Behaviour Management in the Current School Context - Q&A with George Sugai

George Sugai, Emeritus Professor in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, on current factors affecting behaviour in schools.
Emeritus Professor George Sugai: Be strategic before reactively adopting solutions.

Thank you for inviting me to this follow-up Q&A. I appreciate the opportunity to comment on your new queries and to elaborate on my previous comments.

As usual, I like to provide a context for my comments. In this case, I’m responding in 2024, nearly two years since my last Q&A (https:// Since then, schools have been challenged by a) rocky returns to classrooms after the peak of the disruptive Covid-19 pandemic, b) increases in political and cultural unrest and conflict around the world, c) concerns for environmental and climate change, d) increases in violence in public places, and e) widening economic, social, and societal disparities across races, genders, religions, nationalities, and other groups.

On the positive side, our scientific discoveries and knowledge base have advanced in, for example, digital technology, energy alternatives, medicine, health, and environmental and biodiversity sustainability. In education, for example, attention has shifted toward a) more direct, or as you describe, more intentional approaches to teaching and b) more comprehensive and integrated efforts to merge education, community, and family mental health supports, especially, systems for increased implementation fidelity and sustainability.

In this context, I’ll do my best to address your questions.

1 How does positive school climate relate to STUDENT success?
From 1970s-2000s, we worked with educators, social workers, and school psychologists and counselors to adapt and apply the three-tiered public health prevention approach to school contexts, that is, individual students, classrooms, and schools. Our primary goal was to increase our efficient and sustained implementation of practices that have been documented as empirically effective.

This work was covered initially under the Positive Behaviour Intervention and Supports umbrella and resulted in the evolution of the PBIS framework. Many quickly realised that this framework logic had broader applications and implications, and PBIS evolved into the broader implementation framework, known as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support, or MTSS. I refer you to our previous Q&A and to for deeper looks at PBIS and MTSS.

Given this background, let’s start by describing the features of “positive classroom and school climates.” In general, these settings or environments are predictable, effective, safe, respectful, and comprehensive for all students, educators, and family and community members.

● They are predictable because rules and prosocial expectations (e.g., respectful, responsible, and safe) are taught, reminded, and acknowledged intentionally across all interactions, settings, and students. Most importantly, they are expected and anticipated by students, educators, and family members.

● They are safe in that these rules and expectations enable instruction to occur, promote prosocial interactions, screen for high-risk behaviours and situations, and inhibit interfering behaviours and actions. Specifically, they ensure that everyone (i.e, students, educators, and family members) learns and knows what is and is not acceptable and how everyone will and should act in a given setting. Being preventive and predictable (i.e., arrange environment for success) are essential in establishing safe environments.

● They are effective because priority is given to selecting teaching practices for both academic and social behaviours that are empirically validated, defendable, and contextually and developmentally relevant to teaching and learning settings.

● They are respectful in that they are considerate of developmental age and individual and group variations, for example, grade level, disability, race, gender, culture, neighborhood, etc. Equitable and culturally relevant behaviours and acts are taught and acknowledged continuously within all academic and non-academic contexts and interactions.

● They are comprehensive because all students, all educators, and all family and community members are included in daily interactions and engagements across all school settings. Relatedly, academic and social behaviour supports are integrated into daily classroom routines rather than addressed independently.

From an MTSS perspective, positive school climates are also maximised when implementation intensities align with the needs and strengths of student and educator learning histories. That is, strategically selected practices are integrated and aligned into a continuum of supports for all students. And, all students, educators, and family members experience the most empirically defendable practices shown to be associated with positive school climate across all settings and times (Tier 1). Some students receive additional and/or intensified supports (Tiers 1 + 2), and a few students experience additional more individualised supports (Tiers 1 + 2 + 3). Both practices and their implementation are aligned to establish a seamlessly, predictable, integrated, and intentional continuum of academic and behaviour supports.

