Teach By Design
Data-based decision making
Sep 12, 2017

The Second Year Itch: Why Does Implementation Fail?

Research tells us how to set up schools to sustain PBIS implementation...and what to do if you think they may be dabbling in abandoning everything.

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​​​​​​Once upon a time, there was an elementary school called Lincoln. It was one of four elementary schools in its district. One August morning, Lincoln staff met the district office to be trained on a new initiative ready to make their school a better place. They spent the whole year implementing new strategies, pouring over new materials, attending conference sessions, reviewing data, making team-based decisions, and creating action plans. Everything was going so well. Then, in the summer, just before the next school year, Lincoln found out its administrator transferred to another school and their dedicated counselor would be shared with among the other three elementary schools. That year, the team stopped meeting as frequently. The new administrator suggested modifications to the way Lincoln improved their practices. By the third year, the new initiative everyone was excited about became the old initiative they used to do.  

Sound familiar?

With so much research focused on how to help schools sustain implementation, a group of researchers wanted to know what they could learn from schools who simply stopped implementing. What were their experiences? Could those experiences shed some light on the ways in which others implement new strategies district-wide? In short, the answer is YES.

Th​​e Study

5,331 schools, 1420 districts represented across 37 states[1]

Researchers took a closer look at how these schools implemented School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS) from their first through fifth years. The large number of schools included in the study means schools had varying degrees of support from state and local administration, a wide range of resources allocated, and all demographics represented. After analyzing this giant pile of data, it turns out every school fit neatly into one of four groups of implementers:

  • Sustainers who maintained their high degree of implementation across all five years
  • Slow Starters who struggled to implement during the first three years, but slowly rose to meet Sustainer levels by years four and five.
  • Late Abandoners who implemented pretty well in the first three years and then dropped out in years four and five.
  • Rapid Abandoners who had a successful first year and then, surprisingly, dropped out the second year never to start back up again.

​If you think about schools you work with who have implemented a new initiative or new practices, they likely fit into one of these categories.

What Ca​n You Do?

This study gives us a start to figuring out how to setup schools to be Sustainers and what to do if you think they may be dabbling in the Abandoner groups.

Create a Community for Your Sch​​​o​ols

For a lot of us, in anything we do—finding a new gym, trying a new restaurant, hiring a mechanic—we want to be able to connect with people who have already done it. We want to ask them: What is your experience? How did it go for you? It can be scary to be the first to do something; most people want to be part of a community. Creating the right community for the schools in your district takes strategy. Find something schools have in common:

  • Grade levels
  • Demographics
  • Neighborhoods
  • Feeder schools

Then, group those schools together as a cohort. That group of schools might feel bigger than you expected: According to the study, on average, sustaining schools were part of a cohort the size of 41% of their district (McIntosh et al., 2016)! But think about it: As a community, schools will go through training together, share resources with each other, and reach out for advice from one another. Just knowing they’re not alone in this, they might be more likely to weather the tough times and keep going.

What might a community look like for your district?

Get Your Ducks in ​​a Row

With a larger group of schools going through their first year of implementation together, you will need get your resources all lined up, ready to go. Make sure you have enough coaches to work with the number of schools you have. Training events should be offered throughout the year so everyone is able to attend. Print enough materials to get you through. Deliberately schedule team check-ins rather than waiting for teams to reach out. When schools not only feel supported, but actually are supported, they are successful.

How would you support 41% of the schools in your district all implementing in their first year together?

Schools get excited about implementing that first year. There’s a lot of energy that goes into its success. If teams find out at the end of that year, after all that effort, ​they didn’t meet their goals, it can be a real blow. Remind your schools that it’s normal to take three to five years to fully implement a new initiative.

Pay Attention to​ the Second Year

Schools give it their best effort the first year they start a new strategy. Resources are available. Coaches work closely with teams. There might even be enthusiasm from staff to get started. Schools implementing SWPBIS take surveys as a status check to find out how well they’re implementing these strategies. Schools meeting or exceeding criterion on those surveys were doing really well. Most schools in the study implemented at or above criterion in the first year. The second year stands out as a turning point – for Slow Starters and Rapid Abandoners in particular.

​Slow Starters saw their scores go down further from their first year. Rapid Abandoners no longer met criterion as they had in the previous year and actually saw their scores drop significantly. While both groups struggled with implementation in the second year, one pushed through and found success; the other stopped and never came back.

While the research is still new, and there is more to explore, we asked Dr. Rhonda Nese what schools can do to count themselves among the sustaining group rather than the 58% of schools who abandoned the practice.

“Schools get excited about implementing that first year. There’s a lot of energy that goes into its success. If teams find out at the end of that year, after all that effort, ​they didn’t meet their goals, it can be a real blow. Remind your schools that it’s normal to take three to five years to fully implement a new initiative.”

Dr. Nese has three ideas for creating Sustainers out of a year-two slump.

  • Action Planning – If after the second year, scores still aren’t where you expected them to be, focus on finding the items you consistently scored a zero. Pick a few and work on those. These victories create momentum.
  • Share your data with staff – Research tells us sharing data with staff is a key contributor to schools sustaining practices​[2]. To improve scores, talk to the people in your building. Show them what you’ve been up to and how you’ve seen it make a difference in your building. Ask them for their perspective on how you can improve.
  • Reach out to the cohort – Now is the time to take full advantage of the community you created. Talk to other schools about your struggle. You’re likely to find out they’ve been through something similar, too. Steal their strategies and see if they work for your school.

Which schools do you support right now who are in the middle of a tough second year?

If there is anything this new research can teach us it’s this: There is no standard experience for implementing new strategies. Sometimes everything clicks. Sometimes it feels like two steps forward and one step back. Whatever a school's experience, another school has been there, too.

  • Create a large community of first-year implementers. Give schools a support system to work through the harder times together.
  • Supporting a large community isn't an easy task. Make sure you have the resources you need to provide the training, materials, and on-going coaching to every school in the group before you get started.
  • Pay attention to implementation in the second year. Look for the schools who are struggling to see the results they expected after their first year. Don't let them give in to that second-year itch. Remind them of the process and coach them through what they can do to weather the storm.

1. McIntosh, K., Mercer, S., Nese, R. and Ghemraoui, A. (2016). Identifying and predicting distinct patterns of implementation in a school-wide behavior support framework. Prevention Science, 17(8), pp. 992-1001. doi: 10.1007/s11121-016-0700-1.​
2. McIntosh, K., Kim, J., Mercer, S. H., Strickland-Cohen, M. K., & Horner, R. H. (2015). Variables associated with enhanced sustainability of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports. Assessment for Effective Intervention​, 40(3), 184-191. doi: 10.1177/1534508414556503.

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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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