By Marcello Iaia
HILLTOWNS — Disruptive behavior has traditionally been met with discipline in schools. For actions, there are consequences.
Berne-Knox-Westerlo administrators are hoping to create a “positive social culture” in pre-K through eighth grade next fall to address behavior issues that cut down on time spent teaching and promote core values: “be respectful,” “be responsible,” and “be safe.”
At the Jan. 22 board of education meeting, Regina Yeo, elementary school principal, and Susan Casper, director of special education for the district, presented a comprehensive approach to behavior touted under Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports by the United States Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs.
The board gave its support for PBIS, which carries a $4,800 cost this year and $7,500 each year after, and plans to include it in its 2013-14 fiscal year budget process.
“The biggest problem we have is discipline. We hear it from teachers, from parents, from students, from everybody,” said Vasilios Lefkaditis, president of the board of education, at the Jan. 22 meeting.
Discipline reports from the beginning of the school year at BKW presented at the Jan. 7 board meeting showed a handful of students in each grade made up the bulk of referrals, which were mostly detentions and warnings. Three boys in ninth grade were involved in bullying and harassment. For the other three high school grades, one male in each grade was reported.
Yeo and Casper will begin training in March, and will co-lead a team in setting up and evaluating a school-wide set of expectations. The core expectations for BKW are hanging in the window of the elementary school cafeteria, posted on handwritten signs.
In one of three levels to the system, at least 80 percent of the community is to be demonstrating these expectations, which are aligned with other ways of acting in specific areas, like restrooms and sporting events.
“In the hallway it may say, ‘Walking in a single file, looking ahead.’ On the bus, you’re going to be saying, ‘Sitting quietly in your seat,’” said Yeo.
Further ways of reinforcing positive behaviors could include a token economy, where students and adults recognize each other’s positive behavior.
“They’re recognized publicly for what they have done, whether their name is in a roll call, or they have a special privilege, or they wear a medal for the week,” said Yeo.
Specific methods such as these, Yeo said, will not be chosen for BKW until after training.
The two other levels of PBIS, in targeted groups and students
with problem behaviors, use more specific methods of monitoring and may involve “support teams” of people closest to an individual.
“It would be based on rewarding positive behavior and retraining their behaviors into positive behaviors based on positive reinforcement and very consistent behavioral consequences,” Yeo said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Lefkaditis likened the framework to reinforcement a quarterback might use to direct a football team in a play. He wondered at the board meeting what happens with people who don’t cooperate.
“As I have seen, if the general culture moves forward, we move forward regardless,” said Yeo. Casper stressed that PBIS involves parents and community members.
Implementation would begin with a schoolwide “kick-off” with an open house in September meant to send a message of a stark change. Some districts involve community members to help demonstrate expectations in their relevant school areas.
Yeo, Casper, Secondary School Principal Brian Corey, and the new dean of students, Leonard Kies, have all received some PBIS training in districts where they used to work.
“In two years, you would see a very big cultural shift,” said Yeo. “In five years, it would be tremendous.”
The team led by Yeo and Casper will meet regularly to evaluate and change the system. Some schools analyze reporting from around the district with web-based software.
“There are surveys given out to students and staff, and progress surveys the team would be working on, to make sure you’re targeting those areas that are the highest need in the school,” said Yeo. “It also tells you how to determine your expectations, how to write your rules based on those expectations.”
The long-term hope is to extend PBIS to high-schoolers, Yeo said, who share the secondary school with seventh- and eighth- graders.
“It wouldn’t create a conflict because it would simply be sharing the expectations throughout the building,” said Yeo. Someone from the high school could be on the planning team, she said.
While the district has amended policies and its code of conduct to comply with a growing recognition of emotional needs in education over the last year, PBIS is its most encompassing effort to stem behavior problems. It pools federal and state legislation and decades of positive behavior psychology.
The 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act first legislated the use of “positive behavioral interventions” in schools.
The Dignity for All Students Act that took effect this summer in New York amended state law to include character education and teacher training in schools, to address harassment and bullying among students.
Dr. George Sugai is a University of Connecticut education professor and co-director of the federal Office of Special Education Programs Technical Assistance Center on PBIS.
In a 2000 paper titled, “Applying Positive Behavior Support and Functional Behavioral Assessments in Schools,” Sugai, et all, wrote that school interventions have long been used to address behavior that cuts down on time spent teaching, but they haven’t been data-based or provided a “contextual fit.”