Special Report
School Climate & Safety

School Enlists Tiered Approach to Discipline

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 28, 2011 8 min read
Eighth grader Andro Benard, 14, reviews his behavior ratings at the end of Shawna A. Moore’s language arts class at Sylvester Middle School in Burien, Wash. As part of the school’s PBIS program, each day teachers rate 20 students, including Andro, on how well they demonstrate “five P’s”: being prompt, positive, polite, prepared, and productive.

Depending on what class he is in, 13-year-old Kumar Teve behaves noticeably differently.

During a recent science class, for instance, the 7th grader repeatedly called loudly for his teacher when he wasn’t sure what to do next on an assignment, and he didn’t proceed until his teacher gave him individual coaching. But later the same day in language arts class, Kumar didn’t holler for his teacher at all. He followed classwide instructions and led a group of students in creating a poster about what they could learn from “text features.”

The same is true for 14-year-old Andro Benard. In a mid-January mathematics class, the 8th grader frittered away time chatting with a girl or fidgeting rather than solving the problems assigned him. In English class the next day, though, he completed all his work; in drama, he cooperated with other students on a pantomime.

Kumar and Andro are among 20 youths participating in an intervention here at Sylvester Middle School in which educators identify student behavioral patterns by having teachers rate the students’ behavior each class period. The effort is a component of how the school has rolled out a discipline approach called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

Used in growing numbers of schools nationwide, PBIS, like response to intervention, is a multitiered framework in which educators screen students to identify areas of weakness and then use progressively intensive interventions to address them. While response to intervention is most often used to pick up young students with reading problems or special education needs, educators here in the Highline school district, a suburban system 10 miles south of Seattle, view it as a schoolwide tool for managing student discipline that, in the end, will carve out more time for students to focus on learning.

“It tells us—the adults—that these kids are not bad all of the time, and it’s not deep into their DNA,” said George Sugai, a professor at the Center for Behavioral Education and Research at the University of Connecticut and an early developer of the PBIS approach.

Districtwide Effort

According to Mr. Sugai, 12 states provide strong support for schools to implement PBIS. Washington is not one of them, but the Highline district, nonetheless, is using PBIS in all 18 of its elementary schools, its four middle schools, and three of its 11 high schools.

With the help of a federal grant, an elementary school in the district experienced success in using PBIS starting in the 1998-99 school year, and the approach was expanded to five additional elementary schools in the 2002-03 school year. A second federal grant brought more expansion.

John P. Welch, the superintendent of the 17,500-student district, says PBIS is now one of the school system’s top priorities. “You have to have practices and structures that enable students to learn,” he said.

The PBIS approach goes hand-in-hand, Mr. Welch said, with the district’s use of response to intervention to boost student achievement in math and reading.

Q&A on PBIS

Q: For more than a month now, you’ve been checking in with your teachers practically every class on how you’re doing on the five P’s—prompt, prepared, polite, positive, and productive. Do you think it’s helping you to do better in school? If so, how? If not, why not?

Andro Benard, 14 a student at Sylvester Middle School, Burien, Wash.:

A: “It’s helping me out. It makes sure that I know I’m staying on track and doing my work and not talking to others. It’s a good thing to know that my teachers care enough to make sure I’m doing right.”

Q: Is there one of the five P’s that’s most difficult for you? If so, why?

A: “The most difficult is productive because sometimes I get off track and don’t do my work. If I stay productive, then I mostly get all 2’s [the highest rating].”

He noted that PBIS is now sustained at the district level by Tricia Robles, who was a special education teacher in the elementary school that piloted PBIS and is now the district’s PBIS coordinator. The district is in its third year of supporting her position with its own funds and having a districtwide PBIS team in place.

Not only does the superintendent credit PBIS with reducing the number of students across the district who are referred to the office for disciplinary reasons each year, but he believes it has helped to curb disproportionately high rates of disciplinary office referrals among students of color.

At eight out of the 10 elementary schools for which the school district has reliable PBIS data, the proportion of Hispanic pupils referred to the office at least once for discipline has been lower or within 2 percent of the school’s percentage of Hispanics enrolled for each of the last two school years. That’s also true for African-American students at five schools. But only one school saw a drop in disproportionate discipline rates for both groups in that time.

At Sylvester Middle, one of the goals of the PBIS team is to figure out where they can provide extra support. Is Kumar, for instance, acting out in a particular class because he is struggling academically and needs extra help in that subject? Or is the 7th grader not staying on track because his teacher needs more support to plan structured lessons and manage classes?

