McDowell Institute helping schools meet needs of students

BLOOMSBURG—Non-academic barriers to learning come in many forms in modern day classrooms. Impediments to learning can come from exposure to adverse childhood experiences, such as bullying and exposure to violence, to drug use to behavioral health matters related to anxiety and depression.  The McDowell Institute for Teacher Excellence in Positive Behavior Support at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania is helping schools use the Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) to gather information on student attitudes, knowledge, behaviors and experiences related to non-academic barriers to learning that have historically been impediments to healthy growth and development.

The PAYs data helps schools to shed light on areas that need to be addressed to enhance student academic learning in concert with social, emotional and behavioral wellness. One example of this is the partnership that has been formed between the Milton Area School District and the McDowell Institute under the direction of Tim Knoster, Ed.D, executive director.

The PAYS survey, directed by the EPIS Center, is important because it identifies the risk factors of each school district, as told by our students,” says Milton School District Superintendent Cathy Keegan. “This student information assists us in understanding and keeping pace with the problems and challenges our students are facing. From a preventive science perspective, the survey results promote working up-stream rather than continual reaction.”

Keegan feels the McDowell Institute has played a huge role in helping the school district get the most out of PAYS.

“Dr. Knoster presented our staff with a logic model to process the data we received through the PAYS survey,” Keegan continued. “Committed to this process, they facilitated weekly scheduled conversations on how to best address the challenges presented to the Milton team through the survey results. Providing resources, evidenced based programs, and aligning professional development, the McDowell Institute led us through a quality systems approach to begin addressing what our students are telling us are their needs, based on these survey results.

What are some examples of actions planned as an outgrowth of this partnership?

Based on guidance from Knoster and Danielle Empson, director of school based behavior health for the McDowell Institute, Keegan and her staff developed action plans.

“We developed action plans to address our students' social, emotional, and behavioral concerns,” said Keegan. To broaden support we involved the Milton community in one of our action plan priorities as we believe our community is an important and critical partner in making the necessary change. Other priorities reflected in these plans include our students' poverty, attempted suicide rates and suicidal thoughts, and alcohol and drug use. To address these needs, Milton schools plan to build student leadership teams, k-12 and implement a successful PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) framework with the support of Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit.”

Keegan feels the work done for her district can be replicated by other districts across the state.

“I Recognize that each school districts' survey results will be different, but the professional process and support provided by the McDowell Institute has been invaluable in guiding our planning process,” Keegan said. “We built into each action plan progress-monitoring tools with a calendar to ensure the plans' activities are met. We also understand that we must be agile based on the response to the activities, making adjustments where necessary. Schools are facing complex and challenging times. The logic model and action planning process presented and supported by Dr. Knoster and colleagues will help us meet these complex challenges with more strategic confidence. We feel very lucky to have the McDowell Institute on our Milton team.”

PAYS is sponsored by the PA Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Pennsylvania Department of Education and the PA Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention.


Bloomsburg University is one of 14 universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. The university serves approximately 9,600 students, offering comprehensive programs of study in the colleges of Education, Business, Liberal Arts and Science and Technology.