What Does Positive Discipline Look Like?

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With the Federal government setting new guidelines that discourage zero-tolerance policies, schools are using all kinds of new systems when kids misbehave. One approach gaining traction across the country is called PBIS – Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support. It’s a strategy based on rewarding kids for following school rules – instead of removing them from school when they mess up.

About 20,000 of the nation’s schools have adopted it, and the federal government has invested in technical support for states and districts using this approach. But what does it look like?

At Floyd Elementary in Sacramento, when kids get in trouble, they end up on something called “check-in / check out.”

Second-grader Aubery Galloway got put on check-in/check out after being too disruptive in his second grade class.

So today, at 9:30 a.m., like most mornings, he’s got to meet with Michelle Blanton — who’s kind of like his behavior coach. She sits down with him as they look over his behavior card. This is the check-in part.

She said, “So yesterday in the very beginning of the day, you got all 2’s on your card– perfect… How do you get a two?”

“For being good… by working hard,” said Galloway.

Every day, Aubery gets rated by his teachers on different behaviors. He’s got a little white paper card that he carries around. He can get a 0, 1, or 2 on his card — 2’s are the best. That’s how Aubery started off yesterday. But after lunch, his numbers started dropping.

Blanton said, “After lunch today I want to make sure you’re working really hard to make sure you’re getting all 2’s on your card — keeping your hands and feet to yourself and staying focused. So, I’ll take this back and I’ll put your points on your chart, and you come see me after school with your card and I’ll put the rest of your points on there.”

That meeting she’s talking about at the end of the day is the “check-out” part of this system. If students get enough points, they earn prizes and privileges. Aubery chose to be the principal’s helper for the day.

“I think they really like having somebody to check in.. And so I tell them they can come see me and check in any time — come give me a hug, ’cause I know that’s what you want!” said Blanton.

That’s key in positive discipline — close attention from adults. A big reason suspending kids has fallen out of favor is research showing that it’s a punishment handed out disproportionately to black and Latino students.

Positive discipline has been around for more than 20 years, and research shows it can improve the social and academic climate at struggling schools like this one. But some experts still have reservations.

George Bear is a professor of Education at the University of Delaware who studies school discipline and self-discipline.

“Some students will tell you that those teachers or coaches who are constantly praising you — almost regardless of your performance or rewarding you regardless of your performance — then they don’t take those rewards and that praise that seriously,” said Bear.

Administrators at Floyd say rewards are tied to specific outcomes, and they still offer critique to kids along with the praise.

And the kids I met at Floyd say the program works for them. They say that in addition to the prizes, they also like the learning strategies it offers. And they’re quick to point out that there are still consequences for misbehaving. They can lose privileges like recess.

Fourth grader O’Shay Turner went on check-in /check-out last year, but this year, he hasn’t needed it. I asked him why he needed it last year.

“For actin’ up a little,” said Turner. “My attitude towards teachers,” he added.

Disrespecting teachers is a BIG no-no here at this school. Core expectations are reinforced everywhere on campus — in the cafeteria, the library, and even in the bathroom.

I watched as Blanton crammed into a boy’s bathroom with a dozen fidgety third grade boys, showing them how to use the urinal without making a mess. On the walls were signs about keeping your voice down, and throwing away your trash.

“I do not want to clean up pee from the floor, I’m telling you right now,” said Blanton, as kids laughed.

So with all this effort, is it working? Principal Billy Aydlett says it depends on what you’re looking at. He can’t say that using positive discipline has helped the school’s test scores. In fact, they’ve gone down.  But he says he sees a difference in his school every day in the way kids behave with each other.

“We cannot suspend our way out of the problems that exists at our school, and I don’t think school districts can suspend their way into rising test scores or doing the right thing by kids,” said Aydlett.

The principal says it’s a big change for this school: educators know they’re responsible for helping all the children learn, not just those who already know how to behave.


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