies to address this weakness. Behavior problems may occur in a specific area at a specific time. Strengthening the core might involve reviewing the behavior expectations for the area with increased monitoring and acknowledgment for appropriate behavior.


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