A Relationship-Driven Strategy for Addressing Challenging Behavior
Regular check-ins with a trusted adult at school can help students set achievable goals to improve their behavior and take ownership of their success.
One student walks into class and throws his backpack across the floor, yelling “Score!” when it hits his desk. Another waits until class has started and then loudly interrupts with a joke and a meaningful glance around the room to see who is laughing. A third student stares off into space and at the end of class most certainly did not write down the homework assignment or absorb much of the lesson due to inattention.
These three students needed to be reminded, cued, and redirected multiple times throughout the 45-minute class, leaving the teacher feeling exhausted and resulting in lost learning opportunities for all students. Does this sound like a familiar scenario?
The “check-in/check-out” (CICO) strategy can help educators spend more time teaching and less time addressing disruptive behaviors. The key is in providing positive, supportive, and goal-directed attention outside of class time. Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee, has successfully implemented this strategy, and this simple formula that puts relationships first can have a significant impact on student success.
The CICO Plan Builds Relationships
The CICO strategy provides a brief check-in to connect with the student and establish a small attainable goal at the beginning of the day, or prior to class starting, and a check-out at the end to evaluate the goal. The check-in starts with greeting the student in a positive manner, asking a personal connection question about something they’re interested in, and then establishing a daily goal. The student creates the goal, sometimes with teacher support, based on categories such as social, academic, and executive functioning needs, and the student records the goal on the CICO progress monitor sheet.
The true benefit of the CICO strategy isn’t the daily goal—it’s the relationship formed through a trusted adult taking an active interest in a student who demonstrates challenging behavior. Often, just that dose of daily dependable attention can make a positive shift in how a student behaves. When students feel seen, heard, and understood, they no longer need to seek that attention in negative ways. Once the student and teacher or staff member are comfortable with this strategy, the process usually takes about three minutes.
Who Should Be the Trusted Adult?
Any trusted adult in the building can help a student with a CICO plan. It’s vital that it be someone who has or can form a relationship with the student and can observe them in the learning environment. A classroom teacher can certainly check in and check out with a student, and that’s sometimes most effective when a behavior is predictably happening in a certain class.
If the behaviors are occurring throughout all classes and nonacademic areas, then a school counselor or administrator could be the trusted adult to facilitate the check-ins and check-outs. The key to successful implementation of CICO is that the adult spends time connecting with the student and getting to know them on a more personal level that extends beyond their academic performance.
Communication Is Key
Communication is an important aspect of the CICO strategy. Prior to a student starting a CICO plan, it’s important to include families in the strategy and provide clear communication about the need for positive reinforcement and support. If a student is receiving consequences or negative feedback about CICO at home, then it could impact their investment in the plan.
Be clear with students that this is a team effort, and their goals will be communicated with their teachers and other necessary staff members. Encouraging students to talk about their CICO goals with other staff members who can help support them provides reinforcement and also is an opportunity for kids to learn self-advocacy skills. Additionally, it’s crucial that all vested adults be aware that communication and reinforcement of the plan should be positive and not punitive in nature.
How to Measure Growth and Track Data
The CICO plan is most effective when the goals are student driven. The more ownership a student has over the goals they’re working on, the more naturally invested they become in their success. At times, students will struggle with what goals to begin with, so it can be helpful to offer them categories and examples of goals. They can choose from the list based on what’s happening in their lives at that moment or what they feel is the most necessary to focus on.
Students evaluate themselves using a 0–3 scale, with 0 representing “I struggled with my goal today and need a fresh start tomorrow” to 3 demonstrating “I was independently successful with my goal, and I rocked it today!” There are no consequences for getting a 0 or a 1, which is an important aspect of the CICO strategy. Students need to learn that it’s OK to have a difficult day and learn how to make a plan to improve the next day. Learning how to overcome challenges and set attainable goals builds resilience and trust, both of which are fundamental to developing positive self-esteem.
The trusted adult (or other staff members or teachers who are aware of the students’ goals) can give feedback if a student isn’t accurately reporting on their goal, but only in a positive way and not a punitive manner. They can start with a positive aspect about the student’s day, use an “I notice” statement, and then finish with a question about how the student can accurately report about their day on their goal sheet. Data can be averaged for a weekly number, or a student can graph their daily data to show growth or regression. Regression doesn’t mean the plan isn’t working; rather, it means that the goals should be adjusted or the relationship strengthened.
Should the CICO Strategy Be Incentivized?
The CICO plan is naturally reinforced through positive adult attention, and in my experience that’s often enough to motivate student growth and change. However, reinforcing students’ success through positive parent calls, a special lunch with a teacher or adult, or some other student-centered activity that provides positive attention can also be helpful.
For example, I worked with a student who loved to make jewelry. She set a goal of having an average score of 2.75 for three consecutive weeks on her CICO plan, and we planned to celebrate by making friendship bracelets with her and a friend. This type of reinforcement can provide positive social opportunities with peers and an incentive to work toward the daily CICO goals.
This simple strategy has been a resource that I’ve used with my Tier 2 and Tier 3 students for years. Students displaying challenging behaviors are able to build positive relationships with trusted adults and also get to be in control of setting goals and experiencing results. This method organically teaches students to set goals and accept feedback, which is far more productive than simply issuing a consequence or sending a student to the office. The CICO strategy is helpful to all educators and can be an impactful classroom management tool.