Oh, Behave

January 01, 2000 5 min read
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Once upon a time, students ran amok at Fern Ridge Middle School in Elmira, Oregon. “The school was really in disarray,” vice principal Doug Kartub recalls. “Kids were doing just about anything they wanted to do.” The 560-student school, in a working-class community about 20 miles from the University of Oregon, had severe problems with discipline. Principal Susan Taylor-Greene says as many as 200 students were referred to the office each week. “The teachers felt that, if they were consistent enough, the referrals would change the students’ behavior,” she says.

But they didn’t. Desperate, the school agreed to try a new behavior-management system developed by researchers at the University of Oregon. Dubbed Effective Behavior Support, the system is a schoolwide approach to student discipline. After everyone in a school-from the principal to bus drivers-agrees to make discipline a top priority, a smaller group maps out a comprehensive plan to create a schoolwide system.

Effective Behavior Support
Here are some essential elements of the Effective Behavior Support system:
  • Social skills training for students;
  • Academic restructuring, such as taking the first two days of an academic semester to orient new students to the code of conduct, give tours, and demonstrate acceptable behavior;
  • Flexibility with resources, such as reallocating funds and teachers’ roles;
  • Behavioral interventions that address areas where students are having problems; and
  • Schoolwide goals, generally from three to five, that must be stated positively and have the consensus of staff members. The staff must also demonstrate the goals and teach students how to apply them. For example, “being responsible’’ could be translated into having children put their gym shoes away after class.

More information about positive behavior modification and the Oregon program is available online at:

At Fern Ridge, a faculty team agreed on five goals, which they called “High-Fives": Be respectful, be responsible, hands and feet to self, follow directions, and be there/be ready. As rewards for meeting those behavior goals, staff members gave out tickets that could be redeemed for treats such as popcorn and snow cones or extra time during lunch breaks. Teachers plastered printed signs advertising the High-Fives throughout the school, and students soon coveted the coupons.

After four years, the faculty committee in charge of the Fern Ridge project reported that office referrals had declined by 68 percent. The panel also wrote that “the school climate has changed significantly.”

Over the next few years, Fern Ridge officials will analyze links between the schoolwide program and academic improvements. Faculty members say it’s worked well so far. “The success of the program has done more than anything to empower people,” Taylor-Greene claims. “We have a sense of pride, and it’s a very different place now.”

Effective Behavior Support works because it is more than a school discipline code, say University of Oregon professors George Sugai and Robert Horner, the architects of the program. Horner describes it as “an application of things we’ve known for a long time but never used on a large scale.”

Designing the model, the two special education professors studied more than 600 research papers on disruptive behavior in schools. So-called positive behavior supports-verbal praise, tangible rewards, and the like-had shown promise when used with severely disabled students, and the duo concluded they might work for entire schools.

The program they developed doesn’t do away with punishments altogether. Schools still need a “basic lid” system to handle office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions, particularly when students pose a danger to themselves or others. But Horner and Sugai say the program aims chiefly to prevent disruptive behavior, not punish it. Adults have to identify ideal behavior, teach what’s expected, and constantly model and remind students what is appropriate. “All the research shows that if you’re only reactive and only punitive, you’ll fail,” says Horner.

Administrators who adopt the Effective Behavior Support system must first create a data-collection system to track the number of students referred to the principal’s office, their offenses, and the location of the violations. Horner and Sugai consider such systems key to helping a school target problem areas. Often, violations involve a large number of students in one area-such as the lunchroom or playground. That could point to a problematic archi tectural feature, such as a too-narrow entry between classes. The data also could indicate that one type of behavior problem is more prevalent than another, or that a few students are causing a disproportionate share of the problems.

Once these trends are identified, a team of staff members identifies behavioral goals and their corollary rules. For example, at Patterson Elementary and Family School in Eugene, Oregon, another program site, the “be safe” goal requires students to walk facing forward on the right side of the hall. In the cafeteria, “be responsible” means raising a hand to ask to be excused.

Teachers undergo training to learn to teach the goals and reward students for positive behavior. Each student is required to memorize the goals. Before the start of the school year, Fern Ridge brings in its incoming 6th graders for a full day of tours and training. Then the goals are re-emphasized in January, when students return from winter break.

The Oregon model seeks to use only existing resources and usually costs schools $2,000 to $3,000 a year for supplies and additional staff time. Though such schoolwide discipline programs may seem like an easy concept, researchers emphasize that rethinking a school’s structure requires heavy lifting. Some schools, once they realize the time and commitment involved, decline to take part. “Everyone’s interested in buying in,” says Terrence Scott, a professor of special education at the University of Kentucky who is working to implement the program in several Lexington-area schools. “But they want to take the pieces that don’t involve so many hours.” Once schools implement the system and see the benefits, though, most acknowledge that the effort was worth the time. “What we found is, after the first year, the data keep them going,” says Scott.

Horner and Sugai admit that their program doesn’t always work. One challenge is to consistently maintain a system through changes in administration and teaching staff. Larger schools also find it harder to make the approach work. Finally, the program has not been tried with older students, although Sugai and other researchers are attempting to modify the model for high schools in Hawaii and British Columbia. “High schools are very different animals,” Sugai observes. “The challenge for us in high schools is that the students have another option-to drop out.”

--Joetta L. Sack


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