I worry most about outcomes for students with disabilities, especially those who have challenging behavior — they tend to have poorer overall outcomes than the rest of the population; in fact, students with emotional disturbances have the highest dropout rates of any population. Overall, I think we’re seeing more attention to the implementation of evidence-based practices in schools and the social-emotional aspects of learning, which are really positive signs.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Diane Myers.
Diane Myers serves as senior vice president, special education–behavior for Camden, N.J.-based Specialized Education Services, Inc. (SESI), a division of FullBloom, where she leads the company’s pedagogical approach to behavior practices. Her professional expertise and scholarship focus on positive behavioral interventions and supports (at the individual, classwide, and schoolwide levels), students with emotional and behavioral disorders, and training teachers in evidence-based classroom management practices.
Prior to joining SESI, Myers served as a professor of Special Education and chair of the Department of Teacher Education at Texas Woman’s University, in Denton, Texas; her first academic appointment was at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. As a professor, she taught undergraduate and graduate courses in behavior disorders, research methodology, classroom management, and behavioral interventions. In addition, Myers regularly conducted professional development in classroom management and worked with Education Service Centers and districts across Texas and the country to provide training and support to teachers focused on behavioral support for all learners.
Myers earned her doctoral degree in special education from the University of Connecticut and her master’s degree and teaching certification in special education from Southern Connecticut State University. Prior to her work in higher education, she served as a special education teacher in a public middle school and at a residential facility for adjudicated juveniles.
The author of numerous journal articles and book chapters, she is coauthor of Classwide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports: A Guide to Proactive Classroom Management and Implementing Classwide PBIS: A Guide to Supporting Teachers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
During high school, I cleaned rooms at a hotel in western Massachusetts and “graduated” to working at the on-site restaurant when I was 16 years old. I still worked in food service when I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in English, and I even managed a Red Lobster in my early 20s. I wanted to do something different and found a newspaper ad (that’s how long ago this was) for a one-year contract position working with kids on parole. I applied, was hired, and have worked to directly or indirectly impact the lives of students with challenging behavior ever since. My first teaching position was at a residential facility for adjudicated juveniles and there, I learned a lesson that shaped my whole career — punishment does not increase appropriate behavior. These kids were sent away from their families and communities for two to four years for committing crimes, so their interest in school tended to be pretty minimal. There were no traditional punitive consequences as there are in public schools such as detention, calling home to tell the family about a problem behavior, or sending the child to the principal’s office. Being incarcerated meant that each day was a lived punishment, and if I wanted them to behave appropriately, I had to be creative and find ways to make it worth their while to do so — and I had to teach the behaviors I wanted to see. Even though I didn’t yet understand the science behind it — that would come while I pursued my graduate degrees — I tried to find what the students were willing to work for and provided small privileges like preferred seating if they could get their work done and behave appropriately. When I became a special educator in the public education system, I realized that my colleagues were struggling with classroom management and didn’t have a lot of strategies to help students with challenging behavior; they relied on punitive consequences. I decided I wanted to help those students — and their teachers — and set my course to become a teacher educator.
After earning my doctoral degree in special education at the University of Connecticut, I had two faculty appointments. I spent six years at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass. and five and a half years at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in Denton, where I also served as the chair of the Department of Teacher Education. I taught undergraduate and graduate courses, which gave me the opportunity to impact future and current educators, and I conducted research and professional development in positive behavioral interventions and supports at the individual, classroom, and school-wide levels. I loved being a professor, but I always looked for ways to have a more direct impact on students with challenging behaviors and their teachers.
