An Interview with Dr. Howie Knoff, Director of Project ACHIEVE

Dec 15, 2008 by

1. Howie, you are probably best known nationally for Project ACHIEVE and your work in school improvement. Briefly, what is Project ACHIEVE all about?

Project ACHIEVE is an evidence-based school effectiveness, continuous improvement, and school success program that began as part of a school turn-around effort in Lakeland, Florida in 1990.Over 18 years later, Project ACHIEVE now works on-site with schools and districts for up to three years or more, helping to develop and implement comprehensive strategic plans that focus on real student, staff, school, and system outcomes.To date, I have worked in almost 1,500 schools in virtually every state in the country, from preschools to high schools to alternative and charter schools, in urban to suburban to rural to tribal schools, and with the lowest performing to the highest performing schools in the nation.

2. What are the goals of Project ACHIEVE?

Project ACHIEVE’s ultimate goal is to help design and implement effective school and schooling processes to maximize the academic and social/emotional/behavioral progress and achievement of all students.Using a Response-to-Intervention process, Project ACHIEVE also helps schools to implement effective and efficient problem-solving and strategic intervention processes for students with academic and behavioral difficulties, while improving the staff’s professional development and effective instruction interactions, and increasing the quality of parent (and community) involvement and engagement.In many ways, Project ACHIEVE’s “by-line” tells it all:”Building Strong Schools to Strengthen Student Outcomes.”

3. You mentioned that Project ACHIEVE is evidence-based. Who awarded that designation and what outcomes did you show to earn it?

Project ACHIEVE was designated as a National Model Prevention Program by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 2000.This was based on an independent review of Project ACHIEVE outcomes, by experts working on behalf of SAMHSA, at a number of school sites.Project ACHIEVE also was designated a “Promising Program” by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), a “Select Program” by the Collaborative for Academic and Social-Emotional Learning (CASEL), and it received the 2003 SAMHSA Administrators Award for School-Based Mental Health Services.

These designations have accrued because a variety of schools, across the country and at different levels of school need and improvement, have demonstrated consistent school-wide outcomes when implementing Project ACHIEVE with integrity.Many of these outcomes are fully consistent with those required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—increases in student achievement and state proficiency test outcomes; more positive school and classroom climates with decreases in student discipline referrals and suspensions and expulsions; more effective RtI staff collaboration and early intervention services to students not responding to sound classroom instruction and behavioral management; increases in staff skill and confidence in dealing with challenging students and in working together as teams; improvements in community and parent outreach and involvement, including more effective coordination of school-based or school-linked mental health services.

4. So how do you do it? What makes Project ACHIEVE work?

Well, first of all, what makes it work is the people and their motivational commitment to the process, and the district and its organizational commitment to support its schools, staff, and students.I believe that district-level personnel and resources are largely there to help the schools to be successful through effective strategic planning and shared leadership processes.That not to say that we don’t need strong district guidance and some “top-down” processes, but the reality is that schools are the first “units” collectively evaluated by NCLB.If schools are not successful, then districts are not successful.

Beyond this, Project ACHIEVE has seven interdependent components that work together to make schools more successful, or to help some schools to “turn-around” and become successful.These components are:(a) Strategic Planning and Organizational Analysis and Development; (b) Problem Solving, Response-to-Intervention, Teaming, and Consultation Processes (this is our RtI component); (c) Effective School, Schooling, and Professional Development; (d) Academic Instruction linked to Academic Assessment, Intervention, and Achievement; (e) Behavioral Instruction linked to Behavioral Assessment, Intervention, and Self-Management (this is our Positive Behavioral Support component); (f) Parent and Community Training, Support, and Outreach; and (g) Data Management, Evaluation, and Accountability.All of these, again, are strategically linked through the School Improvement planning process at each school, and we typically work on three-year implementation rotations so that we can address the needs of all students, but especially the needs of students who need strategic, intensive, and wrap-around interventions.

5. Project ACHIEVE is well-known especially for its Behavioral Instruction/Positive Behavioral Support (PBS) components and its approach to problem solving and RtI. Would you share your PBS model with us?

Certainly.In brief, there are six primary components in Project ACHIEVE’s PBS approach.We call this approach a “Positive Behavioral Self-Management System” (PBSS) because we are trying to teach students self-management skills, get the staff in a school to the point where they are able to “self-manage” PBSS implementation without the need for an outside consultant, and build the capacity of the district so that it can “self-management” the entire process relative to sustainability.

In short, the PBSS has six components.The first three involve the development of (a) students’ social skills, using an evidence-based social skills program that teaches students the specific interpersonal, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and coping skills that result in self-management; (b) teacher, grade-level, and school-wide accountability processes that provide students with meaningful incentives and consequences that motivate their prosocial behavior; (c) staff and administrative consistency such that student behavior is reinforced and responded to (when appropriate and inappropriate) in a constant fashion across students, staff, settings, and situations.

