Three words are everywhere at Immaculate Heart of Mary School in Towson, written on classroom boards and posted prominently in hallways; respectful, responsible, ready.
Those words are part of positively-minded language that every student at the school, from three-year-olds in pre-kindergarten to eighth graders, sees and hears every day. Respect yourself and others, be responsible, and be ready to learn.
The phrases are at the center of the school's Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program, a strategy the school implemented in the 2014-2015 school year to encourage good behavior. Instead of merely scolding students who misbehave, teachers now model the behavior they want students to follow and then collect data about incidents to develop practices, based on that evidence, that encourage and result in good behavior.
Immaculate Heart of Mary has done such a good job implementing the system that the school scored 100 percent on a site evaluation in May, earning an award for the 2015-2016 school year from PBIS Maryland, a partnership between the state and two major health institutions that helps private and public schools in Maryland to implement the behavioral system, which is known by its acronym, PBIS.
A common hallway scene, with students lining up to walk from one place to another, serves as an example of how the program works. In the past, if a student stepped out of line, the adult in charge of the group might have told the student to "get in line," or say "you're out of line," said Terri Archibald, a middle school social studies teacher at Immaculate Heart who is one of three staff members who coordinate and lead the implementation of the method in the school.
Now, teachers might say, "You're following my directions, going down the hallway, thank you." Archibald said, adding that, if a student needs to have a behavior corrected, a teacher might remind the student that when they walk as a group in the hall they remain in line.
"You reteach it, but in a positive way," she said.
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports is an approach that has been researched for more than three decades. Congress mentioned the approach in its 1997 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as an effective method for helping to teach students with disabilities. Congress decided to encourage the use of PBIS in schools because of strong evidence supporting the system and because students with disabilities were being excluded from some educational opportunities due to behavioral issues, according to the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs' Technical Assistance Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports.
PBIS is considered to be a successful method of improving student behavior, not just for special education students but for all students, said Kandace Hoppin, an assistant professor in the department of special education at Towson University.
"It's just like academic learning," Hoppin said. "We need to teach kids the behaviors we want to see."
Baltimore County uses PBIS in 73 of 173 public schools, according to school officials. The method also is in place at all elementary and high schools operated by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, according to the websites of the Archdiocese.
In Maryland, training and other services supporting the implementation of PBIS are available through PBIS Maryland, which was formed in 1998, when the state Department of Education and Sheppard Pratt Health System, which provides mental health services to the community, collaborated on "the concept of the mental health community working with schools," according to the group's web page. Johns Hopkins University joined the team in 2002.
At Immaculate Heart of Mary, students receive a warning when they misbehave, though if they misbehave multiple times a teacher will write up the incident, recording the location, time of day, possible motivation and if the student is alone or in a group. The school also keeps a record of positive student behaviors, Archibald said, adding that 95 of 100 incidents recorded are positive.
Analyzing such data helped Immaculate Heart officials realize that one particular hall was a problem area for student behavior, according to Archibald. Staff determined that incidents in the hall were likely because there was too much foot traffic in that section, which connected to special classes, such as Spanish, music and art.
The Spanish, music and art classes were moved to a more centralized location in the school, relieving traffic in the hall and improving student behavior.
On Oct. 17, students, teachers and administrators at Immaculate Heart gathered for an assembly to mark the honor from PBIS Maryland. The school was judged on items such as what percentage of students could state the school's rules, and staff having a clearly defined system for collecting and summarizing discipline incidents.
To earn an award schools must apply and be reviewed by a team of PBIS Maryland managers, which is composed of staff from the Maryland State Department of Education, Sheppard Pratt and Johns Hopkins University, said Jerry Bloom of Sheppard Pratt Health Systems. Schools also can earn silver and gold awards, though the standards are tougher.
As the school enters its third year with the system in place, Anders Alicea, the school's principal, and Archibald say they've seen an improvement in students' behavior through the use of positive language.
Another goal of the program is to ensure that all students feel supported, so they can focus on their own growing relationships with friends, Alicea said.
"Students are seeing adults in the building as their teachers but also as their support," Alicea said.
A previous version of this story mispelled Anders Alicea's name. "Those are the ingredients of student achievement that we know about."