Dealing with “side effects” of educational interventions

We’re pretty lucky in education – this post is rarely relevant. Unlike doctors, we often don’t have to worry about the things we do causing harm. Sure, things may not be effective, but rarely do we actually risk hurting kids with what we do.

“Ability groups” or “skill groups” (terminology differs depending on who you’re talking to) are one of those perennial educational topics that never quite die. Like punishment and charter schools, folks have deeply passionate & entrenched perspectives about putting kids in groups based on what they can do, and what they need to learn. As a brief point of clarification, here’s what we’re NOT talking about:

• Tracking: Keeping kids in whole classes, and even educational tracks, based on their ability.

• Temporarily pulling kids aside and providing a little extra instruction to kids who may need it.

In reality, we’re talking something sort of in between (though probably closer to the latter). Most (elementary) educators are pretty familiar with “guided reading groups” or similar small group format instruction. This is what we’re talking about – routine, ongoing instructional settings in which kids participate based on what they need to learn.

I’m not going to go extensively into this topic and talk about all the research supporting or not supporting the skill group as a concept. To hopefully suffice, consider that many thousands of research studies were conducted with kids participating in a small group of some nature. By default, while this does NOT support that simply convening in a skill group is effective it most certainly supports that skill groups can be an effective instructional condition. On the other hand, sometimes skill groups are done ineffectively. For example, teachers may have lower expectations of students in lower groups (not just expecting lower results, which would make sense since their skill level is lower, but lower expectations given relative performance levels). Teachers may also keep kids in those skill groups too long, not moving kids up or down as need be. In short, some of these (inappropriate) uses of skill groups can cause problems.

First, to be clear, these side effects do NOT appear to universally be present in all instances of skill groups, but only when skill groups are done in certain, non-ideal, ways. But, let’s just pretend they were always present. At the same time, they work for us in certain ways – they let us differentiate learning, monitor individual performance more closely, give relative performance feedback more swiftly and accurately, and so on. In short, the benefits can be huge, which leads me to the fundamental question at hand:

How do we, as educators, use interventions or strategies that may actually impart some harm to students?

Do we cross them off the list entirely? Ignore the side effects? Something in between. After all, if doctors refused to use any treatment with side effects, we’d have no cancer therapy, no anything really.

My own personal answer is that I think we have to balance the potential gains versus the risks, and make an informed decision. Just because skill groups may, under certain circumstances, lead to a few negatives, doesn’t mean we discount the concept entirely. What it does mean:

1) We should attempt to understand the side effects & the conditions in which they occur, then attempt to minimize their occurrence and magnitude.

2) We should weigh the benefit versus the potential risk. With something as huge as skill groups, we should be sure to weight the benefits more substantially. We may be willing to stomach more side effects if the benefits are that much better. As another example, consider special education for a child who is significantly behind – there are some pretty serious side effects, but some pretty serious risk that comes with doing nothing as well.

3) We should consider alternatives. For example, punishment has side effects. While we shouldn’t, therefore, dismiss punishment entirely, we should consider other ways of taking care of business. For example, differential reinforcement of alternative behavior (DRA) is a concept from behavioral psychology that basically pulls a fast one and switches up reinforcement for punishment. Pretty slick, a with a few less consequences.

4) We should inform key stakeholders, including the kids themselves. Not only does this build ownership & sustainability into the intervention, but it can (at times, though not always) mitigate the risk of side effects as kids may be able to stomach them a little better if they come from within. This means that kids who are involved in making decisions may not feel as much like things are happening to them, and they may better understand why the side effect is happening.

5) We should collect data & monitor progress, not only with the outcome, but with the side effects. If we think placement in a skill group is going to cause emotional stress, let’s monitor emotional stress in a data-based fashion. Let’s know what we’re up against & what we’re dealing with.

As educators, we like to strictly dichotomize and characterize things. Things are often either awful or great. The next best thing, or a complete waste of time. Find me someone who doesn’t love or hate charter schools, someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion on corporal punishment. In reality, and I hate to say this, but corporal punishment isn’t all bad. Charters aren’t all good, but 17% of them beat out public schools. Hmmm. Rarely are things as easy and neat as we want to make them. It’s our job as professional educators to not jump on bandwagons and be popular scientists with educational research. We have a duty to our kids to live in the grey areas research often leaves us; to wade in the murky waters of empiricism and best practice; to make professional, data-based decisions in the face of uncertainty.

So, with side effects, treat them as one part of the equation – one thing to be considered.

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Bobby Caples graduated from USF, and eventually went on to expand the concept of community-based behavior support in other settings, include the organization he founded called YouthBASE (Greenville, SC). The concept of YouthBASE was much like the concept of his thesis, only on a larger scale: Take ideas and strategies that had found success in other fields beyond after-school programs, and import them.