Teach By Design
Data Integrity
Sep 6, 2019

How to Bend Your Referral Process Without Breaking It

If you think your referral process is written in stone, think again. You can adjust it to fit your style without sacrificing fidelity.

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Editor's Note: Schools with consistent referral procedures end up with reliable data to make more informed decisions that benefit students. This is the first in our series exploring the basics of school discipline systems. We'll look for ways to enhance the things you already do in ways you never thought to do them before.

When we think about routines, it’s easy to think of them as repetitious and maybe a little mundane. They’re our knee-jerk, automatic way of doing things so we don’t have to think too hard. Routines are nothing if not consistent, right? Tell that to my family…

School day mornings are a 1½-hour ordeal in my house. We’re up before the sun making coffee and lunches (in that order) before ever daring to disturb any tiny human to wake up and get out of bed – qualifying both steps is critical. The routine that follows is a whirlwind of clothes, toothpaste, hair, questions, an occasional tear, lost socks, fast breakfasts, and 5-minute showers.

Then summer vacation comes. That first day, I turn on my carefully curated Florence and the Machine Pandora station and take a 15-minute shower. I scrub the bottom of my feet, you guys. My hair is dry before I leave the house. I even have time to moisturize. It’s the lockstep routine of my dreams!

Do your school routines feel like this sometimes? Are there processes at your school so efficient they save you time? Maybe over the years you’ve chiseled away at your attendance routine until now it’s so perfect it could take itself. What about the routines you can never remember and everyone has their own way of doing it? Time card entry is like that around here.

What about your referral process? Where does it fit on this spectrum? I’m here to tell you it can be both defined enough to create consistency in your building, and flexible enough to fit your teaching style. Let’s start by taking a closer look at the two roles routines take in an organization and what the research has to say about it all.

Researchers find we tend to take the spirit of a routine and tweak it to make it our own…we learn what works well for us and we make adjustments accordingly.

Two Perspectives on Routines

Early research on organizational routines focused on how they bring stability to our workday.[1] There are countless ways to do something. Creating a routine eliminates the options and gives you one path forward. They are an organization’s way of keeping everyone moving in the same, efficient direction so the end result is reliably similar.

marching band dance GIF by Texas Archive of the Moving Image

Thinking about routines this way isn’t wrong.

Take banks, for example. What if every time we needed to withdraw money we had to come up with some new way to do it? With the advent of ATMs, no matter which bank you use, we’re all trained to withdraw our money the same way. You only have to learn how to do it once and you’re set for life.

While machines can automate our routines, there are still lots of processes performed by real people every time. Because we’re human and capable of making choices, sometimes we deviate from the typical path. Researchers exploring this human component find we tend to take the spirit of a routine and tweak it to make it our own. As we participate in a process, we learn what works well for us and we make adjustments accordingly.

GIF of young ballerina performing her routine with extra emotion

So which is it? Are routines stable or flexible? Current research suggests they’re both.

To test this theory, researchers looked at a super stable routine constrained by laws and institutional rules to see if even it was susceptible to change.[2] They analyzed invoicing data from four Norwegian organizations. Invoicing routines are key processes governed by rules and laws. It’s not the kind of thing where creativity is rewarded. Each of the four organizations used software which automated 35% of the process. The software also recorded each step taken to enter and approve an invoice. I expected to see a pretty strong adherence to the routine’s sequence.

I was wrong.

One site recorded 1,279 unique ways of approving an invoice in the system; only 5.3% of invoices at that site were approved using the same set of steps. The most used sequence at any site happened just 33.6% of the time; every other invoice was entered or approved using a different set of steps. If invoicing is supposedly a rigidly constructed process, how could there be that much variation?

It’s a Double-Layered Thing

To explain how routines can be both stable and flexible, researchers suggest thinking about routines as having two layers: ostensive and performative.

The Rules Layer

The ostensive layer includes the rules and systems governing the routine. This is where we get stability and consistency. It’s where the accounting laws live and creativity is frowned upon. These aspects provide a framework and help us understand why we do the routine at all.

