Hand drawing of a poke bowl, with a base, choice of protein, and toppings.

MTSS in Alternative, Community, and Correctional Education

During a recent professional development event at Orange County (CA) Alternative, Community, and Correctional Education Schools and Services (ACCESS), teams created definitions and analogies for Multitiered System of Support (MTSS) that fit their unique context and student needs.  MTSS is broadly defined throughout California schools as a tiered system of support for students’ academic, behavioral and social emotional learning. This system is sustainable when supported by strong administrative leadership; integrated educational framework; student, family and community partnerships; and inclusive policy structure and practices.

We asked the ACCESS teams to create an analogy to help explain MTSS to their colleagues and community. We shared an example of MTSS as an organizing system like a library. In a public library we can know and learn where things are: many books by many authors on various topics intended for many audiences. Everyone has access to what they need, which can be different things at different times. Strategic decision making occurs around book choices and pages to read based on information about the purpose, reading level, and other “data”. Importantly, everyone is welcome to use the library system, where each person can check out the right book at the right time. In this imagery, the shelves represent an overall MTSS framework, books represent the components of the system, and the pages in the books represent practices, strategies, and research-based interventions from among which they can select based on data they gather.

ACCESS teams created their own analogies for MTSS, which included department store analogies ranging from Nordstrom’s to Target; MTSS Mine Craft, which starts off basic with many levels and challenges and no limit on exploration; an ecosystem with students, families, community stakeholders, teachers, administrators; and an all-inclusive MTSS universe.

Many teams chose to make food analogies! Examples of these included a custom designed multi-layer cake, an ice cream sundae with lots of individualized sprinkles, a “whole enchilada”, individualized pizzas, a potluck dinner, and an MTSS Poke.  If you aren’t familiar with Poke, see the photo posted with this blog, which shows a universal base of rice/salad/chips, a next tier of protein based on support needs, a more intensive tier of toppings with intensive flavor options, and specialized support that includes “extras.”

With these analogies fresh in their minds, the teams set to work taking a closer look at available resources across their system.  They began considering ways to maximize personnel and resources to create a system that supports all students’ academic, behavior, and social-emotional needs.

I am excited to return to see all the “ingredients” they find and how they put them together for a “delicious” MTSS for alternative education in Orange County, CA!

-Dr. Melinda Mitchiner

Photo of blog authorAs Research Programs Director at SWIFT Education Center, University of Kansas, I work closely with state and district teams to provide technical assistance and support to guide their work to install equity based multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) using the Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT).

The Impact of SWIFT Technical Assistance

Recently, we had an opportunity to look back at the outcomes of this technical assistance, publishing our findings in a special issue of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disability (AAIDD) journal ‘Inclusion.’  To complete this special issue, researchers culled through SWIFT data in each domain (i.e., policy, administrative leadership, family and community engagement, integrated education, and multi-tiered systems of support).

SWIFT Education Center began providing technical assistance to schools, districts, and states in providing equitable, inclusive supports to all students in 2012.  The initial funding for SWIFT, provided by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) occurred at about the same time the U.S. was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the landmark education law, P.L. 94-142, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA).  The law was groundbreaking in that it prioritized educating students with disabilities in inclusive, general education settings, with the supplementary aids and services they need to succeed in these settings.  Since then, research overwhelming supported the effectiveness of inclusive education for students with and without disabilities (see SWIFT Shelf for a bibliography of supporting research).

Yet progress in transforming schools, which traditionally separate and segregate learners with disabilities from general education settings, to deliver inclusive support and education has been slow.  As a consequence, millions of students are taught outside of general education settings for at least part of their school day on a regular basis.  In light of these trends, SWIFT Education Center works to provide sustainable, systemic change across state, local, and school levels towards inclusive education for all students.

Recently, we had an opportunity to look back at the outcomes of this technical assistance, publishing our findings in a special issue of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disability (AAIDD) journal ‘Inclusion.’  To complete this special issue, researchers culled through SWIFT data in each domain (i.e., policy, administrative leadership, family and community engagement, integrated education, and multi-tiered systems of support).