The role of senior vice president, special education–behavior at Specialized Education Services, Inc. (SESI) could not have been a better fit for me, and I’m thrilled to be here. SESI is a premier provider of education services for K-12 students who struggle to be successful in traditional classrooms, often because of their behavior. I lead the company’s approach to behavior supports for all students in our standalone schools and in-district classrooms.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
About three years ago, I arrived at my office at TWU early in the morning and had a voicemail (a rarity, especially first thing in the morning). Seconds into listening to the voicemail I started to cry and my assistant came in to make sure I was okay. The voicemail was from a student I’d known when working at the residential facility, a student I’d always wondered about because he had impacted my life dramatically. “Alex” had come to the facility angry and afraid at age 14; he’d lost his mom recently and was facing incarceration after years of being in the system. He had a hard time interacting with other kids and staff because of his anger — he didn’t trust anyone. Although it was exhausting, I went out of my way to be patient with him and always tried to imagine myself in his place, which helped me stay calm even when he was engaging in aggressive, provocative, and dangerous behaviors. Alex was incredibly smart; we bonded over the Patriots and books, and eventually he came to trust me as much as he could, but when I got another job, he told me he was being abandoned again. After 15 years, he found me on the TWU website and called and left that voicemail; he said he just wanted to say hello and thank me for looking out for him, and he left his phone number. I called him back and was startled to realize that he was older than I had been the last time we’d talked, but it was just unbelievable to have the chance to catch up with him and hear about his life. Most often, educators operate on faith, hoping that their efforts with their students help their student’s lead better lives; it’s so rare that we actually get confirmation of that from students so many years later. I will never forget that phone call and how it renewed my commitment to everything I’d been working on all these years, and I always urge other educators to never underestimate the impact they can have on students — we have such a privilege, working with students and helping them navigate the world.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
In my new role leading the company’s approach to behavioral supports for all students, I am working to ensure our proven educational and behavioral models continue helping students develop the skills they need to be successful. Currently, I’m focusing on enhancing SESI’s instructional and proactive approach to behavior support and updating training materials for staff. We focus on generalization and adaptation; while our short-term goal is the success of our students while they’re with us, our long-term goal is their success when they’ve left our programs. We want our students to generalize and adapt what they’ve learned with us to their own lives outside of school to build successful futures. In fact, with the school closures, many of our students had to generalize their school skills to a new setting (i.e., working from home) and that took some time and shaping on the part of educators across the country, who were also busy generalizing their own skill sets to accommodate remote learning.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I have a lot of experience from several different perspectives, and I think that has served me well in terms of seeing the big picture and systems-level thinking. I’ve been a teacher, directly serving students with the most intensive needs; I’ve been a professor, preparing future teachers to serve those students and conducting research to improve the field; and now, I’m serving as a thought leader for a company that is committed to improving the futures of all learners, regardless of the challenges they face. All over the country, SESI partners with school districts to run in-district classrooms and stand-alone schools that meet the academic, behavioral, social, and emotional needs of students who need more supports than those provided in a traditional public school setting.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?
That’s a good question and it depends on how you want to measure success. Nationwide, the high school graduation rate was 85% in 2017–2018 (according to NCES), which is up from 79% in 2010–2011 (the first year those data were collected). Every state in the country still graduates a lower percentage of Black students than white students, so that’s something we really need to continue to address. Some states are closing the gap, but we have to keep working until that gap is erased. From that same cohort of high school graduates, 69% immediately enrolled in two-year or four-year colleges; while they won’t all finish, any college at all is associated with a higher likelihood of employment. These numbers trending upward is a good sign, in my opinion, but they don’t speak to the quality of the education received in K-12 or post-secondary institutions — I think that’s harder to measure. Of course, I worry most about outcomes for students with disabilities, especially those who have challenging behavior — they tend to have poorer overall outcomes than the rest of the population; in fact, students with emotional disturbances have the highest dropout rates of any population. Overall, I think we’re seeing more attention to the implementation of evidence-based practices in schools and the social-emotional aspects of learning, which are really positive signs.
Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great
- The way that educators came together to serve kids during school closures this past spring was a testimony to the commitment and creativity of our educators. At SESI, I was continuously impressed by our teachers’ dedication and determination to reaching every student and ensuring that individualized instruction could continue — no easy feat.
- During the last two decades, education in the U.S. has increased its focus on behavioral support and social-emotional learning, which helps all students and increases the likelihood of better outcomes for students outside of school. Continuing to focus on all of a student’s needs — not just academic needs — will benefit the students and our society as a whole.
