School Climate & Safety

An Ounce of Prevention

By Joetta L. Sack — October 27, 1999 15 min read

Anxious for their lunch, dozens of 1st and 2nd graders quickly fall into line outside the cafeteria.

Inside, they pick up a carton of milk and choose an entree. Then it’s on to the food bar, where they carefully spoon peas, orange slices, and carrot sticks onto their brightly colored trays.

They’re enthusiastic and chatty, and like most other cafeterias, this one is a little noisy.

But the cafeteria used to be a scene of chaos at Patterson Elementary and Family School. The children fought over their food, pushed and shoved and cut in front of each other in line, and yelled and screamed, making the large room unbearably loud and disorderly.

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:

Since 1996, however, the cafeteria and the 250-student school itself have become a laboratory for testing new ways of handling behavioral problems in schools. Researchers at the University of Oregon have been working with the teachers and administrators here on a schoolwide system of behavioral supports and interventions designed to make good conduct and discipline a central and pervasive theme of every aspect of the school’s life.

By doing that, the researchers say, school officials not only can see discipline problems decline, but also can prevent many at-risk students from misbehaving. Educators here say the system is working, and that even the cafeteria--long a disciplinary trouble zone for principals everywhere--is a much calmer place.

Robert H. Horner and George Sugai have only a few blocks to walk from their offices on the university campus to the impoverished neighborhood that is home to Patterson Elementary. In the five years they’ve been testing their theories in schools, they’ve gained national attention with their approach, which brings together several theories and methods that other researchers have long advocated.

Essentially, they’re trying to bring a schoolwide approach to discipline and behavior--to make the whole school, and not just individual classrooms, a safer, more trouble-free place. And that means that all everyone in a school--from principals to bus drivers--must come together and agree to make discipline a top priority, then a focus group maps out a comprehensive plan to create a schoolwide system.

This system, known as Effective Behavior Support, goes beyond a school discipline code. It involves a system of goals and methods aimed at teaching students appropriate conduct. A school’s faculty agrees on three to five overall goals for the school, then teachers instruct students in appropriate actions to achieve those goals.

Schoolwide Model

So far, dozens of schools that have adopted such a system report impressive results, through declines in office referrals for disciplinary action, overall improvement in the school climate, or a better approach to discipline. And, perhaps most important, some research suggests that it may help keep students out of special education and provide better ways of handling students with disabilities who are included in regular classes.

“We’ve definitely impacted the school environment,” says Tim Lewis, the chairman of the special education department at the University of Missouri in Columbia, who is also working with Missouri schools that are adopting the Oregon model. “The process itself, though, is relatively new.”

Patterson Elementary, for example, has cut in half its numbers of office referrals, from an average of about three a day in the 1997-98 school year to about 1½ a day this school year.

“We started seeing a lot of change last year,” says Anma Gokhman, a teacher’s aide who supervises the lunchroom and took part along with all the school staff in the training to implement the program. “We say things over and over again so [students] really know what is expected of them.”

The timing for such research is right, as safety concerns have grown amid national headlines on school shootings, one of them only a few miles from here at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore.

“The research is so clear, that prevention is much more effective than waiting for problems to happen,” said Beth Bader, a senior research analyst with the American Institutes for Research in Washington and a former policy specialist for the American Federation of Teachers, where she studied the Oregon model. “It seems people are now looking to whole-school approaches more and more.”

Union Support

So far, more than 300 elementary and middle schools in Oregon, Hawaii, Illinois, and British Columbia in Canada have signed on to the University of Oregon model and are collaborating with a network of researchers who are helping implement the system. Other efforts are beginning in eight more states.

Not surprisingly, the program is highly praised by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs, which has given the university a five-year, $3 million grant to help disseminate the findings to schools. The program also receives money from the federal Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program.

The OSEP has touted the program’s potential both for keeping students out of special education and for handling special education students in mainstream classrooms--a top priority of the department. But its advocates say the plan reaches well beyond special education.

Its methods, Horner says, are a direct rebuttal to lawmakers’ “get tough” stands on discipline, including measures in Congress to give administrators greater power to suspend or expel disabled students.

The program has also earned praise from the American Federation of Teachers, which has long lobbied for stronger school safety measures.