Findings across these domains showed a positive impact of SWIFT technical assistance on all measured outcomes.  In the policy domain, Mary Schuh, Kimberly Knackstedt, Jake Cornett, Jeong Hoon Choi, Dan Pollitt, and Allyson Satter found participating states, districts, and schools made progress in implementing inclusive policy that aligns across federal, state, and local levels.  In the administrative leadership domain, Elizabeth Kozleski and Jeong Hoon Choi examined how implementation of the administrative leadership domain of SWIFT impacts leadership performance and educator support systems implementing within schools.  The family and community engagement domain was equally promising, with Judith Gross, Jeong Hoon Choi, and Grace Francis finding positive family perceptions of engagement and partnership with schools following implementation of SWIFT.

Wayne Sailor, Amy McCart, and Jeong Hoon Choi, studied the impact of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS), and found preliminary evidence of the effectiveness of this model on student academic and behavioral outcomes, as well as the impact of SWIFT implementation on rates of inclusive education.  Similarly, I found, along with colleagues Mary Morningstar, Tyler Hicks, and Jonathan Templin, that rates of school inclusion increased over the years of implementation of the SWIFT model.

Together, the research findings present a detailed account of the many positive impacts of SWIFT implementation on students and families, and provide directions for further areas of research and support for promoting equitable inclusive school services for all students.

Photo of blog author.Jennifer Kurth is an Assistant Professor in the Special Education Department at the University of Kansas. Her research focuses on inclusive education for learners with low-incidence disabilities who have extensive and complex support needs.

Cover of FIA

Where do you even begin? Begin with SWIFT-FIA

Recently, I was having a conversation with a local school district representative about the SWIFT Education Center and the services we provide to support equity-based inclusive education. As usual, I got a little caught up in my impassioned plea about why all students should participate in and make progress in the general education curriculum. I started rambling on about the research to support inclusive educational practices and the inherent inequity of segregation for students with disabilities. Suddenly, the representative stopped me and said, I understand “why”, but I don’t know “where” to start. She asked me, “what do you do to support districts who believe in inclusive education, but aren’t there yet? Where do you even begin?”

This conversation reminded me that just believing inclusive education is the right thing to do is not enough to make it happen. State, district, and school leaders may want to, and even believe they should, implement inclusive practices but knowing where to start can seem daunting.

Implementing equity-based inclusive education is not as easy as just moving students from one placement to another. Moving students from a segregated classroom to a general education setting does not ensure students are meaningfully participating in and making progress in the general education curriculum with their peers. Too often I see students with disabilities moved from a segregated classroom just to be segregated again within a general education classroom. When a student is sitting in the back corner of a classroom with a paraeducator working on something totally unrelated to the work his or her peers are doing, then the student is not really experiencing the full benefits of inclusion. But, if moving students out of segregated settings isn’t enough, then how do school leaders know what supports need to be in place to ensure true equity-based inclusion is achieved?

The SWIFT framework helps answer this question with ten research-based features that compose the building blocks of inclusive education. SWIFT provides technical assistance and resources to guide implementation of each of the features—but even the most efficient school teams would be hard pressed to tackle all of the features at once. Therefore, schools need guidance on which components of each feature to prioritize during the transformation process.  Luckily, SWIFT has a tool for that.

The SWIFT Fidelity Integrity Assessment (SWIFT-FIA) is a self-assessment used by school leadership teams to examine their implementation of SWIFT framework features. SWIFT-FIA helps school-based teams engage in conversations about what components of each feature they currently have in place. These conversations help teams pinpoint where they are in the stages of implementation for each item. SWIFT-FIA is scored on a 0-3 scale representing these stages: 0 = laying the foundation, 1 = installing, 2 = implementing, and 3 = sustaining schoolwide implementation. To score a SWIFT-FIA, a school leadership team reviews the components of each item and reaches consensus about which elements of the item are currently in place. If the school has not started installing any components of the item, they can begin laying the foundation by discussing the degree to which the item meets the needs of their school and exploring options for implementation. If the school has action plans in place and is implementing some components of the item, they are in the installing stage of actively putting the item in place. Installing may include action items such as identifying key personnel responsible for carrying out the task. If a school has all of the item components in place and is actively working to refine and improve them, the school is in the implementing stage. When a school has all of the item components in place and is actively monitoring implementation to continuously improve practices, they are in the stage of sustaining schoolwide implementation.

