Cultivating Environments For Student Success

Educators desire a learning environment that is respectful and engaging for students. This type of environment doesn’t develop by chance or hope, it’s the product of effective instruction and positive teacher-student relationships. Dr. Terry Scott, professor of human development at the University of Louisville, delivered the keynote address at this summer’s Missouri SW-PBS Summer Training Institute. His presentation was entitled, “Effective instruction: A critical analysis of our keys to student success.”


Scott’s presentation was a delight to attend and fortunately for educators in Missouri and around the world it’s been made available at Although delivered at a PBIS institute this presentation was really about effective instructional practices. According to Scott (2016), the big idea of the PBIS triangle is not all your kids are the same. Expecting a silver bullet that “fixes” a kid and always works is wishful thinking. No matter how well you plan for and deliver tier 1 academic and behavioral supports there will always be students who need more support (Scott, 2016).

That Doesn’t Work Because…
Scott shared an example from his work in the field where an adult proclaimed, “PBIS doesn’t work because I have a kid in my classroom that has been a problem all year.” We have probably heard that before (maybe even thought it or said it ourselves).  Scott’s reply to this honest adult was straightforward, “Nothing ever said that if you do PBIS there won’t be problems anymore.” For Scott, the idea of PBIS or instructional practice is about probability. What is suggested to be best practice? What is likely to deliver consistently effective results? According to Scott, our focus should be “how do we give a foundation of the most effective practices possible to as many kids as possible, assess really early, look for kids who aren’t getting it, and try something different or more intensive for them? That doesn’t mean there won’t be failures. It’s a minimization of failures” (Scott, 2016).  Toward the midpoint of his keynote Scott shared three things that do and don’t work in the classroom. The chart below depicts indicators of failure and success that hinge upon effective classroom instruction.


What Matters?
Scott advocates for three concepts that lead to learner engagement: effective practices, instruction, and teachers. According to Scott, “It’s all about probability, some things work better than others. Our practices matter.” Sometimes people may say “I know a kid that didn’t work for.” That is not a reason to abandon an effective or promising practice. Scott contends that, “Nothing works for everybody and the logic behind that kind of thinking is flawed. It’s like saying we shouldn’t brush our teeth because I knew a kid who brushed his teeth and still got cavities” (Scott, 2016). Secondly, instruction matters. Everything we know that has a significant effect size is something that teachers do through the instructional process. Research has consistently demonstrated that teachers greatly impact the climate, culture, engagement, and academic outcomes of a classroom.

During his keynote Scott cited two noted researchers, David Berliner and Robert Pianta. Berliner (1990) discussed the link between engagement and achievement, “The relationship between engaged time and student achievement has the same scientific status as the concept of homeostasis in biology, reinforcement in psychology, or gravity in physics” (Berliner, 1990, p. 3). Pianta (1996) pointed out that “The asymmetry in child-adult relationship systems places a disproportionate amount of responsibility on the adult for the quality of the relationship” (Pianta, 1996, p. 73). It’s natural to get frustrated and think that kids should know better or should accept responsibility to establish a positive relationship with their teacher. However, Scott reminded us that “waiting” is not a highly effective strategy and that the likelihood of changes occurring when we wait is zero.

Classroom Research
Scott recently led a research team in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois to examine classroom practices. His team observed over 7,000 classrooms and made an interesting observation related to student engagement and poverty. In high poverty and high achievement schools in Kentucky (12 schools) researchers found one key difference. In high performing schools there were more than 260+ more opportunities to respond in class per week. Teachers make the difference (Scott, T.M., Hirn, R.G., & Cooper, in preparation).

Very often teachers lose hope when a specific intervention or instructional approach fails. Scott reminded the audience that our efforts will not always work, and when it they don’t, it’s our responsibility to seek new approaches. “We never get to say, well now it’s up to them, because that is a probability that we know will never work in our favor” (Scott, 2016).

Effective instructional practices are highly predictive of student success or failure. Scott’s research indicated that students with teachers presenting high rates of opportunities to respond are more likely to be actively engaged and less likely to be disruptive. Students with teachers using minimal opportunities to respond are more than 25% more likely to be off task and more than 65% more likely to be disruptive (Scott, 2016).

Beyond affording students the opportunity to respond, teacher engagement surfaced as an area for development. Scott’s research team set out to understand the typical teacher behaviors and instructional tasks in the classroom setting. His team found missed opportunities at the high school level. According to Scott, “The average high school student misses two and half months of instruction while being at school, but not having the teacher doing anything” (this discussion occurs at the 34:52 mark of the video).

Next Steps
One big idea from this keynote is that small instructional deficits add up over time to our students’ detriment. Scott noted that “learner engagement doesn’t typically improve when the instructor disengages.” Although it sounds intuitive, instructional changes precedes improved learner engagement. Scott contended that what most schools have “created a system that doesn’t create a probability for success.” Scott emphasized the impact of increasing opportunities to respond in the classroom and increasing the frequency of feedback. According to Scott, “active engagement is significant when you have three opportunities to respond per minute during instruction.” In summary, we know what to do, but there is an instructional/relational implementation gap. Many schools run giant deficits on what teachers do to engage kids in instruction. We know better and must do better. Let’s make this a great year and look for ways to leverage high impact strategies such as opportunities to respond and providing feedback.

Berliner, D. C. (1990). What’s all the fuss about instructional time. The nature of time in schools: Theoretical concepts, practitioner perceptions. New York and London: Teachers College Press; Teachers College, Columbia University

Pianta, R.C. (1996). High-risk children in schools: Constructing sustaining relationships. New York, NY: Routledge.

Scott, T. (2016). STI 2016 Keynote: Effective instruction: A critical analysis of out keys to student success. (Video).

Scott, T. (2016). STI 2016 Keynote: Effective instruction: A critical analysis of out keys to student success. (Handout).

Center for Instructional and Behavioral Research in Schools. (n.d.)

Scott, T. (2016). STI 2016 4A: Talking to Adults about PBIS: Using Logic to Facilitate Fidelity and Sustainability. (Video).

Scott, T. (2016). STI 2016 4A: Talking to Adults about PBIS: Using Logic to Facilitate Fidelity and Sustainability. (Handout).

University of Louisville. (n.d.). Academic and Behavioral Response to Intervention.