Praising the positive
When a student has trouble reading, it’s a school’s job to fix the problem. The same goes for math and every other academic subject.
And, according to a new initiative spreading through Verona elementary schools and across the country, behavior should be treated the same.
“Just like kids learn math, reading, they learn about behavioral expectations, too,” said Country View Elementary School counselor Elizabeth Kraemer. “So we want to have a universal curriculum that everyone’s learning the same expectations and then the understanding is that just like with reading and math, some kids need more repetition, behavioral.”
The Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports initiative, which is being fully or partially embraced at every elementary school in the Verona Area School District, came from research in the 1980s on how to better intervene with children with behavioral disorders.
It eventually expanded after the term was included in the reauthorization of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1997.
The program includes multiple tiers, with the first expected to reach around 80 percent of students. Once a school is deemed successful at that level, it can receive Tier 2 training to target the remaining students who may not have responded to the PBIS basics, which include simple expectations like making eye contact, listening respectfully and flushing the toilet after they’re done.
After the 1997 legislation, PBIS began to spread around the United States, and many states began requiring its implementation in schools. Wisconsin has not required its implementation, but Verona elementary schools began taking a look when Sugar Creek first tried the program in 2010.
Principal Todd Brunner said the initiative has worked wonders as the school has earned national recognition for its implementation, which usually takes three to five years.
“We essentially tried everything we could that worked and nothing was enough,” Brunner said of the time before the school implemented PBIS. “What we realized was we needed something bigger than us. We needed to look at our systems, our training.
"We needed to stop blaming the kids.”
The core of the program focuses on rewarding students when they meet expectations. The program and individual schools outline these expectations in different areas of the school, such as on the bus or in the lunchroom.
Whether through Golden Lunch Trays at Glacier Edge and Sugar Creek for good lunchroom behavior or “Paws Up” tickets at Country View that can be redeemed for raffle tickets or special days, the program asks teachers and administrators to ensure students consciously recognize their good behavior.
At Core Knowledge Charter School, where they are in the first year of implementation, director Brett Stousland keeps a “ribbon tree” in his office, which is covered in ribbons students tied on after getting recognition. Stousland also brings the tree to each school assembly and asks the students with a ribbon on it to stand.
“The first time I did it there was only maybe 15, 20 kids who stood, and now we’re at 90 percent,” Stousland said. “I think it helps (teachers) generate some more positives in their classroom.”
One of the initiative’s most important components is establishing consistency in all settings so that students, teachers and administrators can all be on the same page with how students should behave and what is or is not worthy of punishment.
“That sends such a conflicting message to little kids as they go from room to room to room,” Brunner said of inconsistent expectations among different teachers. “Everybody had their own thought about what was OK.”
Brunner said SC trains every new teacher it hires on its expectations in the classroom and other settings to ensure students get the consistency they need.
But the students still need to learn those expectations, and that involves putting time in early in the year to show students what is appropriate and what is not.
Most of the elementary schools now spend at least part of a day at the beginning of the year to take kids around to the different places expectations are required, such as bathrooms and lunchrooms.
“If we put all of our effort in in the beginning and we teach them the expectation and we acknowledge when they’re doing the right thing, the hope is that they’re not going to do the wrong thing as much, we’re not going to have to deal with the discipline as much,” GE psychologist and PBIS coach Amy Nolting said. “We’re going to get to spend more time learning, teaching.”
At Country View, the school takes videos of the students fulfilling the expectations for teachers to revisit throughout the year if needed, and there are posters around the school outlining the school’s “Build IT tools,” which offer an outline for how to behave in different areas.
The positive reinforcement doesn’t mean students’ poor behavior goes without repercussions.
“One of the misconceptions about PBIS is that there isn’t discipline attached to it, and there definitely is,” said GE principal Theresa Taylor. “There’s still missed recess and phone calls home and writing an apology letter, all those things that we continue but again the discipline is meant to reshape their thinking and help them understand how they could’ve fixed it.”