By self-assessing stage of implementation across SWIFT features, school leadership teams gather valuable data to guide implementation of inclusive practices. SWIFT-FIA provides a roadmap to teams that feel overwhelmed with where to begin. The results of SWIFT-FIA can be used to identify and prioritize practices for transformation or continuous improvement, develop action plans needed to install and implement practices, and to reflect on the effects of action plans on practices. Teams may choose to use the data to identify strengths in items they are currently installing. They can then leverage their strengths to refine and improve their current practices. On the other hand, teams may choose to use the data to identify the next steps needed to install items that are priorities but not yet in place. SWIFT-FIA gives teams the information they need to guide these implementation decisions.

Even though school transformation can be complicated, my answer to the question of “where you even begin?” is simple: You begin with SWIFT-FIA.

SWIFT-FIA is available at swiftschools.org/shelf. A SWIFT-FIA tracking tool may be used to capture results and graph changes over time and is also available at swiftschools.org/shelf.

If you are interested in learning more about how SWIFT-FIA can be used by your school or district to guide implementation of equity-based MTSS, contact SWIFT at swift@ku.edu.

Photo of blog author.Allyson Satter currently works as a Project Coordinator for SWIFT. Previously, she worked as a special educator, which is where she first learned the value of equity-based inclusion.

How a SWIFT-FIT assessment benefits your school

Hi, I am Dan Pollitt and I work at SWIFT Education Center. I’d like to introduce you to a tool that can help your school and district leadership teams make well informed decisions about how they implement equity-based Multi-Tiered System of Support, or MTSS, for inclusive education.

SWIFT-FIT—which is short for SWIFT Fidelity Implementation Tool—is an assessment organized by SWIFT domains and features and composed of 58 items that are each scored as 0-1-2-3. To date, more than 100 trained assessors have conducted more than 350 of these assessments to help teams measure the degree to which they implement practices that promote equity and excellence for all students.

I am excited to announce that we are launching SWIFT-FIT Version 2.0, updated to reflect the most current research and practices in the field and applicable to PK-12 settings.

A SWIFT-FIT assessment is conducted by a trained, external assessor who visits your school during typical school hours. Throughout the day, this assessor interviews administrators, classroom teachers, school staff, district leaders, students, and family and community members. The assessor asks a range of questions about such topics as how you use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), ways teams collect and use student data, how students are included with peers, and whether family and community members are involved in school governance decisions. To award a high score on each the assessor looks for evidence of the practice implemented across the whole system, without “siloes” that limit access to general education curriculum and activities for any student subgroup.

Because SWIFT-FIT is a system-levelassessment, it measures the degree to which practices are structured, formalized, and in place throughout the school system, rather than haphazard, unstructured, or ad-hoc. Let’s use an example: Take the practice of using universal screeners to collect student data. What is a universal screener? Even if you are not an educator, you are probably familiar with universal screeners! For instance, when you visit the eye doctor, you are asked to read a chart to briefly test for poor eye sight or areas of need. Schools use universal screeners in a very similar fashion: All students are asked to complete them multiple times per year, they are relatively short and unobtrusive, and teams use academic and behavioral screening data to make more-informed instructional decisions. When conducting a SWIFT-FIT assessment, the assessor is looking for evidence that the school has the system-level practice of using universal screeners to collect student data and make decisions about which students may need additional or intensified support. Thanks to this system-level approach, the tool is not measuring one individual classroom teacher or one individual administrator, but instead measuring the whole system.