John Mitchell, the deputy director of the AFT’s educational issues department, has studied the Oregon approach and says the schoolwide method could work better than other behavioral interventions. That, he explains, is because it addresses the wide range of students that schools must educate.

“They understand that you have to address the whole system ... that there are certain percentages of kids who need intensive help,” Mitchell says. “It seems to have the components that we think would help a number of schools. It’s sound research.”

Large-Scale Approach

The system can be traced to 1990, when Sugai began working with other researchers at Oregon to design a project that incorporated behavior management with staff training and instructional principles. That project eventually became the Effective Behavior Support model.

The group was concerned about the large number of U.S. students identified as emotionally and behaviorally disturbed under federal special education law, and the high dropout and unemployment rates of those students.

According to the Education Department, those enrollments are still rising: from 372,000 in the 1987-88 school year to more than 447,000 in 1996-97.

In 1994, Sugai and Horner, who had been working on behavioral strategies since 1978, began collaborating and training teachers to implement Effective Behavior Support into six local schools.

Horner describes the system as “an application of things we’ve known for a long time, but never used on a large scale.” He and Sugai, both professors of special education, studied more than 600 research papers on disruptive behavior in schools as they devised their system. Their concern--shared by most educators--was that disruptive behavior not only jeopardizes student safety, but also interferes with others’ learning and teachers’ ability to teach.

So the duo applied positive behavior supports--verbal praise, tangible rewards, and other reinforcements--which had previously shown promise when used with severely disabled students--to entire schools.

One of the premises of the Oregon model is that it works to prevent disruptive behavior before it starts by identifying ideal behaviors and promoting those actions.

“All the research shows that if you’re only reactive and only punitive, you’ll fail,” says Horner.

While a schoolwide approach may seem like an easy concept, the researchers emphasize that it takes a heavy commitment from staff members to evaluate and rethink the school’s structure.

The methods, though, do encourage school staff members to remove violent and extremely disruptive students. Schools still need a “basic lid” system to handle suspensions and office referrals, Horner adds, and some students are overtly defiant and should be removed because they are a danger to themselves or others.

Further, a large part of the model involves teaching expected behavior, and constantly modeling and reminding students what is appropriate. Before recess, for instance, Patterson Elementary teachers talk to their students about appropriate behavior on the playground.

The children must also be able to recite the schoolwide goals when asked. Principal Stella Dadson makes sure of this. In the hallway near the cafeteria, she pulls 9-year-old Malika Chandler away from the lunch line. After giving Ms. Dadson a bear hug, the 3rd grader rattles them off without a hitch: “Be respectful, be responsible, and be safe.”

While a schoolwide approach may seem like an easy concept, the researchers emphasize that it takes a heavy commitment from staff members to evaluate and rethink the school’s structure. For a program like theirs to work, the researchers say, faculty members should agree beforehand that discipline is one of the school’s top three goals, and they must unanimously commit to the schoolwide system.

Sugai says the schools typically fall into two categories: those that already have serious disruption problems, and those that are looking for ways to prevent violence and disruptive behavior.

“What makes this program tick is that everyone agrees [discipline] needs to be a top priority,” says Terrence Scott, a professor of special education at the University of Kentucky, who is also working to implement the program in several Lexington-area schools.

One school that adopted the program last year, he adds, had become bogged down by a huge number of students being referred by teachers for special education evaluations because they could not be controlled in a regular classroom.

This year, Scott says, teachers are learning to manage such students and do not refer them nearly as quickly.

Behavior ‘Pyramid’

Horner and Sugai use a pyramid to show the three levels of behavior in schools. According to their model, 80 percent to 90 percent of students do not have serious behavior problems, but schools often mistakenly believe that those children are well-versed in appropriate behavior.

Students who are at risk for problem behavior typically make up 5 percent to 15 percent of a school’s population, the theory goes. These are students who may need some individualized treatment, but, with some coaching, may respond to the schoolwide structure and behavioral supports.

The larger a school is, the harder it is to make a schoolwide approach work.

At the top of the pyramid--roughly 3 percent to 5 percent--are students with chronic and intense problem behaviors, who need one-on-one attention beyond the schoolwide model. The researchers say their model helps quickly identify such students, give them more individualized help, and find alternative placements if necessary.

