When the alternative school at which I work was formed in 1981, it was really just an experimental program begun by the University of Vermont (UVM) in order to work with at-risk teens. Over the last 30 years it has evolved into a separate school for students in special education who need intensive behavior management and social skills training as well as school work at their academic level that serves to improve their basic skills. I have been teaching at the school for the last 17 years and we’ve made many changes to the behavior management program that we use. Last year we began working on becoming a trauma-informed learning environment. It opened our eyes to some of the major causes of significant behavior patterns and social skills deficits (for more information on this, go to StudentsFirst.org). We had been working to implement more PBIS interventions (though, by definition, we were already a tier 2 placement), but after training on the brain and trauma, we completely re-vamped our entire behavior management system.
PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, is a buzzword of late. Educators have been finding that zero tolerance policies and harsh punishments are not serving to help students or to improve behavior. This article by Russel Skiba and Reece Peterson, this article by Stephanie Martinez, and this article by Richard Vertugo all reinforce the fact that zero tolerance policies aren’t in the best interest of students. PBIS is one way that schools can work to improve student culture and, therefore, behavior.
We have only three rules, or expectations (as we call them) at our school: be safe, be respectful, be productive. We decided to dissolve our number coding system of behaviors and work to encompass our coding system in a positive way. We decided to make our three categories: safe, respectful, productive. Here is how we have worded our new behavior system:
1. Use strategies to calm down
2. Stay in your own personal space
3. Keep a neutral or relaxed posture when problem-solving
4. Use non-threatening words and body language
5. Take a break when needed or directed
1. Follow directions
2. Give feedback
3. Accept feedback
4. Use public-appropriate language with peers and staff
5. Motivate and support yourself, peers and staff
6. Respect property
1. Follow specific class expectations
2. Be on task
3. Listen and participate in class
4. Give your best effort
5. Follow your schedule
On our data collection sheets, each student has a chart of intervals marked out in 10 minute increments. When a student is doing something on that list above, they receive a code in their chart (for example, an on task student would receive: P2). Likewise, if a student is not doing something in that list above they would receive a code as well. When teachers use the behavior management system appropriately, they will shape behavior with something like: “thanks for hearing what I had to say; that’s nice accepting feedback,” or when they have to give negative feedback, “I’m counting on you that next time you will take a break when directed to.” We try to frame things more positively rather than emphasizing the negative with something like, “you never take a break when I tell you to.” When we meet with parents (every 2 weeks), we are able to talk about the mostly positive things their son or daughter has done–which is very different than what they’ve experienced in past parent-teacher meetings. It serves to create a positive and lasting influence on the students and their parents.