How can assessments help your school and district leadership teams? A baseline assessment can provide a sense of your “current reality” from an independent perspective. This perspective can be used in important conversations about what steps your school and district might take be more equitable and support all students. As your teams make decisions about the advances they plan to make, subsequent assessments are helpful for tracking progress at an item-by-item level. This objective measure can be used in communicating with school boards or other governance bodies, family and community members, and with school educators and staff.

If your team is considering adopting the SWIFT framework for equitable and excellent teaching and learning for all students, I recommend you consider scheduling a SWIFT-FIT assessment with one of our trained assessors as a way to measure your school’s current reality and progress toward your goal for equity and excellence for all your students. Contact us at swift@ku.edu.


Photo of blog author.Dan Pollitt is a research project manager at the SWIFT Education Center and oversees the training and implementation of SWIFT-FIT and SWIFT-FIA fidelity tools. He is a former elementary and middle school classroom teacher and as an adjunct graduate faculty in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas, teaches undergraduate and graduate students. He can be reached @danpollittphd on Twitter.

Wondering about MTSS?

Recently we were asked some thought provoking questions about MTSS.  We wanted to respond as well as invite you to join the conversation here on SWIFT Talk.

Here are the questions and our responses.

1.  Some schools claim to use MTSS for planning, but it doesn’t seem to result in changes in practices at the school level. What makes equity-based MTSS different? 

We agree that implementing equity-based MTSS involves complex transformations of culture, systems, policies, and practices that require detailed plans over several years. To avoid the risk of MTSS becoming an empty planning convenience, SWIFT offers MTSS tools and resources along with a proven, detail method for whole systems—SEA, LEAs and Schools—transformation for sustainable change (see our Transformation Playbook at swiftschools.org).

2. With limited resources, how can schools meet the needs of students who require the most intensive supports?

Equity-based MTSS incorporates the principles and practices of subsystems, such as community mental health wraparound services, into the continuum of services and supports for all students.  Our MTSS design helps schools intentionally include community-based service providers who can help to meet the complex needs of students across home, school and community settings.  School teams use a Resource Inventory process in which they identify intervention and support available in the community, school, district, state and national agencies; and a Tiered Intervention Matrix with data-based decision rules to match resources from this Resource Inventory to evident student needs (see the MTSS Starter Kit on swiftschools.org/shelf).

3. Is the goal of MTSS to eliminate special education?

From our vantage point, the goal of equity-based MTSS is to give all students access to special assistance when needed for as long as needed.  Indeed, equity-based MTSS prevents some students’ need for special assistance through such techniques as universally designed curriculum, differentiated instruction, and schoolwide positive behavioral expectations and support.  Support is distributed to students using screening and progress monitoring data with entry and exit decision rules; and these rules generally start a student in the least intensive support and include exit criteria for removing support when a student no longer needs it and for intensifying support if needed.

4. Does MTSS replace the good curriculum and practices we already have in place to support our students?

Our approach is to support schools as they use as much as possible of their existing resources and deploy these resources through an organized system using Resource Inventories, Tiered Intervention Matrices, Master Schedules, and Intervention Planning Tools (see the MTSS Starter Kit on swiftschools.org/shelf).  SWIFT Guide (guide.swiftschools.org) also makes available “the best of the best” free content for schools to use in their MTSS.

We appreciate the questions that raised these points of discussion.  We are interested in what you think.  Comment here on SWIFT Talk to continue the conversation.

Words of Gratitude

In October 2012, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) funded a center to provide technical assistance to urban, rural, and high-need school districts to improve outcomes for students with disabilities (OSEP, 2012). The OSEP-funded SWIFT Center partnered with 64 schools in 17 districts across five states—Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Vermont. Five years later, the partners in each of these states worked to continuously improve implementation of SWIFT features in their districts and schools.  We would like to thank OSEP for providing the funding that launched this work, which ultimately led to improved outcomes for students with disabilities in these schools.  We are grateful for the opportunity to play a role in supporting the educators, administrators, and personnel who are dedicated to SWIFT’s mission of equity-based inclusive education. We are proud of partner state as they built their capacity and now take steps to continue, sustain, and scale-up the work beyond the scope of the original grant’s funding.