In general, empirically defendable practices include
● Continuous teaching, practicing, prompting, and acknowledging observable prosocial skills.
● Continuous and preventive active supervision across all settings.
Precorrection or pre-teaching of desired behaviours in predictably problematic situations or settings.
Maximising use of time for direct and effective academic and social behaviour instruction.
Intensifying and individualising these practices for students who require more direct teaching to be successful.

2 How does positive school climate relate to EDUCATOR well-being and success?
This question is important because we often overlook how school climate relates to educator mental health and wellbeing. When school climates are positive, educators, like students, report their daily experiences as predictable, safe, effective, respectful, and comprehensive.

● They are predictable because all staff members are working from an agreed upon set of expectations and corresponding supportive evidence-based practices. That is, they know what they can and should do, they can predict what their colleagues will do, and they are confident in how their students will benefit.

● They are safe because all staff members have been taught how to prevent and respond to appropriate and interfering student behaviour, and they arrange the physical, social, and behavioural conditions of all settings and activities to inhibit undesirable behaviour and to promote safe and respectful actions.

● They are respectful because educator-to-student, educator-to-educator, educator-to- administrator, and educator-to-family/community member interactions occur around the positive expectations promoted and acknowledged across the school and w/in classrooms. Administrators model what all educators and students are expected to do. Educators work in teams to support one another, and teaching and learning successes are celebrated on a regular basis. Educators are considerate of individual differences across students and staff, family, and community members.

● They are effective because educators (a) receive regular positive and constructive feedback of the impact of their academic and social behaviour teaching efforts; (b) receive regular training, coaching, prompting, and reinforcement to ensure high implementation fidelity or accuracy; (c) invest in the strategic selection and implementation of a relatively small number evidence- supported practices (i.e., smallest number of practices associated with the greatest effects); and
(d) use relevant outcome data to evaluate and inform their practice implementation.

● They are comprehensive in that educators work in classroom and school settings that are considerate of the strengths, samenesses, differences, and limitations of all students and all educators across all settings, including race, gender, culture, religion, etc.

3 Given what you’ve described about positive school climate for students and educators, how does the MTSS framework provide a foundation for a positive school climate?
I like to think that the MTSS framework gives educators a continuum of structures and systems such that efficient high-fidelity implementation of evidence-based practices is associated with maximum student benefit. That is, MTSS represents an organisational scaffolding for implementers (i.e., educators). Students benefit from what educators do and the ultimate outcome is a positive school climate experienced by all students, all educators, and family and community members. Examples of these framework systems include the following:

Leadership teams have the authority and primary purpose of maximising achievement and maintenance of a high-quality positive school climate. They are comprised of respected school educators who assess, design, develop, and evaluate the practices, that is, lead implementation. To re-iterate, the team’s primary goal is to establish school organisations and routines that can efficiently and effectively achieve high fidelity and sustainable implementation of evidence based academic and social behaviour practices.

Data systems are developed and operated to enable selection, measurement, distribution, display, and celebration of educationally important student outcomes and high fidelity of implementation of practices designed to achieve these student outcomes. Data-based decision making is comprehensive in that it occurs across the MTSS continuum, that is school-wide, classroom, small group, and individual student.

School leaders are active participants in all aspects of practice implementation. In particular, they give the leadership team authority and support to lead the MTSS implementation. They model and acknowledge effective implementation, and in particular, support staff from an MTSS perspective. That is, what supports do all educators need (Tier 1)? What additional supports do some educators need (Tier 1 + 2)? And, what individualised supports do a few educators need (Tier 1 + 2 + 3)?

Continuum of high impact practices is established. These practices are empirically and contextually defendable, prioritised, and integrated into an intensifying implementation continuum that supports all students across all settings by all staff members. Equally important, more intensive and specialised supports are intentionally implemented for groups and individual students who need more than enabled by school-wide or universal supports. To re-iterate, all students experience school-wide supports regardless of whether they are also experiencing intensive supports.

