Award Date


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Educational & Clinical Studies

First Committee Member

Joseph Morgan

Second Committee Member

Kyle Higgins

Third Committee Member

Monica Brown

Fourth Committee Member

Stefani Relles

Number of Pages



Most educational professionals are committed to supporting the students they serve in developing the skills needed to achieve the highest educational life potential they possibly can. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA, 2004) reaffirms that the purpose of special education is to prepare students for further education, employment, and independent living. However, post-school outcomes for students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) often run counter to this stated purpose. Outcomes for students with EBD into adulthood are often not positive, substantiating the need of congressional intent to strengthen preparation and consequently improve these students’ quality of life.

Therefore, it is imperative that we study variables that exist within educational structures for students with EBD to determine what is both supporting and hindering these outcomes. Through deeper exploration of these variables, we can provide potential explanations of the educational practices and schooling structures on the outcomes of students with EBD and develop programs that are better designed to meet the needs of this population of students. This dissertation employs mini-ethnographic case study methods to magnify educational practices within informal learning environments. From a sociocultural perspective known as the advocacy and participatory paradigm, this study sought to answer the following question: what do informal interactions look like between school staff members and students with EBD during reinforcement period? Analyses sought to demonstrate ways in which informal interactions demonstrate and resist the behavioral norms that are the goals of educational practices. Observations were the focus of empirical analysis for this study. Over the course of the study, I observed 30 hours of informal interactions between school staff members and students with EBD in the cafeteria during Lion’s Den (i.e., a pseudonym for the allotted positive reinforcement time associated with the school-wide point and level system). Observation data were collected via a participant observer role documented by “in-situ” field notes, written in real time.

The descriptive and reflective field notes chronicled informal interactions between school staff members and students with EBD. While the structure and execution of observations and field notes remained consistent throughout the study, treatment of the data employed the use of grounded theory methodologies and conventional content analysis. Data were coded using open, selective, and in-vivo coding. The study reveals a number of themes related to the informal interactions between students with EBD and staff members during a 30-minute reinforcement period.

The following themes were found: (a) Inconsistency in Determination of Students’ Current Level: Since When, (b) Limited Communication Between Staff and Students: What Do You Want, (c) Additional Validation and Negotiation of Level: Staff or Card is What I Need, and (d) Predetermined Expectations from Staff Members Regarding Impact of Individualized Interventions: Superheroes. Findings indicate that many of the effective and required components of PBIS and point and level system (e.g., relationship, description of why a student receives reinforcement or does not, consistency with implementation) were not observed in this self-contained setting. Overall, suggesting that while point and level systems are one means to offer structure and reinforcement, this study indicates the importance of the social processes within such educational practices for students with EBD and the need for additional training or conceptualization of the purpose and successful execution of point and level system programming.


Emotional Behavioral Disorders; Informal Interactions; Mini-Ethnographic Case Study; Point and Level Systems; Qualitative Research


Special Education and Teaching

File Format


Degree Grantor

University of Nevada, Las Vegas




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