As of October 16th, 2017, SWIFT Education Center will continue to pursue the mission that the OSEP-funded SWIFT Center embodied for five years.  As part of this endeavor, SWIFT Education Center will continue to make available on our website www.swiftschools.org all the free resources produced through the OSEP funding.  Additionally, SWIFT Education Center remains committed to producing future SWIFT Unscripted Podcasts, SWIFT Talk blogs, monthly newsletters, briefs, and products to keep you informed of the latest developments in equity-based MTSS research and services.  You can find these products and many more on www.swiftschools.org along with information about how SWIFT Education Center can support your state education agency, school, or district.

We believe that together we can transform education so that it benefits each and every student, their families, and ultimately the communities in which they live. Our partners in Maryland, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oregon and Vermont are testament to what can be accomplished when we work together to support the needs of all students.  It is with great excitement that SWIFT Education Center looks forward to continuing to transform education with additional partners from coast to coast.  To learn more visit www.swiftschools.org or contact us at swift@ku.edu.


Photo of blog author.Amy McCart, Ph.D. is an Associate Research Professor with Special Graduate Faculty Status at the University of Kansas. Dr. McCart is the director of technical assistance for the SWIFT Center. Additionally, she is the principal investigator for multiple federal projects through the U.S. Department of Education to support urban schools implementing school-wide positive behavior support. As part of her work with school-wide positive behavior support, she serves as a collaborating partner in the National Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavior Intervention and Support. Dr. McCart worked in a number of urban schools, including the Recovery School District in New Orleans, Louisiana, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, and the District of Columbia, Washington Public Schools. She was the site director at an agency supporting individuals with low incidence disabilities working to improve quality of life. She is also focused on utilizing agency-focused multi-tiered prevention to support families with mental health needs in poverty and their young children.

Harnessing Rural Strengths for Schoolwide Transformation

This self-proclaimed City Girl has always preferred to live and work in areas filled with people.  My first teaching job was on a team in an elementary school that had eight sections of first grade, each with 26 or more students. Yes, we were big.  And I liked it that way.

My first assignment with SWIFT was Local Education Agency (LEA) Facilitator in Oregon.  In this role, I had the opportunity to facilitate the implementation of SWIFT in one of the center’s largest urban districts (Portland) and three rural districts (Pendleton, Redmond, and Sisters).  I was thrilled with my new position, but was haunted by the thought of facilitating SWIFT in three RURAL districts.  This was new territory for me and I wondered what all city dwellers wonder: How do rural schools face the same complex challenges as urban schools and solve them with so few resources?

What I learned is that “small town charm” isn’t just a cute saying; it is the foundation of rural livelihood.  Small town folks do whatever they have to do to ensure the families in their community, some of whom they have known for generations, have what they need to succeed.  And they are extremely creative in the process. Principals sometime serve as bus drivers.  School buses sometimes double as community mobile hot spots.  Gymnasiums are sometimes the primary community gathering place.

The most important lesson I learned is that rural schools really aren’t too different from urban schools.  They want facilitators to spend time discovering the unique strengths of their context and then harness those strengths to help them improve their educational practice. The beauty of SWIFT implementation is that it is designed to honor the unique characteristics of every context – large or small.   I encourage you, schools and districts in even the most rural settings, to consider how the SWIFT transformation practices can be modified to honor the values, traditions, and charms of YOUR setting.  Here are some examples to get you started:

  • Transformation Teaming – It is likely you have a small staff.  Create a leadership team that reflects your staff, even if it only has a few members.  For example, a single-school district might choose to combine district and school leadership to create one cohesive leadership team.  SWIFT has a set of Transformation Teaming tools to help you define your team’s purpose, ensure strong communication structures, and record your efforts.
  • Visioning – This practice is just as critical in your smaller school setting.  Many rural school districts report the importance of involving the community at large in determining a future vision. Involving community members builds unity and can uncover untapped resources.
  • Data Snapshots – Data-based decision-making is important in every school, no matter the size.  SWIFT district and school Data Snapshots may need to be modified or combined to fit your smaller setting.  If you have a single-school district and only one leadership team, use the school Data Snapshot and consider how district level resources and personnel can support efforts at the school level.
  • Priority & Practice Planning – We recommend schools and districts focus their attention on two or three priority areas.  However, just one priority area at a time might be appropriate for your rural setting.  The goal is to commit to realistic priorities and set reasonable action steps to ensure progress.
  • Resource Mapping and Matching – Resources are often thin in rural settings.  However, rural communities have a unique way of pulling together and getting creative to ensure their kids have what they need.  SWIFT Resource Inventory Form will help you think about all of the current facility and personnel resources you have and how they can be reallocated to match your future vision.  Think outside the box.  Are there community members who can help fill a need?  Can older students support younger students?
  • Coaching & Facilitation – Small staffs can make forming an ongoing coaching plan especially challenging.  Ask yourself, are there other rural districts in your area that would be interested in partnering to allow your teachers to discuss their practice or create a professional book club?  If meeting in person is not possible, perhaps staff members can connect virtually, over the phone, or via social media.

-Jessica Meisenheimer

Headshot of blog author.Jessica Meisenheimer, Ph.D. has worn many hats in her years as an educator … teaching first grade students to graduate students … working in urban to suburban settings … instructing as a general and special educator. Jessica’s current work as a Research Project Coordinator for the Schoolwide Integrated Framework for Transformation (SWIFT) Center applies her knowledge and experience for the benefit of diverse students across the U.S. She is passionate about finding ways to better serve all students by implementing inclusive school reform, examining educational policy, and utilizing multi-tiered systems of support.

A group of people sit around a conference table.

SWIFT Implementation Begins with Teams

In 2013, SWIFT entered intensive partnerships with 64 schools from 16 districts in 5 states.  Implementation science and our collective past experiences told us that we needed to engage the whole system—school, district, and state education agency (SEA)—to achieve sustainable results, and told us that we need to begin with establishing collaborative teams at each level.  We also knew that the people in each local educational system had valuable knowledge and strengths upon which to build.  Our job was to prepare them to implement a transformation they envisioned for themselves—and so we began our technical assistance with TEAMS.

What makes an effective and efficient team where all members want to be there, contribute ideas, respect differences, and work together to accomplish a common goal? Structures for participation! How many of our SWIFT partner teams: school transformation, district implementation, and state leadership practice these:

  • Shared and rotating roles for team meeting participation including the meeting facilitator, note-taker, snack provider, jargon-buster, and other valued contributions?
  • An agenda that is sent out by the assigned facilitator in advance of the meeting?
  • An agenda that always begins with celebrations and ends with a summary of the agreed-upon actions and plans for the next meeting (time, date, roles)?
  • Note-taking in a way that documents key items, decisions, and follow up actions, and is not simply a list of bullet points of everything said in the meeting?
  • Minutes that are distributed within a day or two of the meeting?
  • Follow up, including materials preparation, research, and other communications by members per their assignments?
  • Discussion that respects differences, engages quiet members, and values the input of all?

The teams engaged with SWIFT implementation are focused on planning and overseeing the use of the 6 SWIFT TA practices that help schools, districts, and states, develop action plans and evaluate their impact. We ask our teams to VISION: generate a collective agreement about their vision for schools that are fully implementing the SWIFT Domains and Features, and successfully including all students. Our teams use a DATA SNAPSHOT process to look at their data on student performance and progress, implementation of SWIFT, and organizational structures that support student success through school-wide structures for all learners. Teams then PLAN PRIORITIES AND PRACTICES for development at the school, district, and state levels: as schools implement evidence-based practices, districts and states build their capacity to support equity in educational practices and outcomes for all students. As teams begin to plan forward, they identify the breadth of all possible available by MAPPING AND MATCHING RESOURCES across local, state, regional, and national arenas that will help with implementing new practices or improving upon current ones. Teams identify the personnel strengths to be developed, and the organizational structures that will support implementation of transformed practices – all with the goal of including all learners, and achieving successful student outcomes.