The MTSS framework gives educators a scaffolding for enabling leadership teams to select and support the implementation of an efficient continuum of effective practices for all students and educators. A decision making process is also provided for discontinuing ineffective and irrelevant practices and adapting or replacing them with more effective and efficient practices. The goal is to accurately do a few things really well for a sustainable period so that all educators, students, and family members can experience and benefit from a positive school climate.

4 What do you see as the need and value-added in advancing student and educator mental health and wellbeing in schools and classrooms?
I absolutely agree that educator and student mental health and wellbeing are important considerations and outcomes in schools and classrooms. I emphasise that mental health and wellness are “outcomes” achieved by intentional selection and implementation of effective practices. To elaborate, let’s start by considering how mental health and wellbeing relate to positive school climate.

First, a positive school climate or environment is indicated when
● Rates of major and minor rule violating behaviours (e.g., verbal and physical aggression, non-compliance, instructional disruptions, non-attendance) are low in frequency, duration, and intensity.
● Students, educators, and family members report feeling safe when in classroom and non-classroom settings.
● Students and educators can demonstrate, predict, and acknowledge expected behaviours and respond predictably and preventively to rule violations.
● An intentional, effective, and efficient continuum of academic and behavioural supports exists to address the needs of all students across all settings by all staff members.
● Social and academic interactions among students, educators, and family and community members are positive, constructive, and preventive.
● Measurable data document that rates of academic engagement and achievement are high.
● Leadership and organisational structures and procedures are actively in place to lead the implementation process.

Second, the above observable indicators of positive school climate also characterise the mental health and well-being of students and educators in classroom and nonclassroom settings. For example, students and educators are seen
● Self-managing and self-regulating expected behaviours more effectively.
● Problem solving with others more collaboratively.
● Engaging in academic instruction and experiencing regular achievement success.
● Engaging in actions and environmental adjustments that self-regulate and self-manage emotional and behavioural status.
● Engaging in actions indicative of feeling safe, supported, and engaged at school.
● Etc.

Third, school counselors, psychologists, social workers, school nurses, and other mental health staff members participate as aligned, integrated, and collaborative partners across school and classroom settings and activities. For example, mental health and wellness related personnel are
● Fluent and consistent in supporting the primary goal of maximising academic and social behaviour achievement for all students with all educators across all school settings and activities.
● Equal members and contributors of leadership and implementation teams.
● Teaching and supporting side-by-side with educators (i.e., they are educators) in classroom and school settings.
● Active and integral participants in the full MTSS continuum of supports.
● Etc

In sum, practice and treatment activities of mental health and wellness staff members are considerate of and integrated with the academic and social behaviour mission of schools and classrooms, that is, not as add-ons, extra supplements, or segregated resources.

Educators should carefully consider if, what, when, where, and how mental health and wellness are integrated into schools. Just because they might be suggested doesn’t necessarily imply that they are needed. When mental health practices are introduced, the presumption is that they must/should come from outside education (e.g., psychology, social work, mental health) and inserted by specialists into education.

I’ve learned that schools have and can promote mental health and wellbeing if effective, efficient, and relevant organisational and implementation structures and systems were used to select, organise, and implement effective practices. MTSS offers such a framework by using a comprehensive organisational continuum of practices and supports (i.e., all, some, few) and then arranging for successful and sustainable use by all educators. Under these conditions, the need for additional or adapted mental health and wellness practices should be considered intentionally and justifiably, not reactively to a high visibility issue.

Similarly, as in education, the practices and practitioners touted as producing mental health and wellness vary in the quality, quantity, empirical validity, and theoretical defendability, especially, for school-age children and youth. While many non-verified practices may have face-validity (e.g., aroma therapy, insight-based talk therapies, facilitated communication, scared straight approaches, crystal healing) and are associated with some positive outcomes for some individuals (in particular, adults), they generally are inappropriate for and misaligned with priority academic mission of schools and classrooms.