At Sugar Creek, Brunner said students still have to work out problems, but now they do it among themselves with some guidance from the adults who were involved, rather than immediately sending a student to the office and creating an authoritative reputation for the principal.
“Instead of the office is the bad guy, it’s kind of closely connected to restorative justice,” Brunner said. “They sort of own that problem with the adult that was there. You sent yourself to the office … so you’ve got to fix it with them … here in my presence.”
At CKCS, Stousland said the positive reinforcement -- the tree in his office -- can even help send a message to a student in trouble.
“Even the kids that come in here for discipline reasons, the first thing they see is that tree,” he said. “That’s that reminder, without even saying anything, ‘look at all these kids that are doing great things.’”
In some cases, it can even mean negative behaviors are recognized and pointed out more often, as a result of increased data collection.
“We’re really actually reacting more than we were in the past by having this because we’re documenting everything that we’re seeing, really,” Taylor said.
That documentation is a key component of full implementation of PBIS.
To qualify as an official PBIS-certified school, a school has to submit its data on behavior issues, specifically the number of Office Discipline Referrals, or ODRs, which indicate the time, setting and type of behavior a student was punished for.
“We had some data, but more what we’d call ‘major incidences,’ but we didn’t have the kid who was sent down for a 10-minute break,” Stousland said. “But we should.”
Having that data allows administrators to track when the most trouble occurs and what setting it occurs in, such as second-grade recess at Sugar Creek, with data specific enough to recognize problems had only become regular when footballs were introduced.
“The data was telling us something, and what it was is that they didn’t know how to play football,” Brunner said.
That knowledge allowed them to add another supervisor for a time to teach the kids how to play football without fighting.
According to Brunner, the data they’ve been able to collect has led to national recognition for their behavioral changes, specifically as the school has closed the gap in disproportionate punishments for African-American boys.
“We’re still disproportional but it’s not nearly what it used to be,” he said.
Some schools that are working with some of the PBIS framework aren’t as far along with the data aspect, such as Country View, but Kraemer hopes the school will get there eventually.
And at New Century School, where they reviewed the schoolwide expectations last fall to better establish the program, director Jim Ruder said the data could affect the school’s schedule for next year.
“It’s helping us make those decisions as we look at the schedule for next year,” he said, whether that’s adding a new recess period based on when recess problems are occurring or knowing what skills to reteach.
While the program sets out basic standards and ideas for how to reward students, it also allows for personalization at different schools with different communities and issues.
“It’s not like a canned program,” said Nolting. “You can do what fits your building and your staff and your students. You can make it your own, but yet it’s still following that framework.
“We actually have data that speaks to what behavior really looks like at Glacier Edge and we can measure change. If we’re not seeing what we want, the data tells us where we need to focus our attention next.”
That leaves some schools in the district with the ability to take certain ideas from PBIS, such as the positive reinforcement or consistent expectations, while not subscribing fully to the program itself.
That’s how Country View and Verona Area International School are approaching their behavioral programs, as they work out the best combination of features from PBIS and other behavioral programs.
Stoner Prairie principal Mike Pisani, whose school is in its first year of looking at PBIS and will offer trainings to its teachers in August, said the positive reinforcement ideas make the approach stand out.
“It’s like anything that you do the first time as an adult, if somebody was there saying, ‘You did this wrong, you did this wrong, you did this wrong,’” Pisani said. “You don’t need somebody to point out what you did wrong; you need someone to point to what to do right.
“Positives doesn’t really create conflict. It doesn’t mean it’s just all sunshine, it means when things are going the way they’re supposed to, we highlight that.”
The schools also offer different types of rewards, with some, like at Country View, opting for parties or a game of kickball with the lunch staff, while others, like Glacier Edge, choose recognition over the announcements and calls home to parents for good behavior. But the schools will continue to innovate, as well, like having a “golden plunger” to reward bathroom behavior next year at GE.
“I think we’ll always feel like we’re implementing, because it will be important for us every year to look at the new teachers we have in the building, the new students we have in the building,” Taylor said. “It’s always relooking at what’s working, what maybe has lost its momentum.”