Local schools see benefits from good behavior program

At Stevens Forest Elementary School in Columbia, fifth-graders delight when good behavior leads to rewards, from earning shiny trophies to playing Nintendo Wii with the principal at recess. In fact, they say they've had so much fun being respectful, responsible and ready to learn that nowadays they often do so without anticipating perks.

"The trophy is just recognition for it," said Malick Stafford, a Stevens Forest fifth-grader.


Those sentiments would undoubtedly delight advocates of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), an approach that teaches and reinforces good behavior in the classroom.

More than 400 schools in the state take part, and school officials say that often it transforms a school's learning environment, prompting significant reductions in bullying and suspension referrals while giving instructors more time to teach without disruption.

Developed in the 1990s by University of Oregon researchers, PBIS attempts to do away with the old model of punishing or isolating children for bad behavior and instead offers positive reinforcement and recognition for good behavior.

Maryland's PBIS program is implemented through a partnership between the State Department of Education, Sheppard Pratt Health System and Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"We've seen a total ceiling drop in referrals," said Ginny Dolan, program manager-PBIS facilitator for Anne Arundel County public schools. "In the past it would be a reactive, expulsion, punitive approach. Now we are looking at what are the supports the kids need to respond in a differentiated way."

In Baltimore County, Joan Ledvina Parr, PBIS facilitator and psychologist at Chatsworth School in Reisterstown, said that the county's PBIS schools "have made great strides in their improvement in their MSA/HSA scores over time."

"PBIS has had a significant impact on teachers, staff, and students by creating a clearer understanding of the schoolwide expectations for behavior," Parr said.

Schools interested in implementing the program are shown a presentation by a school administrator, and then the school must take a vote on whether to implement it. PBIS officials say that a minimum of 80 percent of school staff must agree to the program and commit to several years. The school is given summer training and a behavior support coach during the school year.

Schools come up with simple, precise behavior expectations that are easy to remember and can be stated in a positive way. In many local schools, they consist of three R's: Respectful, Responsible and Ready. Schools then articulate types of behavior desired to meet each expectation. When the behavior is exhibited, it is recognized and rewarded.

Many schools with PBIS have reward systems similar to that at Stevens Forest. There, students who are observed following school rules and guidelines and exhibiting good behavior earn "Bobcat Tickets," named for the school mascot.

Students can save their tickets and trade them in for prizes: 20 tickets for a Bobcat Pride pencil; 50 tickets for a personalized bookmark with a photograph of the student; 150 tickets for a Bobcat Pride T-shirt.

Said Trish Lannon, Stevens Forest assistant principal: "A lot of times, if you have kids who are talking during the lesson, instead of saying, 'You're being disrespectful and rude,' you go to them [when they are attentive] and say, 'I like how you are listening to me while I'm teaching my lesson,' and you walk over and hand them a ticket."

"Other kids will notice that they're getting positive reinforcement," Lannon added, "and they will often correct their own behavior because they have a goal that if they want to earn tickets they have to behave well."

Lake Shore Elementary School in Pasadena holds quarterly PBIS celebrations for students; earlier this month, students were treated to a movie and popcorn and prize drawings.


"It inspires us to be good students because we know we're going to be rewarded," said Lake Shore fifth-grader Alexandra McCann.

Some teachers say it makes for better interactions with the students. "The biggest thing is that it makes teachers aware that all of the kids are ours," said Lake Shore teacher Mary-Jo Bedsworth. "It's much easier to get them to do what you need them to do."

Carroll County PBIS coordinator Melissa Leahy said that at East Middle School in Westminster, students receive PBIS rewards such as extra recess, pizza parties or Orioles outings. She added, "What is very exciting to witness is that students now do kind things just because it's the right thing to do, not just because they're getting something tangible."

Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, an associate professor in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that some Baltimore-area schools were among those that have taken part in Hopkins' research trials regarding PBIS.

One such study, in 2002, involved 37 elementary schools; half of the schools received PBIS training and the other half did not, she said. Bradshaw said that schools trained in PBIS showed significant reductions in suspensions, office discipline referrals, bullying behavior and disruptive behavior.

Research indicates that the earlier the model is implemented the better, Bradshaw said. "When kids come into kindergarten, for example, PBIS helps them adjust to the expectations of a classroom environment. For those kids, it probably just seems like school to them."

Still, Bradshaw said that PBIS can be a difficult sell for some teachers, who sometimes see it as an additional demand to an already labor-intensive schedule.

Sharon Glennen, PTSA president at Wilde Lake High School and a parent of three children in Howard County schools, said that while she can see the benefits of the program, she wonders if it has caused schools to turn out students "who are only used to being rewarded."

A speech language pathology professor at Towson University, Glennen said, "We see students coming in who are only used to getting rewards and they say, 'I'm getting a C in the class; what's the extra credit that I can do to raise my grade?' And then they're in shock when they find out that in college, there is no extra credit to raise the grade."

But Lannon says data support the program's success. She implemented PBIS as an assistant principal at West Friendship Elementary in Howard County, and after its first year there, she said, the number of school bus misconduct referrals issued dropped from about 30 to four.

"PBIS plays into the belief here that if the kids aren't available and ready to learn, it doesn't matter what we're teaching them," she said. "It goes hand and hand with the academics."