If a child can’t read, we teach him to read. If a child can’t write, we teach him to write. If a child can’t behave, we punish him.
This saying — well-known to many who work with youth in schools — highlights the double standard that has long existed in education. In recent years, though, there’s been a major shift toward helping students learn to behave.
One recent initiative has expanded that concept through a practice called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS). Oaklawn received a grant from the State of Indiana specifically for participating schools to increase their implementation of PBIS. The grant totaling nearly $900,000 will benefit 30 local schools.
“PBIS works through teaching expectations rather than punishing negative behaviors,” explained Bonnie Raine, Oaklawn’s system of care coordinator, who managed the project. “Eighty percent of kids in school will be helped by teaching expectations, re-teaching expectations and reinforcing expectations in a positive way.”
The remaining 20 percent often don’t respond because they’re facing challenges, such as a disability, a trauma history or a mental health concern, she said. That makes PBIS not only a way to develop a positive culture within schools, but also a way to help identify youth facing a mental health issue.
That’s what the state of Indiana intended to do through offering the grants to implement PBIS. The money, which came from Medicaid, was for promoting mental health in schools, and the schools would have to work with their local community mental health center to do it. Thirty eligible schools — 11 from Elkhart Community Schools, 18 from South Bend Community School Corporation and one from School City Mishawaka — opted to pursue the grant.
It was a tremendous effort by the staffs involved, which began in September with recruiting a PBIS team at each school. Oaklawn staff members participated as mental health representatives on each of the 30 school teams. By December, each team had to conduct initial school-wide assessments and write implementation plans. Each school received $15,000 at that time to implement their plans, with another $13,900 paid out after their final reports were submitted in May, and the funds can be used during the next school year, as well.
In many schools, the money was used to fund the materials necessary to promote PBIS to students. A common element of PBIS is naming core values — which sets the expectation for how every student should behave in school — often using an acronym to help students remember. For example, one school chose the acronym SOAR: Safety, Ownership, Attitude and Respect. Some of that school’s funds went to printing posters with the values to hang around the school and rewards for staff to use to reinforce good behavior.
Lisa Dixon, a team leader at Oaklawn, served on the PBIS teams at Jackson, Brown and Greene intermediate centers in South bend.
Brown used some of their funds to host a spaghetti dinner for current and incoming students and their families. Students selected quotes pertaining to their core values, artfully displayed them around the cafeteria, and at the dinner, each value was explained. They also purchased small incentives, such as pencils and T-shirts, to give to students who demonstrate those values.
“The money went toward some really good things that otherwise there wouldn’t have been funds for,” Dixon said.
The teams also thought outside the box for how they would deal with students who struggled behaviorally. At Greene, they started an alternative classroom for eight students. The small classroom size allowed them to work individually on academics and social skills.
“They saw some vast improvements in some of those kids — not only their grades, but their attitudes and their confidence levels,” Dixon said.
PBIS’ success in the schools will depend largely on the commitment of school staff, Raine said. Because of the school-wide nature of the program, it requires buy-in and intentional enforcement by everyone — from the principal to the teacher to the lunch lady.
As of now, each school is poised to continue their PBIS groups in the fall. Dixon said one school she worked with has already planned a school assembly in the first week to teach (or re-teach for returning students) the expectations. In the week after, each teacher will spend a few minutes every morning re-teaching the expectations.
“PBIS improves the school climate so students can be successful,” Raine said. “You can’t go wrong with that.”