- As I mentioned above, the continued push to use evidence-based practices in schools along with increased application of multi-tiered systems of support to deliver those practices (like response to intervention and positive behavioral interventions and supports) gives me a lot of hope. At SESI, we build systems that support the use of evidence-based academic and behavioral support practices and ensure those practices are implemented with fidelity; I think that nationally, the education field is moving in this direction and I’m pleased to see that happening.
- As a follow up to #3, I think that educators have more access to research and evidence-based practices than ever before; projects like Doing What Works and the What Works Clearinghouse help educators identify those practices that actually are evidence-based and clearly articulate how those practices can be applied in the classroom.
- In addition to an increased focus on evidence-based practices, I think that the education field is recognizing the importance of incorporating culturally relevant teaching in schools, a critical step that may help close some of the gaps I referenced above.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
- I think that we must focus tirelessly on ensuring all equitable experiences for all students regardless of demographics and close achievement gaps, discipline gaps, special education gaps, and any other gaps existing between white students and students of color — several of the topics I mentioned above, including culturally relevant pedagogy, positive behavioral interventions and supports, and the implementation of evidence-based practices with fidelity, can aid this effort. If we ever want to achieve societal equity (an especially timely issue given the current social justice landscape), we have to have equitable outcomes for all students in our schools.
- We have to continue to support our teachers with thoughtful, effective training both at the pre-service and in-service levels, through high-quality teacher preparation programs and professional development for all educators. Our teachers are an incredibly valuable resource, but so many get frustrated and overwhelmed early in their careers — we need to prepare them and provide ongoing support and feedback, especially related to managing student behavior (which is arguably teachers’ biggest concern in the classroom). We know what works — we need to make sure that our teachers are ready and supported every step of the way. Like students, not all teachers will learn the same way or require the same amount or intensity of training, so we should be prepared to differentiate teacher support based on their needs — just like we do for students. Doing this will create a more stable and more effective workforce, which we definitely need to be able to best meet the needs of all learners.
- We need to continue to develop effective systems for using data to make decisions using transparent and efficient processes in which everyone is invested. Just collecting data is not enough. Which questions do we want to answer? Do our data answer those questions reliably? How are we using data to make decisions? Data should be our focus when making all levels of decisions — instructional, programmatic, policy — and we should be clear on the purpose of collecting data (the “why”), the processes for data analysis (the “how”), and the way we use data to drive decision-making (the “what”). In education, data can sometimes have a punitive connotation, since we may associate data with demonstrations of a lack of accountability or poor performance, but data are our most valuable resource as educators. Looking at data is the only way to know if what we’re doing is working (and how we can fix anything that isn’t working by looking at data on what is working).
- We need to keep pushing to close the research-to-practice gap that exists in education. As I mentioned before, we know what works; there is empirical research to support instructional, behavioral, and social-emotional practices that we should be implementing in schools. The research isn’t helpful, though, unless teachers can understand what they should be doing (including the rationale for doing it) and are implementing research-based practices with fidelity. This requires more than a one-time professional development; we need ongoing and differentiated support for teachers, as I mentioned in #2, above.
- Finally, we need to continue focusing on supporting students with challenging behavior to ensure that they have the social, behavioral, and emotional supports they need to be successful. While we’ve made great strides in the field, we must focus on teaching students what they should be doing (i.e., socially appropriate behaviors) rather than focusing on ending the inappropriate behaviors. Encouraging and training teachers to have an instructional mindset when supporting both academics and social behavior is critical to making sure all students can reach their potential. This is going to require innovation and ingenuity on the part of education professionals — the public-private partnerships on which SESI is built are great examples of an approach that can both meet students’ needs effectively and build professional collaborations that benefit the entire field.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
I suggest incorporating STEM activities early and integrating those activities with everything that students learn throughout the day. At SESI, I am fortunate to work with a team of experts including Jessica Chung, who has created and delivered both virtual and face-to-face professional learning to hundreds of teachers and youth development staff to support the implementation of effective STEM instructional practices and curriculum. There are a lot of engaging strategies we can use with students to foster critical thinking skills and collaboration skills to support STEM learning, for example:
- Organize a gallery walk, where students walk around a room (or virtual learning environment) to look at other students’ projects and observe how their peers approached the same task from different perspectives. This kind of activity is great for incorporating social skills, too (e.g., how to discuss others’ work, what careful observation looks like, sharing thoughts in a constructive way).