SWIFT technical assistance staff and their state/local partners follow protocol for facilitating this work and COACHING our local partners for fidelity to the technical assistance process. The key, however, are the TEAMS, and the ways in which they work. They are key to implementation of SWIFT and the practices that lead to improved capacity and transformation of education for all learners.

Carol Quirk, Ed.D.

I am… a wife, mother, sister, gardener, reader. I work in the field of disability and education, mostly in Maryland, and occasionally traveling for work. I love my family and friends.

Implementing SWIFT? Hone Our Adaptive Leadership Skills!

This topic is near and dear to my heart. While I lean to the tidy side when it comes to my space and belongings, it’s the complex and not so tidy aspects of working together with others in leading change that is my life fuel!  Transforming our schools to be learning environments where each and every one of our students can thrive can be challenging indeed. A commitment to SWIFT implementation requires what Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky (2009) refer to as technical and adaptive leadership approaches and skills. Let’s distinguish their differences.

Technical challenges are more clearly defined and can be largely managed or controlled in a hierarchal fashion. A leader or small group can make the decision on what needs to happen and put in place a system for monitoring its implementation. The other side of that leadership coin are adaptive challenges. These challenges are not easily defined; they require learning to create shared understanding about all the facets of a topic or issue, then dialogue and deliberation to determine the best way forward. With adaptive challenges, leaders engage a representative body of stakeholders in a collaborative learning conversation so that the solutions to systemic, complex issues can be created and sustained. An adaptive leadership approach is rooted in the belief that the wisdom resides within the system for many of the issues we face. Knowing how to tap the collective intelligence of that system is key. A glimpse into the adaptive leadership toolbox reveals four sets of interrelated skills:

  • Communication
  • Facilitation
  • Conflict competence
  • Systems thinking

Going deeper, reflected in those skill sets are some core values to which masters of adaptive leadership cling:

Honest and open communication. Humility. Service. Growth and development of self and others. Creativity and open-mindedness. Teamwork – positive, trusting relationships. Compassion. Courage. Determination. Appreciation. Leadership from any chair. Achieving. Personal responsibility. Respect. Integrity.

SWIFT implementation is chock full of adaptive challenges. “All hands on deck for all kids” rolls off the tongue easily, but it’s a complex endeavor to make real. It necessarily involves changing roles and relationships within school communities and engagement with stakeholders across the whole educational system. In short, our dreams for equity based inclusive schoolwide transformation can only be realized to the extent that our individual and collective leadership practices make it possible. And because our inner game runs our outer game, our core beliefs and values deeply matter. In experiencing adaptive leadership, we can look for the reflection of those values “being lived” in every conversation—oral, written, or email; how meetings or work groups are facilitated and accountability to our norms made visible, and how conflicts are surfaced and managed productively.

In our SWIFT partner states, districts, and schools, it is impressive to witness our colleagues from across the system manifesting these core values as they skillfully exercise adaptive leadership in their SWIFT implementation efforts. They are fully engaged in harvesting the intelligence and mobilizing the strengths of system stakeholders (e.g., educators, staff, students, family and community members, educational governing boards, higher education representatives, mental health service providers, legislators, and the business community) in multiple ways to reach desired goals and sustain results over time. These adaptive leaders clearly recognize that just like our students, we’re better together.

Linda Beitz

Photo of blog post author.Linda is on staff at the SWIFT Center as a member of the State Education Agency (SEA) Facilitator Team and the Capacity and Sustainability Team. Her passion is supporting educators’ in a positive relational approach to systems change, leadership effectiveness, and personal/team conflict competence. She’s the mother of two wonderful young adults and an avid (seasonal) bicyclist along Chicago’s lakefront.