• Allan J. Mucerino

BUILDING THE FRAGILE SENSE OF AUTONOMY

Updated: Oct 24, 2018

Grounded in Heidegger’s philosophy of care, leaders who care model an ethic of caring. To care is to intervene in an effort to improve the conditions for children. Leaders create the conditions for caring to emerge as a system-wide approach to schooling.

Traditional school discipline (aka reactive methods) is the perfect example of the adage that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity. Imposing stricter controls diminishes the already fragile sense of autonomy for students who experience chronic stress or trauma in their home. Furthermore, restrictions negatively impact their capability to self-regulate, and the beat goes on. Repeated behaviors. Repeated restrictions. Bad outcomes. Behavioral specialists study behavior and have developed systems and strategies that work. A multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) is designed to break the cycle of insanity and the behaviors that lead to predictably negative outcomes. MTSS is a public health model for prevention. It’s a scaffolding framework design, customized to improve academic and social outcomes. Trauma-informed schools use an MTSS model to create a school environment that is responsive to the needs of trauma-exposed youth. It begins with learning and implementing effective practices and system-change strategies.

If district leaders want MTSS (multi-tiered system of support) to be implemented and delivered with fidelity in their schools they must begin by modeling an ethic of care.

In addition, district leaders must provide schools with political and administrative support, training and technical assistance, layered in-service curricula, a system for ongoing evaluation, and access to interagency relationships to support student health and wellbeing.


MTSS is a framework for problem-solving and prevention. Prevention strategies are as simple as greeting students at the classroom door to set a positive tone. This universal support is a fundamental School-wide positive behavior support (SWPBS) strategy. In numerous studies and in anecdotal accounts based on my personal experiences, it has been proven to increase engagement and reduce disruptive behavior. The science behind it is based on creating a sense of belonging through social and emotional support. That builds a sense of autonomy, which leads to self-regulatory behavior.


Another simple strategy and another SWPBS tenet is the use of pre-corrective statements. Used strategically at the start of class and throughout the class period, teachers who take the time to offer a positive message to encourage favorable behaviors also builds a sense of belonging, leading to a sense of autonomy and improved self-regulation. Another basic principal of SWPBS is the use of a universal screener to support students. Children at risk are identified through universal screening.

When students are not responding positively to universal supports provided to all students, more intensive supports are necessary. Individualized planning processes eventually are set in motion for students who are not responding positively to the variety of classroom-based approaches involving positive discipline and classroom management.

The invisible achievement gap between the highest and lowest risk students has spurred widespread attention and reform on the state and national level. In California, the local control funding formula targets groups of students in need of additional supports; while the Local Control and Accountability Plan requires an accounting of the processes and procedures in place to support students academically and socially and emotionally. MTSS is a process and includes procedures to problem-solve. But it's dependent on reliable data accessible at the classroom, building, and district level. Schools rely on the data to make decisions. Data should be reviewed by an MTSS team no less than monthly. Leaders provide the mechanism to deliver the data and facilitate the problem-solving process, encouraging and enabling staff to lead the way.

Transforming the system and creating change for school-wide discipline is difficult. It’s what Heifetz and Laurie describe as an adaptive challenge (in contrast to a technical challenge).

Adaptive challenges occur when a leader encounters resistance. In an organization that institutionalizes caring, the discomfort brought on by a change of this magnitude (system-level) may still be present but it may be largely mitigated. After all, people don't care what you know, they need to know that you care.