5 Given your emphasis on evidence-based school and classroom practices, what might a continuum of evidence-based practices look like to contribute to mental health and wellness?
In responding to this question, I want to be clear that every practice must be considered and adapted in the context of a) developmental level and grade, b) social and educational fit, c) alignment with educational implementation need or intensity, and d) integration with current practice.

Using a specific example, we know that informative, specific, contextually appropriate positive feedback is important and effective in classroom and non-classroom systems. However, intensity varies based on intensity of student need.

To illustrate, let’s review the practice of giving positive feedback in the school-wide context of the tiered logic of MTSS:

Universal (Tier 1). All educators should deliver intentional, regular, and general and specific positive feedback to all students across all classroom and non-classroom settings. For example, positive public feedback statement about every 10-15 minutes in teacher directed group activities (e.g., “Well done, class. We have 90% attendance today”). These interactions will have different topographies or appearances based on grade level (e.g., preschool v. elementary v. middle v. school) and other demographic features and learning histories (e.g., language, diversity, disability.

Targeted (Tiers 1 + 2). Some students may require positive feedback at higher levels (i.e., intensity, rate, frequency, immediacy, locations) to be effective. The delivery occurs when all students are experiencing feedback, in targeted group contexts, and/or specific settings. For example, targeted levels of positive feedback may occur about every 3-7 minutes and combined with reminders about expected appropriate behaviour (e.g., “Well done, John, Patrick, George, and Torrie. You demonstrated responsibility by being in your seat and ready to work”).

Indicated (Tier 1 + 2 + 3). A few students may require highly individualised and intensive feedback, that is, each student would have an individual plan or schedule for delivery. For instance, if George has inappropriate social contacts with peers (i.e., seeking peer attention), his indicated plan might prompt and look for positive peer contacts every 5 minutes in order to increase opportunities to provide individualised positive feedback for appropriate social contact. For example, “So cool, George. You and John are quite the team at trying to solve that math problem together. I’ll check back in a few minutes to see your solution.”

To give another example, if I were a secondary classroom teacher, my MTSS continuum of effective practices might include the following:
Universal (Tier 1). For all students across all classroom activities and exchanges: a) empirically validated teaching practices and curriculum, b) continuous active supervision, c) regular positive feedback for academic and social behaviour expectations, d) reminders or precorrections for expected behaviour, e) reteaching of expected behaviours for displaces of inappropriate behaviour,(f) direct and indirect teaching of expected behaviour, and g) monthly and quarterly data collection, analyses, and practice outcomes and implementation fidelity.

Targeted (Tier 1 + 2). For students whose behaviours and responses are less responsive to universal classroom practices:a) increased intensity of above universal practices (e.g. frequency, locations, specificity), b) small group practices (e.g., Good Behaviour Game, small group social skills teaching/practice sessions) per week, c) precorrections or reminders before entering situations where inappropriate behaviour is predicted, and d) weekly and monthly data collection, analyses, and practice outcomes and implementation fidelity.

Indicated (Tier 1 + 2 + 3). For students whose behaviours and responses are chronically unresponsive to universal and group practices: a) increased intensity of above targeted practices, b) behavioural functional assessment to determine maintaining factors (e.g., triggers, consequences), c) individualised behaviour support plan based on assessment results (e.g., direct social skills instruction, behaviour contracting, cognitive behavioural counseling, individualised behaviour support plans), d) team based planning and implementation (e.g., school counselor or psychologist, nurse, mental health specialist), and e) daily and weekly data collection, analyses, and practice outcomes and implementation fidelity.

In considering the above examples, note that I emphasised an intensifying continuum of support of carefully selected integrated and aligned practices based on level of student responsiveness. I also want to caution that practice effectiveness should be evaluated based on a) level of implementation fidelity (i.e., implemented as intended and with high accuracy and durability), b) educational validity (i.e., validated by students, educators, family members), c) degree of student responsiveness (i.e., maximum achievement and performance), and d) equitable consideration of student characteristics and learning history.