- Assign student jobs during project-based learning, which allows students to experience different roles and helps them bridge the connection between classroom activities and real-world applications. Roles should vary often to provide students with multiple opportunities to experience (on a small scale) what it’s like to be a CEO, financial advisor, engineer, administrator, manager, or any other position deemed appropriate by the teacher.
- Incorporate stopping points, which requires students to stop midway through a project and share how they’re approaching the task. Encourage students to identify any challenges they’re facing, what’s working well, and how they’ll overcome any obstacles, and provide time for them to discuss so they can learn from each other and practice incorporating feedback while performing a task.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Research from the National Science Foundation indicates that women, people with disabilities, and underrepresented minority groups are underrepresented in science and engineering. While working at TWU — the largest public university primarily for women in the United States — one of our driving goals was to increase the presence of women in STEM fields. While we have seen an increase of women’s undergraduate enrollment in STEM fields like computer science, women are still underrepresented in STEM jobs. For example, according to the Association for Women in Science, women hold approximately 35% of all mathematics degrees, but only represent 27% of mathematics jobs and 16% of tenure track mathematics faculty in academia. While family-related reasons are often cited to account for women’s departure from STEM jobs, intersectionality research demonstrates that STEM attrition, particularly for Black, Hispanic, and Asian women, connects to systemic issues related to hiring, promotion, and working conditions.
How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
While we have seen progress in the engagement of women in STEM subjects in the United States, women, and particularly women of color, are still underrepresented in STEM leadership roles. I think we can increase engagement of girls and women in STEM subjects within K-12 education with strategies like these:
- Promote images of diverse mathematicians and scientists in the classroom. Research indicates that children most often think of mathematicians and scientists as men. Exposure to STEM achievements and experts that represent women, people of color, and people with disabilities provides role models for students in these underrepresented groups, helping them see themselves in these roles.
- Incorporate project-based learning. According to a study by the National Academy of Engineering, girls were twice as likely as boys to say no if they were asked if they wanted to be engineers — but they were likely to say yes when asked if they wanted to design a safe water system, find solutions for saving the rainforest, or use DNA to solve crimes. One way we engage students — including those from underrepresented groups — in STEM subjects using project-based learning is to teach the engineering design process and ask students to apply the process in developing products that address real-world issues. This helps pique students’ interest in STEM work and can lead to increased participation from diverse groups in the field.
- Utilize open-ended assessments. An analysis of the admissions tests for the top public high schools in New York City found that girls were underrepresented among the very highest scorers on the multiple choice exam despite earning half of the highest grades in science and math classes. These results suggest that multiple-choice tests, traditionally used in math and science, underestimate the achievement of girls in those subjects — and likely other underrepresented groups, too. Asking students to demonstrate proficiency in STEM subjects using more open-ended assessments provides the opportunity for students to show their learning in ways that build their confidence and provide a more accurate assessment of their skills and potential.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
At SESI, when we train teachers and school leaders in STEM subjects, we talk about the importance of developing the 4 Cs of 21st century skills: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. While STEM subjects certainly enhance critical thinking and provide opportunities for enhancing collaboration skills, the “Arts” subjects you mention in the question are essential for improving our students’ written and oral communication abilities and tapping their creative potential — both critical to success in the STEM world. At SESI, like everywhere else, we depend on technology more and more (especially since March) to visualize, design, teach, and express our ideas and solutions in all subjects, including STEM. A critical part of teaching is being able to show students how different subjects align, intersect, and inform one another; integrating the arts into STEM instruction provides an opportunity to do just that.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- As I mentioned above, I believe that public-private partnerships in the U.S. educational system, if done right, can be really powerful in driving positive student outcomes. Our public schools today face enormous challenges — many of which I mentioned above — and there’s an increased awareness that the private sector can play an incredibly important role in helping public schools meet all learners’ needs. SESI and the collaborative partnerships we’ve built across the county is a great example of this.