The Five P’s

The school spent more than two school years putting in place the first level of intervention for PBIS, or “Tier 1,” which calls for establishing and implementing schoolwide expectations for student conduct. The expectations are communicated as five P’s: being prompt, positive, polite, prepared, and productive.

Paraprofessional Alisa Minar’s desk is littered with blue performance reports for Andro and other students prior to morning check-in at Sylvester Middle.

During the fall semester, staff members collected and analyzed data to select 20 of the school’s 674 students for a second level of intervention. In January, the school rolled out a “Tier 2” plan, the second level of intervention developed for those students, including Kumar and Andro.

The school has yet to carry out a third level of intervention that would provide individualized responses for any of those 20 students who don’t meet the expectations set out for them in Tier 2.

Mr. Sugai said it was wise for educators at Sylvester to have taken their time in adding a second level. PBIS doesn’t work well unless it’s first implemented schoolwide, he said. Typically, he said, a school PBIS team can get 80 percent to 90 percent of teachers on board. School administrators usually need to use a response-to-intervention framework to help the remaining teachers develop the openness or skills to be meaningful participants, he said.

The first tier of intervention at Sylvester Middle brought the number of office referrals down from an average of 5.7 per day during the 2007-08 school year to 2.5 per day during the 2009-10 school year—well below the national average of 6.5 per day, according to data collected by the school.

Keeping Track

Each morning, Andro, Kumar, and the other students selected for the Tier 2 intervention get a blue sheet of paper with the five Ps written on it and a pep talk from Alisa Minar, a paraprofessional with a gift for fostering good rapport with students. The students give the blue paper to their teachers at the beginning of every period, and each teacher meets with the student briefly at the end of the class to choose a rating on a scale from zero to 2 for how the student performed on each of the five Ps.

At the end of the day, each student turns in the blue paper to Ms. Minar, and she briefly discusses the day’s ratings with the student. She records the data from the blue slips in a computer-software program developed by the University of Oregon, so that the school PBIS team can analyze it for patterns.

“The hope is the incentive [for students] would be that positive interaction they would have with adults,” said Kyle Linman, Sylvester’s assistant principal.

The Tier 2 intervention, though just begun, seems to have had a positive effect on both Kumar and Andro.

Andro checks his radish seed experiment in science class. He is learning about the effects of temperature on the germination of seeds.

“It shows how improved you are in class,” said Kumar, an English-language learner from the Samoan Islands.

During the first week of the intervention this semester, about half the 20 students did not check in and out with Ms. Minar every day. She dutifully sent their blue slips to them during first period, however, if they were in school. Two students were often absent, she said, but after a month of implementation, only one was failing to report to her at all. Three were “hit or miss,” she said.

PBIS has worked its way into Sylvester’s culture in several ways.

During morning announcements recently, Vicki Fisher, the principal, noted that the schoolwide behavioral goal for that week was “being responsible.” Five students nominated by their teachers for demonstrating that trait were to take turns leading all students in the Pledge of Allegiance over the intercom for the week. Ms. Minar also gave them a certificate and hung a poster with their photos in a hallway.

Teachers also hand out “Tomcat cards” for good behavior, tickets named after the school’s mascot. Each is good for one chance in a weekly drawing for small prizes or privileges. Students also can win the opportunity to visit an activity room outfitted with Wii games and foosball during lunch or other free time.

PBIS in Action

Some teachers have embraced PBIS more than others. Alayna Gagnier, a language arts teacher, handed out Tomcat cards to students who gave correct answers during a warm-up exercise. She also has established a system to give out points for small feats such as quieting down quickly after she signals and staying on task for an activity. Her classes compete to be the “King Class” each week. The winning class gets a treat, such as hot chocolate.

Shawna A. Moore, a language arts teacher on the schoolwide PBIS team, takes a more preventative approach. For example, Andro sits at a desk by himself rather than clustered with other students because, as Andro testifies, it helps keep him from getting distracted. A couple of times during a recent class, Ms. Moore also reminded another student in the Tier 2 intervention to “focus,” when she seemed on the verge of becoming distracted.

Both teachers also give clear, step-by-step instructions for any task assigned to students.

So perhaps it isn’t a surprise that Kumar got all top marks on his blue slip in Ms. Gagnier’s class one day early in the semester, and Andro got the highest marks on his blue slip in Ms. Moore’s class, though their scores were lower in some other classes. “He’s gone from night to day,” Ms. Gagnier said of Kumar. “He used to ‘boo’ my class. He was really negative. It’s changed his attitude. He’s trying,” she said.

Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as A Progressive Approach to Discipline

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