Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports

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Creating a Positive School Climate and Accelerating Learning with PBIS

Northfield Middle & High School - Northfield, VT

When Ryan Parkman became principal of Northfield Middle & High School (NMHS) in 2012, the school didn’t have a comprehensive behavioral management system in place. “Teachers and staff were frustrated with student behavior and ready for a change,” he says. Parkman attended a Vermont Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) workshop, and brought the information back to his staff to get their feedback. “We liked the Vermont PBIS program because instead of focusing on the one student who was doing something wrong, it focuses on all the students who are doing something right,” Parkman says.

His staff unanimously agreed to move forward with PBIS and in the summer of 2013, Parkman and a team of staff members attended a program to learn about Vermont PBIS and create their own program and set of behavioral expectations. “Our expectations are Accountability and Respect for Self, Others and School, or ARRR,” Parkman says. The NMHS team then mapped out a matrix for behavioral expectations in different situations that corresponded to ARRR. They created a handbook and designed sample lesson plans for teachers to use on each aspect of the behavioral expectations. In the fall of 2013, Parkman and his team rolled out their newly designed PBIS in the middle school.

In the first two weeks of school, all middle school students learned the ARRR expectations in their Teacher Advisory (TA) class. As NMHS’s teams are called the Marauders, teachers used gold “Doubloons” to reinforce positive behaviors, such as contributing to a class discussion or picking up trash in the hallway. Middle school students added their earned Doubloons to a Treasure Chest in each TA classroom and earned a class reward, like time to play games or bring in snacks, when the chest was full. Doubloons from filled TA Treasure Chests were also delivered to the school Treasure Chest to earn the entire school PBIS Celebrations, like field days and hiking trips. Mid-year, staff rolled out another PBIS tool, which Parkman refers to as a “booster.” Students earned “Gems” when they went beyond themselves to help others. “You might get a Doubloon if you make a point in class,” says Parkman, “but if you sit down and explain something to another student – that’s Gem-worthy.” All students who earned Gems were recognized each week in a Gem ceremony and automatically entered into a drawing for a gift certificate.

“By the end of the first year, we were already seeing amazing results with middle school behavior,” Parkman says. His team implemented the PBIS program at the high school in the fall of 2014, with some modifications based on student age. “At the high school, we emphasize verbal praise and have weekly and quarterly acknowledgements of students,” says Parkman. These acknowledgements include the Marauder of the Week, which recognizes a student who has best exemplifies ARRR, and the Marauder of the Quarter, which recognizes a student for ARRR characteristics and academic achievement. While external rewards are small, staff members feel that the positive acknowledgements are part of a system that really works. “Teachers say that students are more engaged in school and schoolwork since we implemented PBIS,” says Parkman.

To ensure that PBIS is implemented well, NMHS staff members are trained in the 4-to-1 rule: they focus on providing four positive behavioral comments for every one negative comment. “It really works,” Parkman says, “because other kids are listening and the positive behavior spreads.” In addition, teachers are trained in other positive behavioral interventions, such as verbal de-escalation techniques to diffuse confrontations with students, identifying when students are in a state of anxiety, and allowing them to take a break to see a designated staff member and return to class when calmer.

This change in approach has reduced the days of suspension at NMHS by more than 90 percent. In the year before PBIS (2012-13), NMHS students were suspended for a total of 292 days. In the first year of PBIS (2013-14), that number dropped to 147 days of suspension, and in the second year, when PBIS was rolled out to the high school, the days of suspension fell to just 27 overall. Parkman says that while suspensions aren’t the only measure of behavioral problems, NMHS has fewer formal discipline issues since PBIS was implemented. In fact, total school conduct violations have decreased by 70% in just two years. NMHS’s Planning Room, which handles student discipline, has been re-envisioned since this dramatic decrease. The Planning Room coordinator is now largely focused on reducing future behavioral problems, which includes utilizing data from the universal screenings to identify students who may be in need of academic intervention.

These screenings, as part of NMHS’s Multi-Tiered System of Supports and a Response to Intervention and Instruction, are administered three times per year to measure students’ academic progress in Math, Reading and Language Usage. As a result, Parkman says, each student’s academic deficits or relative weaknesses can be identified. All NMHS students create an individual plan for learning based on their results and attend Intervention Classes, taught by classroom teachers in subject areas. NMHS also uses Study Island, an online tool that takes the results of screenings and differentiates practice work for each student. “The great thing is that this works for all students,” Parkman says, “as even students who are performing above grade level have relative weaknesses, so there’s no stigmatization.” As part of PBIS, middle school students can earn Gems when they make a double-digit gain on a screening or master a level and move up in Study Island. “We look at it as an acknowledgement of hard work, not a reward,” says Parkman. “When you have an integrated system of positive academic and behavioral interventions, you are teaching students to be aware of their actions – whether it’s related to behavior or academics.”

Now in the third year of PBIS, Parkman says that the whole school climate has changed. “For both students and teachers there has been a mental shift,” Parkman says. He explains that students are more polite, hallway behavior is better, and the whole “vibe” of the school has improved. Student cohorts have made double-digit gains in grade-level proficiency in Math and Reading in just one year. Parkman says that this change goes beyond student behavior and academics, however; the program has had an unintended positive effect on teachers as well. “By focusing on students’ positive behaviors, teachers feel better too,” he says, “and they leave the building thinking about all the good things that happened at school that day, instead of the negative ones.” He believes that reducing stress levels of teachers and giving them tools for positive behavior approaches has made students less stressed as well. “Implementing PBIS has really helped increase student engagement,” Parkman says, “and created a positive environment for instruction and learning.”

Ryan Parkman is a recipient of the Vermont Principals' Association 2014 Principal of the Year Award

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NEASC 2016-03