- I’d love to see a reexamination of our traditional school calendar and explore other options that may benefit our students and their families and decrease the likelihood of the “summer slide.” I’m not advocating for removing summer vacation (I’d be the least popular educator around), but I do think that several weeks, or two-week breaks dispersed throughout a calendar year would be worth investigating. Students would have the same amount of time out of school as they do now, but it wouldn’t be concentrated in the summer. I realize this would upend the education system as we know it, but if the school closures related to the pandemic showed us anything, it’s that learning can still happen even if it looks vastly different than what we’re used to seeing.
- Let’s really think about innovative ways to provide the highest-quality education to meet the needs of all learners. In addition to exploring the opportunities provided by public-private partnerships and reconsidering the traditional school year calendar, we should put our best minds at work for real educational reform. To paraphrase Julie Vargas, if an engineer or doctor from the 1980s were suddenly transported to 2020, they’d likely be completely lost about how to do their work because of the advances and changes in their fields. A teacher from 1980, though, would likely feel at home in many of the classrooms in the country, although the technology would certainly be different. This is not to say that what we do isn’t effective but just to illustrate the relatively slow pace of change in education when compared to other fields.
- Rather than try to take what we currently do and re-create it in a different setting (which happened often during the sudden switch from in-person to remote learning in the spring), let’s consider the mechanisms behind successful instruction in one setting and transfer those (rather than specific practices) to a different setting. Remote learning isn’t going to be the same as in-person learning, so rather than try to make in-person learning happen remotely, let’s think about what’s unique about remote learning and apply what we already know about learning and behavior to promote student success in that environment. For example, we know that students have better behavioral and academic outcomes when the environment is structured, when they are actively engaged, and when expectations are clear, prompted for, and reinforced — what do those principles look like for remote learning? Technology becomes part of instruction, and social skills look different — communicating online or over the phone requires a different skill set than face-to-face communication, so we need to be teaching those specific skills to students (and teachers).
- Finally, I think we need to increase our focus on and commitment to providing appropriate and positive behavioral supports and interventions for all learners, especially those with challenging behavior — this is what we do at SESI. Rather than constantly reminding students what they shouldn’t be doing, let’s focus on what they should be doing and acknowledge their appropriate behaviors more often than we reprimand their inappropriate behaviors. Keep expectations high for all learners — and educators — and keep implementing evidence-based practices with fidelity to get learners where they need to be.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.” This B.F. Skinner quote is from his 1971 book Beyond Freedom and Dignity.
I have failed often and spectacularly multiple times in my life, and I’ve done my best to learn as much as I can from those experiences and do better in the future, which I think is the essence of this quote. I frequently think about it when working with students with challenging behaviors as they often lack the supports they need or the environment is not conducive to appropriate behavior (or worse, is conducive to inappropriate behavior). Most often, they’re doing the best they can with the tools they have. What I need to do, as an educator, is keep looking for ways to help that student be successful, because there always will be a way, and it’s just up to me to put in the work to find that solution. Over the years, I’ve asked many college students and current educators to reflect on this quote, and many have said that it resonated with them, too, and helped keep the focus on supporting learners no matter the circumstances.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
This might be a little cliché, but it’s LeBron James. Of course, I’m a huge fan of his basketball accomplishments and the amazing successes he’s had in his career, but I’m also really intrigued by the school he opened (I Promise School in Akron, Ohio) and his commitment to education. I would love to talk with him about innovative ways to engage students and families and ways to thoughtfully invest in education.
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Website — http://www.sesischools.com/
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Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!