6 Would you expand on how educators make informed decisions about integrating mental health and wellness supporting practices into an MTSS continuum within in schools and classrooms? That is, what would an intentional mental health and wellness integration road map look like in schools?
Allow me to preface my response to your question by indicating that first and foremost, schools have an essential role in educating and preparing our youth. It is so important that we formally provide each child and youth more than 180 days of formal education each year for more than 10 years. This intentional effort is unlike any other preparatory child development experience, except parenting and family life.

Second, schools that effectively, efficiently, and relevantly prioritise and achieve their academic missions with respect to student learning and positive classroom and classroom also maximise achievement of mental health and wellness outcomes for both students and educators.

Third, an MTSS continuum logic provides a good framework for the systemic operation of schools. Whenever a data-confirmed issue or concern arises (e.g., student behaviour, academic achievement, engagement) (e.g., educator attendance, retention, engagement, implementation fidelity), the MTSS framework provides an all-some-few scaffolding for collecting and reviewing data, selecting and implementing empirically-defendable practices, and providing systemic structures for maximising adoption, implementation fidelity, and sustainability.

Fourth, given the above, schools must be strategic on what additional mental health and wellness practices are integrated into school routines and experiences. That is, they must weigh carefully the impact of practice additions on their academic mission and priority and on student achievement and positive school climate. For example, when poorly supported educational practices are adopted (e.g., non-direct literacy curricula), effective teaching practices are not implemented as intended (i.e., low implementation fidelity), subjective decision making occurs (i.e., non-data-based), reactive responses are made (e.g., punishment and exclusion are heightened with episodes of school or community violence), new and unsubstantiated fads are promoted, etc., we search for easy and quick solutions, often from outside of education.

Finally, I refer you to the PBIS Implementation Blueprint ( for an in-depth overview and specific procedural guidelines for development, implementation, and evaluation of a continuum of academic and social behaviour practices and supports.

To answer your question, school leaders and leadership teams in collaboration with students, colleagues, and family and community members must strive to make intentional practice decisions, that is, informed by local data, empirically defendable, doable with local resources and personnel, aligned within an MTSS continuum of support, and most importantly, consistent with the mission of schools and education. Before reacting by quickly looking for outside solutions, a careful review and decluttering (i.e., enhancing, adding, deleting) of current practices should be considered.

For example, leadership teams should review and/or collect information (data) in consideration of the following essential questions:
What would successful and positive school and classroom climates look like along the continuum of practices? That is,
○ What are our measurable indicators of student academic success and progress?
○ What would a positive climate environment look like school-wide, in the classroom, and for individual students?
○ What would students and educators do and display to indicate the presence of a positive school climate?
○ What would parents describe as a positive school climate for their child?
○ What organisational and administrative supports would be visible in positive school and classroom climates?
○ Etc.

What are we doing now that is and isn’t working? That is,
○ Are students benefiting, displaying, and achieving durable and expected important outcomes?
○ Are current practices aligned with our school-wide MTSS continuum of support?
○ Are current practices empirically defendable and being implemented as intended?
○ Are rates and levels of implementation high and accurate, especially, for students who require more intensive supports?
○ Are over-lapping practices competing for resources and implementation opportunities?
○ Are implementers adequately prepared and supported to maximise implementation fidelity?
○ Etc.

What gaps exist in the current MTSS continuum of support? That is,
○ Are students not experiencing academic and/or behaviour success?
○ Are practices absent and/or not being implemented as intended?
○ Are some educators not adequately prepared and/or supported to implement practices as intended?
○ Are more effective, efficient, and/or relevant practices available to be implemented?
○ Are practices not aligned with student needs?
○ Etc.