Once a school determines that a schoolwide model will meet its needs and everyone commits to the structure, it must create a data-collection system. Administrators begin keeping track of how many students are referred to the office, for what offenses, and where the violations took place. The Oregon team has created an Internet-based system to help with the effort.

That process helps teachers target their main problem areas. Often, the violations will involve a large number of students in one area--such as the lunchroom or playground. That could signal an architectural flaw, such as a too-narrow entry between classes. Or it could show that one type of problem is prevalent among many students, or that a few students are causing a disproportionate share of the problems.

Once those trends are identified, a team of teachers, counselors, administrators, and other staff members identifies behavioral goals and ways of applying them in action. Patterson’s “be safe” goal, for example, means walking 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. When new students arrive, they are immediately briefed on the school policies and expected behavior. Each student is required to memorize the goals and be able to recite them.

Fern Ridge Middle School in Elmira, Ore., about 20 miles west of Eugene, brings in its incoming 6th graders for a full day of tours and training before the start of the school year.

And the goals are rehashed in January when students return from their 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.

Some schools, once they realize the time and commitment involved, decide not to take part. “Everyone’s interested in buying in,” says Scott of the University of Kentucky, “but they want to take the pieces that don’t involve so many hours.”

His team agreed last year to work with two Lexington-area schools that had “bottomed out” and were willing to put the entire program in place. The researchers are also working with several other schools that are in the early stages of customizing a model.

Next Month
In Research:

What ideas do students bring to school with them? Studies in cognition look at student misconceptions, and how to dispel them.

Once schools implement the system and begin to see their efforts pay off, though, most feel the efforts were worth the time, the researchers say.

“What we found is, after the first year, the data keeps them going,” says Scott.

Adapting to Larger Schools

Horner and Sugai acknowledge that their program doesn’t always work.One challenge is keeping a system on track through changes in administration and teaching staff.

Patterson Elementary’s Dadson says she was committed to keeping the system in place when she was hired last year. But sometimes, says Horner, new teachers have other priorities or favor other approaches.

And the larger a school is, the harder it is to make a schoolwide approach work, he says.

The program has not been tried at high schools, but Sugai and other researchers are working with some high schools in Hawaii and British Columbia in attempts to modify the model for older students. “High schools are very different animals,” Sugai acknowledges. “The challenge for us in high schools is that the students have another option--to drop out.”

Fern Ridge Middle School signed up more than five years ago, when it seemed that traditional disciplinary measures were having no effect.

“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, as well as leadership turnover.

Principal Susan Taylor-Greene, who has also served as vice principal, says she would process as many as 200 students referred to her office in a week. “The teachers felt that, if they were consistent enough, the referrals would change the students’ behavior,” she says.

In 1993, the school agreed to try the Oregon model. A faculty team agreed on five goals, which they dubbed the “High-Fives": Be respectful, be responsible, hands and feet to self, follow directions, and be there--be ready. As rewards for following the goals, staff members give out tickets that can be redeemed for items such as popcorn and snow cones, or extra time during lunch breaks.

Printed signs advertising the High-Fives are plastered throughout the school, and the high-five coupons are coveted. “People try to work harder to get High-Fives,” says Renee Johnson, an 8th grader.

‘A Sense of Pride’

“So many times the kids in the middle don’t get rewarded,” says teacher Connie Leonard, who is wearing homemade High-Five earrings. “All the energy goes to the kids you have problems with.”

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

The model has allowed teachers to home in on the most disruptive students. Counselor Doris Brown says she has more time to work with students, such as 8th grader Jessica Sinyard, who admits she used to get in trouble and scare other students with her behavior.

Jessica and Brown work on a daily progress report, which lists goals and requires Jessica’s teachers to evaluate her progress. The two meet each day to discuss the teachers’ responses.

Over the next few years, Fern Ridge officials and Horner will analyze links between the schoolwide program and academic improvements. So far, just having discipline under control has helped many students, faculty members say. “The success of the program has done more than anything to empower people,” Taylor-Green says. “We have a sense of pride, and it’s a very different place now.”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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