A values-based approach to student discipline

Do either of these situations look familiar?

1) A lunchroom monitor marches two third-grade boys into the principal’s office just as the latter was about to meet with prospective parents. A few minutes prior, several students, including Jack, had been sitting together at a table in the designated eating area eating their lunch. Shawn walked by holding a lunch bag in one hand and an open drink in the other. Shawn accidentally spilled his drink onto Jack’s new shirt. Jack jumped up and took the remainder of Shawn’s drink and poured it into his lunch bag. Both boys began to push and scream at each other until the monitor arrived and separated them. The monitor then shares the entire incident in vivid detail with the principal in front of the boys and the startled couple. The principal sheepishly excuses himself as he hastily addresses the boys outside of his office.

2) A student in sixth-grade routinely comes to class late, often without her class materials. Once in class, it takes her a really long time to shift into “student mode.” She seems to be completely focused on her own wants and needs and consistently fails to demonstrate respect to the teacher, class and learning environment. Numerous conversations, parent meetings, threats, and punishments cannot seem to motivate this young lady to change her ways and become a more productive member of the class. Others classmates have noticed and want to know why they’re being held to a different standard than the student.

Whether or not these scenarios represent actual situations that you have experienced at your school, they — and others like them — certainly occur with some frequency in schools all throughout the country. Granted, sometimes the primary “culprit” is an extenuating circumstance that seems beyond our reach, like student impulsivity, defiance or domestic challenges. Still, I believe it to be safe to suggest that too many of us lack a clear vision and approach to dealing with the all-encompassing scourge that we call student (mis)conduct.

I was first introduced to PBIS five years ago at a principal fellowship program. After learning about it, I and many of my administrative colleagues successfully implemented it at our schools. Throughout the process, we observed firsthand as to how transformative it was, elevating mindsets and actions (teachers’ as well as students’) throughout our respective buildings.

PBIS focuses on the identification of overarching values, such as respect, responsibility and the like, and frames all behavioral expectations through those values. It also seeks to apply the values to each context and setting in a student’s day, such as the classroom, the lunchroom, the restroom, the playground, etc.

Take, for example, the value of “respect.” In the classroom, respect might include being seated at the bell and waiting with a raised hand before speaking. In the lunchroom or playground, it would include following directions and cleaning up. In the hallway, it could come to incorporate the need to walk quietly and in a straight line. And the list goes on.

This values-based system is universal, meaning to say that it sets the tone for all students, as well as all of those who work in the building. It offers a common language and the opportunity for easy teaching (formal and informal) and reinforcement. It also gives school personnel the opportunity to reward positive conduct more regularly, rather than to respond to misconduct. No wonder PBIS has been adopted in thousands of schools nationwide and that every state has established its own central PBIS office!

Of course, it’s not enough to establish values and applications. They have to be pulled together in a manner that makes them easy to remember and rally around. In my school, our seven-person committee, which consisted of three administrators (me and two principals) and four teachers, arrived at four core values: safe, friendly, respectful and responsible.[1] From there, we created posters that applied each value to different areas in the building. Tickets were distributed to students who acted to expectations. The tickets were added to a bin and a number were selected each week in a large scale raffle for individual and class prizes.

Naturally, integrating PBIS or some related program into your school will not completely stop student misbehavior. There still needs to be a thoughtful list of consequences that guides teacher and administrator responses to delinquency. Nevertheless, this focus on positive values as well as regular reinforcement has been proven to significantly reduce the frequency of student misconduct.

Keep in mind that no such program will work to capacity without full (or near-full) faculty support. Our school’s process actually started when a number of teachers independently came to me complaining about student comportment. Even once we formed a PBIS committee, we brought the conversation out of committee regularly, in faculty meetings, email, staff memo, etc., to keep people abreast of where we were headed and to get input. For example, teachers were asked which of the four values we should introduce first, and the proper date, venue and program that we should use to in order to introduce it. This really helped to make it a staff-wide endeavor, as did the special t-shirts and other paraphernalia that each teacher received.

Of course, a successful launch will look different in each school. The unique culture, values, language and character of the school will drive each process along a different pathway. But the common outcome — if done properly — will be a transformative, proactive, values-driven progression that will place the spotlight on desired conduct and embed those values deeply into the minds and action of your students.

This post first appeared in SmartBlog on Education.