The Behavior Layer

The performative layer includes all the things we do to make a routine our own. This is where we start to make choices about how we conduct business rules. It’s where variability happens. When Tina in accounting decides to pass along a larger invoice to Linda instead of Jim because Linda worked on something similar last week, that’s the performative layer in action.

The Layers in a Referral Process

When it comes to how you manage behaviors in your building, you need everyone reporting problem behaviors consistently. To keep everyone walking down the same path, you have a referral process: A flowchart detailing what to do whenever you see an unwanted student behavior. [Sidenote: If it isn’t already, document that process somewhere and keep it accessible for everyone everywhere in the building.] If nothing else, it is important to include steps for:

  • What to do when the behavior is a minor
  • What to do when the behavior gets a student sent to the office
  • Deciding a consequence
  • Documenting the behavior
  • Following up after the incident

These are the rules – your ostensive layer. Everyone needs to observe a behavior, do something about that behavior, document it all, and follow-up after. Now, when you see students doing something they shouldn’t, do you react the same way every time with every student? No. The different ways you handle each situation is you exercising the flexible nature of the routine – the performative layer. Even experts concerned with fidelity of implementation will tell you it’s okay to divert from the exact letter of the law and make a process work in your context with your students.

While a referral process is a system with specific steps, it’s not so rigid you can’t adjust it to fit your school’s many settings. Here are three rules governing referrals and one idea for each on how to modify the process without sacrificing fidelity.

Rule: Observe Problem Behavior

Step one in your referral process is to observe a problem behavior happening. It’s the trigger for the whole thing. This is a step in the process you cannot change. You have to know what happened if you’re going to do anything about it. Be sure your referral process starts with this step.

Behavior: Observe Positive Behaviors, Too

How does your perspective shift if you look at your referral process and see a reminder to note when students do something positive? Sure, referral procedures need to include a step for observing problem behaviors, but there’s nothing in the rulebook to prevent you from adding steps detailing what to do when you see students following expectations. Adding these steps reinforces how positive interactions are just as important as referrals when it comes to managing student behavior. It’s even a nice way to remind substitutes they can participate in the positive reinforcement happening in the classroom, too.

Rule: Determine a Consequence

Consequence Matrix.png

The people looking at referral data in your school want to know what you did when a student acted up in class. It’s a critical piece of information when deciding whether a student needs additional support or school personnel need additional resources.

Behavior: Choose from a Spectrum Consequences

Depending on how many consequence options your school has, it may be confusing to know what to do with which behaviors. Particularly for minor, classroom-managed behaviors, it’s nice to help teachers know which consequences are appropriate given the behavior they saw. A matrix of consequences matched with behaviors lets everyone make their own decision about what they want to do while keeping some level of consistency school-wide.

Rule: Document the Behavior

Referral Log 2.png

An outcome to your discipline routine is an actual referral. Maybe it’s a piece of paper. Maybe it’s something that happens electronically. However your school does it, your referral process must include a step for documenting the behavior happened and how you responded to it. How else will you get that data you need to drive important decisions in your building?

Behavior: Use a Referral Log in Unstructured Spaces

School personnel assigned to unstructured spaces like cafeterias, playgrounds, or hallways need efficient ways of documenting student behavior. In these settings, filling out paper referrals one at a time isn’t manageable and not everyone has a way to enter that information electronically. So, do it differently in these spaces. One way is to create a one-page log with checkboxes and quick references for problem behavior labels. At the end of the period, the sheet gets turned in to someone who can enter the behaviors – both major and minor – into the appropriate systems.

These are just three variations on the rules surrounding your referral process. I know you can come up with more. Take a look at the documentation you have at your school. Identify the steps you’d put on the rules layer. Now, think about all the ways you perform those steps. These little modifications are your way of making the routine your own. Share your experience with the people around you and you might just end up more efficient than ever before.

1. Howard-Grenville, J., & Rerup, C. (2017). A Process Perspective on Organizational Routines. In A. Langley & H. Tsoukas, Sage Handbook of Process Organizational Studies (pp. 323-339). London: Sage Publications.
2. Pentland, B., Hærem, T., & Hillison, D. (2011). The (N)Ever-Changing World: Stability and Change in Organizational Routines. Organization Science, 22(6), 1369-1383. doi: 10.1287/orsc.1110.0624

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.

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