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PBIS system changing things for the better, local educators say

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Catherine W. Idzerda
October 22, 2011
— No shouting in the library.

No throwing gravel at recess.


And at no point should hot lunch items leave your plate, go airborne and hit another diner—even if this would be really, really funny.


As grown-ups, those rules seem self-evident, the statutory equivalent of being told to breathe oxygen.


For kids, however, school rules can seem arbitrary—especially if they conflict with what’s allowed at home.


That’s the principle behind Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a disciplinary system that’s changing local schools in tangible ways. Office referrals are down, detention and suspensions are down, and unwanted hot lunch items also are staying put, despite their potential for flight.


Dead horses

Parents, teachers and taxpayers are bound to be suspicious of another acronym program promising fabulous results.


But what schools are doing now isn’t working, said Nic Dibble, a school social work consultant for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.


Studies show that “exclusion and punishment” are the most common responses to behavior problems, Dibble said.


Studies also show those tactics are ineffective in the long-term reduction of problem behavior.


“When the horse is dead, it’s time to dismount,” Dibble said in an online DPI video about PBIS. “You don’t try to get better feed, you don’t try a different saddle.”


Just as children are taught reading and writing, they also need to be taught what is expected of them at school.


Home rules, school rules

Wilson Elementary School in Janesville recently was named a “School of Merit” for its PBIS program, Principal Kim Peerenboom said.


PBIS provides a structure for discipline rather than a universal set of rules, she said.


“The rules are based on what each school needs,” she said.


At Wilson, the school’s slogan is, “Be safe, be respectful, be responsible.”


“At the beginning of the year, we teach all the students what it looks like, sounds like and feels like to be safe, be respectful and be responsible,” Peerenboom said.


Here’s what that means in real life: Leave rocks on the ground, go up the ladder and down the slide, follow adult directions the first time, use and return items properly, wash your hands after using the rest room, don’t blurt out the answers and return your classmates crayons after using them.


“The essence of PBIS is that you can’t assume kids are taught these rules at home,” Peerenboom said. “We do a lot of talking about home versus school rules—we might have different expectations at school than you do at home.”


Data then action

For all incidents, PBIS requires administrators to collect data—type, time, place and adult involved.


The data sometimes yields unexpected problem areas with easy solutions.


At Phoenix Middle School in Delavan, Charles Tollefsen, vice principal, discovered clusters of incidents around lunch period. Staff was asked to circulate through the lunchroom, “to find out where the buzz is, to be aware of what’s going on and to be more visible.”


Office referrals from that time period dropped significantly.


Part of PBIS is rewarding students for basics such as being on time to class, copying down assignments without the teacher having to ask and using appropriate language.


Students are rewarded “star bucks” to use for prizes or to enter into drawings for larger, quarterly prizes, Tollefsen said.


Why reward students for following through on such basic expectations? Because the expectations aren’t basic to students. To them, a little bit of talk amongst themselves before the class starts doesn’t seem like such a big deal. Dropping a curse word here or there might be allowed at home.


Delavan-Darien High School Principal Mark Schmitt claims teaching and reinforcement reaches about 80 percent of students. For others, a more intensive approach is needed.


At both the middle schools and the high school in the Delavan-Darien School District, teachers, administrators and school counselors meet to discuss “students of concern.”


“You have to remember that a behavior doesn’t exist in a background,” Phoenix Principal Mark Weerts said.


Social anxiety, depression, problems at home, cognitive disabilities all are factors that can impact student behavior. Sometimes students need one-on-one help from a counselor, a daily check-in from a staff member or other special assistance.


At Delavan-Darien High School, PBIS started in the 2009-10 school year, Schmitt said.


He and a team of teachers worked to create the “Comet Code.” Its basics are: Be safe, be responsible, be respectful and be a learner.


The code was introduced in the 2010-11 school year, and students learned what was expected of them through a series of assemblies and other events.


“This is our second year, and it’s really become the way we live our lives together,” Schmitt said. “It’s the way we learn together.”


BEHAVIORAL DATA

Parents, teachers and administrators have seen discipline programs go in and out of fashion. The supporters of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports say they have data to back up this one.


-- At Delavan-Darien High School, office disciplinary referrals decreased 15 percent compared to the same time last year, and fights have decreased 50 percent.


-- At Phoenix Middle School, Delavan, in-school and out-of-school suspensions have dropped more than 50 percent, and lunch detentions have dropped 81 percent for the month of September. In September 2010, there were 141 office referrals. This year, there were 69.


-- At Wilson Elementary School, Janesville, there were 47 office referrals for October 2010. As of Oct. 21 this year, there were 20.



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