Schools reap rewards of promoting positive behavior

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By Tom Wilmoth

    A new initiative to promote positive behavior in Bedford County Public Schools is showing impressive results. And people are noticing.


    Recently, Bedford Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Robert Louis Harrison Jr. gave out awards to school administrators, praising them for their work through the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program. The goal of the program—in partnership with students, families and the school community—is to “create a safe, supportive and successful learning environment.”
    The program’s focus is built on teaching, modeling and recognizing positive behavior within the school community. The program’s mantra: “Showing respect and responsibility, everyday for everyone.”
    And it’s working.
    Last year the school district reduced suspensions overall by 341 instances.
    Many schools, having implemented the program, have seen significant improvement in the number of students being disciplined.
    Judge Harrison, who helped the school system develop its code of student conduct, came to the school system wanting to share strategies for promoting positive behavior he had learned from his training. He has worked with leadership teams in developing the program with the school system and is seeing, and through his awards rewarding, the school system’s efforts.

Promoting positive behavior
    To achieve these goals, the schools have begun promoting positive behavior rather than just reacting to negative behavior.
    That means clearly defining and teaching expectations, stated Dr. Cherie Whitehurst, assistant superintendent for BCPS. And it means promoting the same expectations throughout the school and the school system. And having consistent consequences both for positive and negative behavior.
    “We teach the expectations and we model those expectations,” Dr. Whitehurst said.
    This is done in a variety of ways.
    At Staunton River High School, students and school staff team together to produce an engaging and fun video that is shown throughout the school to showcase proper behavior and expectations. Teachers take on the roles of being taught the positive behavior by the students.
    It’s fun and gets the point across to students on what is expected of them in a variety of situations.

One school’s results
    The school’s suspensions dropped by 193 from the 2011-2012 school year to the 2012-2013 year, a 50 percent decrease. And the numbers for 2013-2014 continued to display positive results.
    This year is the third full school year for SRHS to utilize PBIS. Part of its program also includes promoting the school’s “High Five:” respecting yourself and others; obeying the cell phone and electronic device rules, being on time and in class all day, every day; obeying the dress code; and understanding that hand holding is the only acceptable form of PDA (public displays of affection). These “High Five” goals are posted throughout the school, promoted through the video and students are rewarded by following them.
    Good deeds and behaving appropriately are opportunities for students to have good referrals and students who have no discipline referrals are entered into monthly drawings for prizes.  School staff write positive referrals for students they observe “going above and beyond” expectations.
    The standard: to practice these behaviors “all day, every day,” stated SRHS assistant principal Josh Cornett. “Our staff is committed to this,” he said.
    By being consistent throughout the school with expectations and consequences, Cornett said it gives the students better opportunities to follow and meet the expectations of proper behavior.
    “This program has given our teachers tools (to use),” he said.
    And there is coordination among schools. Cornett said the high school and Staunton River Middle School work together. “When students come to the high school (from the middle school), it’s pretty much the same,” he said of the expectations and how the program is implemented.
    And students appreciate being recognized for their positive behavior. “It starts to build momentum with other positive behavior,” he said.

Learning to be good citizens
    Dr. Whitehurst said students come not just to learn their studies but also “to learn to be citizens as well.” With that in mind, each school set up a leadership team to oversee the implementation of PBIS at their respective schools. These teams look at the discipline data and develop the rules that need to be enforced.
    Periodically, those teams get together as a district and schools share what is working with one another.
    Mentoring programs, student goal setting and good behavior rewards have been some of the initiatives utilized by schools, stated Tammy Donahue, the district coordinator for PBIS. Students recognized for their good behavior might receive special privileges and prizes.
    Mentors act as advocates for students and help coach them on their behavior.

The tier system
    The program includes a tier system to promote the positive behavior. Most of the students, about 80 percent, fall into the first tier, that includes the basic prevention methods in the classroom and school settings. Another 15 percent of students may also fall into a second tier in which specialized group systems are set up to deal with students with at-risk behaviors. A final tier, which may include 5 percent of a school’s students, involves setting up specialized, individualized systems for each student who shows high-risk behavior characteristics.
    These tiers allow for the proper focus, addressing each student and their individual needs.
    Beth Robertson, the school system’s supervisor for special services, said a student, through his behavior, is communicating a message and the school staff must be able to analyze what the function of the misconduct a student is showing is. That means analyzing what the student is getting from his misconduct and how that misconduct can be replaced with behavior that ultimately obtains the same function of what the student needs.
    The program gives teachers the opportunity to reflect on what is happening with the student socially.
    Schools must teach “the whole child,” Robertson said. “We’re just not teaching to an academic outcome.” The ultimate goal is still to teach positive behavior to that student, rather than just focusing on punishment.
    “It’s important for us to show the right answer (to the student),” Dr. Whitehurst stated.
    And, by having universal expectations, it’s easier for students to understand what is expected from everyone at the school. That is why the same proper behaviors—the same expectations—are promoted through every aspect of the school day, in every situation and in every class.
    The results are more than just numbers; it’s about helping each student.
    Though a situation may seem hopeless for a student, now “they’re able to come out on top,” Dr. Whitehurst said.