The last three components address more specialized school circumstances related to behavior management situations and circumstances that extend beyond the classroom and individual students.They involve (d) a “Special Situations” process that analyzes and responds to problems in the common areas of the school (i.e., hallways, bathrooms, cafeteria, playground, buses), and as related to student teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, and fighting; (e) Crisis Prevention to Crisis Intervention to Crisis Response preparations, strategies, and implementations; and parent and community outreach, training, and involvement.This last component actually is embedded in all of the other five components.

6. We know that you use the Stop & Think Social Skills Program as your social skills program. Please tell us more about this Program.

Project ACHIEVE shares its evidence-based status with the Stop & Think Social Skills Program which I published through Sopris West Educational Services in 2001 (see: Stop & Think Program has four different developmental levels—from preschool through middle school, and it is one of the top social skills programs in the country.At its core, the Stop & Think Program focuses on teaching students up to 20 different behavioral skills—like Listening, Following Directions, Asking for Help, Accepting Consequences, Dealing with Teasing, Responding to Peer Pressure—by teaching, modeling, and roleplaying the social skill behaviors with the step-by-step verbal scripts that guide these behaviors.With instruction and practice, students internalize the prosocial “skills and scripts” to the point where they become automatic—even when they are experiencing extreme emotional situations.

Since the school-focused Stop & Think publication in 2001, we have also published The Stop and Think Parenting Book: A Guide to Children’s Good Behavior with a 75-minute training DVD, The Stop & Think Songbook—a phenomenal children’s music CD that teaches our social skills to preschool through early elementary school children through 15 really engaging songs, and a set of skill posters that accompany the CD and help children to see the skills in action.

7. Changing our focus for a moment:It seems that many schools and educators are being bombarded by different expert’s RtI suggestions.Does Project ACHIEVE’s approach to RtI help to focus some of these discussions?

Project ACHIEVE’s Problem-Solving/RtI component uses a flexible, three-tiered system that is guided by and sensitive to students’ academic and behavioral outcomes.The goal, ultimately, is to facilitate learning and mastery, by ensuring effective instruction and classroom management for all students (Tier 1), and by speeding early and effective interventions to those students who need more strategic interventions (Tier 2) or more intensive interventions (Tier 3) interventions.Critically, the RtI process focuses on (a) interventions, not diagnostic labels; (b) individualized, functional assessment, not universal, or standard assessment batteries, tests, or evaluation protocols; and (c) student-focused, contextual decision-making, not rigid, psychometric decision rules.

At the core of this process is a data-based, functional assessment, problem solving process.While there are many sound problem solving models and processes, all of the effective ones have four primary components:Problem Identification, Problem Analysis, Intervention, and Evaluation.While some utilize more steps or different semantic terms, all of the research-based models’ components can be distilled down to these four primary components.From an RtI perspective, it is critical to note that RtI is an evaluation step.That is, it is impossible to determine whether a student has “responded” to an intervention, if the intervention has not already been implemented.

In the end, our service delivery model, using the RtI process, involves three interdependent activities:Problem solving, Consultation, and Intervention.Through our data-based problem-solving process, we determine why a student is having difficulty.This helps us to identify the correct intervention(s).But, both the Problem Analysis and Intervention steps are implemented by having consultants work collegially in the classroom with the classroom teacher—to ensure that the right interventions are chosen and that they are implemented with integrity.

8. Finally, if you could give schools one piece of advice in terms of how they can success in these days of school accountability and federally “mandated” improvement, what would it be?

Focus on the “human” side of professional development, and evaluate its impact with data.

Relative to the first area, professional development in the schools needs to link three essentially elements—knowledge, skill, and confidence.While most in-services provide knowledge, effective professional development follows the knowledge into the classroom to ensure that it transfers into teacher skill and behavior, and eventually into teacher confidence and independence.The human side of this addresses the process underlying the content.We summarize the importance processes in the “Seven C’s”:Communication, Collaboration, Caring, Commitment, Consultation, Consistency, and Celebration.

Relative to the second area, we need to make as many decisions as possible—at the student, staff, and student levels—using objective and representative data.Too many times, emotionality rules the day, and decisions are made based on feelings and impressions, rather than information and data.If professional development and building schools’ capacities are going to work, we need to use evidence-based practices on the front end, and data-based evaluation—to determine that the practices have worked—on the back end.

About the Interviewee: Howard M. Knoff, Ph.D. is a national consultant, lecturer, and author on issues related to school improvement, safe and positive schools, strategic planning and organizational development, and behavioral interventions for challenging students.He is the Director of Project ACHIEVE ( which is a partner in the Strategic Alliance for Education (SAFE; Past-President of the National Association of School Psychologists, and a Professor at the University of South Florida for 20 years (12 years as the Director of its School Psychology Program), he also has been the Director of the State Improvement Grant for the Arkansas Department of Education—Special Education Unit for the past five years.

Post-script:Dr. Knoff can be contacted at: He has a number of free technical assistance papers and powerpoints on his very extensive website at

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