Model for a Positive Learning Community
At Eakin Elementary School, a Nashville public school a stone’s throw from Vanderbilt University, Principal Roxie Ross is putting Positive Behavior Support to work. Since Positive Behavior Support was introduced at the school a few years ago, Ross has seen the school’s atmosphere become more positive and more focused on encouraging students.
“We use Positive Behavior Support in our school every day,” she says. “It’s real for us. It’s working for us.”
Positive Behavior Support is a three-tiered model of prevention used to teach students behaviors that will help them succeed in the various settings of the school day. Its increased popularity can be tracked to the 2001 Surgeon General’s report on youth violence and the 2004 federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Both called for evidence-based approaches to promoting positive behavior. School systems across the country use Positive Behavior Support to help transform their schools into positive learning communities.
Kathleen Lane has witnessed these transformations. As associate professor of special education at Peabody, her research focuses on investigating the relationship between academic achievement and behavior. She is overseeing a private grant geared to implementing Positive Behavior Support programs and following their progress in Nashville-area public schools, including Eakin Elementary. The project began in 2005 and has goals of helping schools to design and implement comprehensive three-tiered models of prevention to better support all students. Lane’s Positive Behavior Support model is broader than the typical model, including not just behavior goals, but also academic and social goals.
“Our goal is for students to succeed in school, and they need all three segments to be successful,” she explains. “That’s why my model integrates them.”
What draws Lane to the Positive Behavior Support philosophy is that it’s proactive. “We don’t have to wait for the children to fail or struggle before we intervene,” she explains. “With Positive Behavior Support , you teach the child what you expect them to do and how you expect them to do it. It’s proactive instead of being reactionary.”
Lane believes that Positive Behavior Support levels the playing field for kids. “The faculty and staff in each school develop the expectations for their community and then help all the students learn them. All the kids know what is expected of them. We don’t wait for them to fail [misbehave] and then intervene. We tell them up front,” she says. “Of course, there are consequences if they don’t behave appropriately, but we also teach the requested behavior.”
Oddly enough, the goal of Lane’s Positive Behavior Support program is not better-behaved students. “It may look like that’s the goal, but the real goal is to increase the time available for teaching and to make that time as effective as possible.” she says. Positive Behavior Support helps the teacher have a more focused, disciplined classroom, which gives the students a receptive learning environment.
Lane explains that if a teacher can provide a safe, productive learning environment, a lot more education goes on. “It stands to reason that if you’re spending your class time on discipline problems, you’re not spending it on teaching,” she says. “If I take the time to teach the behavior and then you behave better, I can teach more and I can teach more effectively.”
“The real goal [of Positive Behavior Support] is to increase the time available for teaching and to make that time as effective as possible.”
The Positive Behavior Support approach uses three levels of prevention, with the interventions increasing with the levels. Lane likens the first, or primary, level to a vaccine, in that it teaches children the desired behavior which prevents, or vaccinates against, the undesired behavior and the associated negative consequences. About 80-85 percent of students respond to this primary intervention level, integrating the message of expected behavior and performing within those parameters. The second level is designed to reverse harm by supporting students who have not responded to the primary level. Lane says about 10-15 percent of students fall into this second level, where small group intervention with social skills or academic support is often effective. “We might work on how to resolve conflicts,” Lane says. “While a student might have learned that aggressive behavior has worked for them elsewhere, we talk about the behaviors that are appropriate in a school setting and practice using them.
“We have to be very careful not to be disrespectful to the rules of their home or their culture,” Lane cautions. “In their world, aggressive behavior may be what works for them. We focus on the concept of ‘while we’re at school, this is how we behave.’ ”
The third, or tertiary, level is for the remaining five percent of students with ongoing behavior that is dangerous, disruptive and deters others from learning. Teachers work one-on-one with these students to understand the trigger for the behavior, provide help to develop better behaviors and keep the student and others safe. “We don’t want to wait for them to fail,” Lane says. “We are looking for an intervention that helps address the problems that the child is facing and find ways to deal with them.”
Essential to all three levels is realizing that all behavior, positive or negative, serves a purpose for that person, and that understanding the reasons for a person’s behavior often uncovers the path for changing that behavior.
Lane cites an example of a young girl who repeatedly acted out during “circle time” and as a result was separated from her peers. The cycle of acting out and being separated from the group was repeated over and over. The girl’s behavior did not improve until the teacher understood that the child was profoundly shy and found circle time uncomfortable. The teacher developed a plan that encouraged a specific amount of participation in the circle, after which the student was allowed to remain in circle time, but without the anxiety or fear that she might be called on to participate.
“The behavior is always telling you something,” Lane says. “You have to ask yourself if the work is too easy or too hard, if the setting is uncomfortable. You look for a pattern of responding. In brief, you are trying to determine what the student is seeking or avoiding.”
To help the teachers identify these patterns, Lane works with them in teams to help identify the reason why students are engaging in the target behavior of interest. “We want to give the student what they need, when they need it,” Lane said. “To do that, we have to understand the function—or reason why—the behavior occurs.”
Lane’s experience as a teacher and researcher has shown her that Positive Behavior Support is useful throughout the K-12 environment, but in different ways. In elementary school, Lane has found that Positive Behavior Support has proved effective at establishing a framework for behavior that supports learning and helps build the community.
In middle and high school, she cautions, teachers have to be aware that students are faced with rules and expectations that change from teacher to teacher. “What’s OK in one teacher’s classroom may not be OK in the next teacher’s classroom, and that can be confusing to children. This is one of the reasons school site teams need to establish schoolwide expectations,” she says.
Lane says a key part of Positive Behavior Support is that it must be personalized to the community. The faculty, staff and parents must come together to decide what their culture is, what behavior they want to see and how that will be rewarded. “This doesn’t work if an expert comes in and tells the school community what the desired actions are and what the consequences will be,” she says. “Everybody has to get on board, and then they have to connect with each child.”
At Eakin Elementary, Lane worked with the faculty to help them develop the school’s expectations matrix and other Positive Behavior Support components to fit their school’s culture. “We had several meetings, and they led us through several exercises to help us develop our plan,” Ross says. “We incorporated our character education virtues into the program.”
At Eakin, Positive Behavior Support is taught in the classroom starting with the first day of school, when the teachers outline the behavior expected in the school—from the classroom to the hallways to the cafeteria and even when the students are outside on the playground, arriving or leaving school, and riding the bus. The expectations are listed on a matrix that is posted throughout the school and included in the parents’ handbook.
Ross says that with the matrix, teachers look for students who are behaving appropriately and reward them with a ticket. The tickets are redeemable for drawings of special privileges, including “Positive Behavior Support Yoga with Ms. Ross” and eating lunch with friends at a special table in the cafeteria. The Positive Behavior Support rewards even extend to the teachers. Ross says that teachers earn tickets for using positive language, managing tasks such as turning in report cards before the deadline and being responsible and safe.
Even with the schoolwide embrace of Positive Behavior Support, Ross acknowledges that she still sees a small percentage of children who aren’t behaving. The secondary- and tertiary-level supports of Positive Behavior Support give the faculty new lenses for looking at the problem. “Every kid can do better, and the teacher has a role in that,” she says. “When a child is causing a problem, we can sit down and focus on the behavior and come up with a strategy. That encouraging philosophy really affects how we deal with things.”