Editor’s Note: this story has been edited to correct a typo and two names: Teri Diamond, whose name was orginally given as “Terri,” and Christine Ermold, whose name was orginally given as “Claire.”
Eleven elementary schools in the Kenai Peninsula Borough school district are using a behavior system that administrators said has reduced the need for discipline. The system — called positive behavior intervention strategies, or PBIS — has been used in elementary schools nationwide, but came to the Peninsula in 2009, when Sterling Elementary became the first in the district to adopt it. Since then, the system has spread to Kalifornsky Beach Elementary, Nikolaevsk School, Soldotna Elementary, Homer Flex, Nikiski North Star Elementary, Ninilchik School, and Redoubt Elementary. Three others — Razdolna School, Voznesenka School, and West Homer — began using the system this year.
PBIS is based on providing students with explicitly defined and localized standards of behavior, and on the theory that rewards have a more powerful effect on behavior than punishments.
“It’s not going to have the same form or the same name everywhere,” said first-year Sterling principal Denise Kelly, who inherited the school’s PBIS program from her predecessor, early adopter Christine Ermold. “It’s all the same idea, though: rewarding students for meeting the expectations that have been laid out by the school. With PBIS, the way our district is doing it, it gives the school the autonomy to say ‘these are the areas we’re developing expectations for, and these are what the expectations for our school will look like.”
Soldotna Principal Teri Diamond said that the first step of a school’s PBIS program must be to define those expectations. Both Sterling and Soldotna class their specific expectations under a similar group of general three similar qualities: students are expected to be “safe,” “responsible,” and “respectful” (in Sterling), or “kind” (in Soldotna),
“Then we define what it looks like,” said Diamond. “What does being safe, kind, and responsible look like in the hallway? What does it look like in the playground? Or in whatever area you’re trying to target?”
Each school has a dedicated eight-member committee to design the PBIS program. At the start of the program, the committee creates specific expectations by deciding how the three general expectations should be enacted in different areas of the school.
Sterling organizes its expectations into a matrix with three rows for the general expectations and seven columns for different locations of the school. Soldotna began using PBIS in three locations — the school’s bathrooms, hallways, and playgrounds — during the first year of the program, and has since added the classrooms and buses. The students are instructed in the expectations three times each year, using the actual locations to teach the expectations that are relevant there.
“We taught hallway expectations walking down the hallway,” Kelly said. “We don’t just sit in the classroom and teach them. We go to the locations and teach the expectations for that area.”
Kelly said that putting the expectations in positive langue is important.
“Our expectations of how students behave… are all worded in a positive way,” Kelly said. “So instead of saying ‘we don’t run in the hallway,’ we say ‘we walk in the hallway.’ We teach students what we want to see, versus what we don’t want them to do.”
Each school has its own system to reward students for adherence to the expectations. When Soldotna teachers see students behaving appropriately, they reward the students by giving tickets. In Sterling, students are given small, fuzzy pom-poms.
“When they get their pom-poms they put them in their classroom jar,” Kelly said. “Most of the classrooms do a classroom celebration when their jar is full. Then they take their classroom jar and dump it in our school jar, and when the school jar is full, we have a school-wide celebration.”
Recently, Sterling added a new twist to the pom-pom ritual, incorporating the school mascot, a falcon. The school-wide jar has been replaced with a series of boxes lettered with “F-A-L-C-O-N.” When each box is filled, the students are rewarded with a celebration referencing its letter.
“We had the students come up with a school-wide celebration activity that starts with each letter,” said Kelly. “Some of those are ‘face paint your teacher, funny joke day, field day,’ for the F, and for the A… they came up with things like ‘amazing videos day, awesome movie day.’ So the kids have more input in what we’ll do for school-wide celebrations from now until the end of the year.”
Soldotna’s reward system also uses the school mascot, a wolf. When a Soldotna student has collected ten tickets for good behavior, the tickets can be exchanged for a toy paw. On Fridays students place the paws they’ve collected in an empty fish tank in the school lobby. School-wide rewards are given based on the level of paws in the fish tank.
Soldotna’s celebrations this year have included a sledding party, a tie-die party, a school-wide bingo game, and dance-time. Both principals said that an important feature of the system is that it is based on rewards rather than punishments.
“It’s all focused on what students are doing appropriately,” said Kelly. “So they don’t lose pom-poms. We don’t take them away. If we’re having a really bad day, we won’t dump the pom-pom jar and start over. None of that kind of thing happens.”
Diamond said the lack of punishment is essential to the PBIS program.
“That’s part of the PBIS philosophy. You can’t take away what’s been earned,” Diamond said. “The students all know that the recognition they’re receiving is for the positive behavior they’re displaying at our school.”
Diamond and Kelly said that both of their schools have seen a decrease in discipline problems, as measured by the average monthly number of office referrals, since beginning PBIS.
“During the 2008 – 2009 school year, there was an average of 2.94 office discipline referrals per month,” Kelly wrote in an email. She said in the 2009 – 2010 school year, that average dropped to .79, and in 2013 – 2014 to .426.
“It’s made a much greater sense of community, and the consistency, I think, is the key,” Diamond said. “The kids know there’s no grey areas. It’s black and white. They know what the expectations are, and they’re reinforced for following those expectations.”
Diamond that the PBIS program has taken another step at Soldotna this year: recognizing parents.
“If there’s a parent that is maybe in the school a lot, or does a lot of volunteering, a teacher might give them a paw to recognize them for being such a great helper in our school,” Diamond said.
“Their names go into a bucket that we also have in the lobby, and every month we draw for a coffee card for the parents. We think it’s important to recognize them as well for all the positive things they do in our school.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org