What is school-based and/or mental health and wellness supports are needed to fill gaps?
That is,
○ What needs to be addressed within classrooms and schools before considering new and/ or additional practices and supports?
○ What evidence-based and contextually relevant mental health practices should be
○ What school- and classroom-based supports (e.g., training, data systems, scheduling) are in place to maximise adoption and implementation fidelity of essential and additional mental health practices and personnel?
○ What data must be collected to monitor outcome achievement and implementation
○ Etc.

What supports are required to prepare educators for durable and effective adoption, integration, and collaborative implementation of mental health and wellness practices within the educational MTSS continuum of school-based supports? That is,
○ What immediate and long-term funding is required?
○ What schedule of professional development activities is required to ensure high fidelity adoption and implementation?
○ What enhancements are required to incorporate mental health and wellness practices and personnel into the policies, organisation and operation of the school?
○ What procedural and policy requirements need to be established, monitored, and enforced by school leadership (e.g., principal, department chairs, program heads)?
○ Etc.

7 You have provided an important reminder about intentionally considering the school and classroom context before and during the process of enhancing the academic and social behaviour supports for all our school students, educators, and family and community members. As we examine the role of mental health and wellness in schools and classrooms, do you have any final comments or suggestions?
You have been gracious to give me this opportunity to comment on the importance of schools and their priority mission of educating our children and supporting their educators.

As I indicated at the beginning of this Q&A, schools have significant contemporary challenges to address, many of which have been persistent, chronic, and resistant to intervention. My comments were intended to highlight the value of an MTSS logic and framework in understanding and enhancing our responses to these and future challenges.

In addition, although schools, classrooms, educators, students, etc vary in unique ways (e.g., size, location, demographic), they share many similarities or samenesses with respect, for example, academic achievement, social behaviour support, mandated availability, mental health and wellness, safety, etc. the MTSS logic provides an efficient implementation framework for enhancing and maintaining the operation of schools.

With respect to final comments, I first refer you to my summary statements from 2022 (https://, which I believe still have value in 2024 and beyond.

Second, I think my overall message is about being smart when faced with seemingly intractable challenges, and being strategic before reactively adopting solutions, which may seem easy and have face value but lack alignment with school practices, have limited empirical support, and/or have inadequate implementation capacity.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a few guiding summary statements.
● Decide what a healthy, safe, respectful, and responsible school and classroom would look like when it is operating well, smoothly, and satisfactorily, i.e., what would students and educators would be doing in a positive climate?
● Invest in a data collection and evaluation system that focuses on relevant information for guiding the operation of an MTSS continuum of practices and supports, i.e., what information is needed to make defendable decisions?
● Invest in keeping what is working effectively, efficiently, and relevantly, i.e., what is working as intended?
● Declutter school and classroom routines, items, spaces, and academic and social behaviour practices that aren’t being used, aren’t meaningful, or don’t work before adding outside services and/or new practices and supports, i.e., what non-essential activities can be eliminated?
● Rearrange and update school and classroom organisation, leadership, and operation for implementation effectiveness and efficiency, i.e., what do educators need to implement effective practices?
● Prepare all students, educators, and family and community members with the expectations, routines, behaviours, habits, etc. to establish, contribute to, and maintain a healthy, safe, respectful, and responsible teaching and learning environment, i.e., What proportion for students and staff are prepared and supported to implement effective practices?
● Adopt outside practices and supports that can be integrated into and enhance and/or fill gaps in school and classroom functioning (e.g., mental health providers, counselors and psychologists, medical personnel, community safety agents), i.e., What additional supports are needed to extend the reach and outcomes of current continuum of academic and behaviour supports?

The above are basic, simple, and even trite; however, I’m a strong believer that one should be well- versed in the basics or fundamentals (i.e., outcomes, data, practices, and systems) as a foundation for addressing the more complex.

Thank you again for this opportunity to share some thoughts about the importance of schools and educators. I very much appreciate the work that you and educators are doing to establish and maintain positive school climates that are considerate of the mental health and wellbeing of students, educators, and family and community members.