Rhode Island schools get a lesson in good behavior

There are problem behaviors in every school, from bullying, to vandalizing school property, to being disrespectful and openly defiant.

In a six-hour day, with 15 to 30 kids in the classroom, it’s much easier to kick out the troublemaker and go on with the lesson. Let the principal deal with it.

Principals divvy out detentions, suspensions and expulsions, the only forms of discipline left in their arsenal.

Paddling is outlawed in most states and writing 100 times on the blackboard “I will not misbehave” is as meaningless for kids today as it was a century ago.

Detained in the principal’s office, troublemakers lose out on valuable class time. Paroled, they return to class unreformed and sooner or later get kicked out again. Principals across the country say it’s a vicious cycle of repeat behavior.

In 1996 the U.S. Department of Education established a new system of dealing with problem behavior in the school. It’s called PBIS, short for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. The premise is that positive behavior can be taught and sustained by positive feedback.

PBIS has been used successfully in more than 12,000 schools in the United States and Canada. Moreover, these schools are reporting dramatic declines in discipline referrals.

The Paul V. Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College serves as the primary PBIS trainer in Rhode Island. For the past six years, this team has trained 112 schools and 11 school districts in the state, and many other schools are lining up for the training.

According to Lavonne Nkomo ’00, coordinator of the PBIS program at RIC, “Detention, suspension and expulsion are not effective deterrents to problem behavior. In fact, it increases the frequency and severity of disruptive behavior.”

A Rhode Island elementary school with only 540 students reported over 2,300 office discipline referrals in a single year, while another school had so many students in detention the overflow was sent to the principal’s office.

Lavonne Nkomo ’00, coordinator of the PBIS program at RIC.
The basic principle behind PBIS is that if schools teach appropriate behavior and give positive reinforcement for following it, appropriate behavior becomes the norm.

“Some teachers ask why schools should have the job of teaching good behavior,” said Nkomo. “But these teachers take it for granted that kids know how to behave or how to make friends or how to deal with frustration. We teach every child in the school because each child’s social and emotional development varies.

“For instance, for some students, the F-word is common usage in the home. When PBIS is implemented in the school, students are able to enter the school environment and curb their language based on what is expected in the school, as long as the expectations of the school are clear and consistently reinforced. These children can and do adjust their behavior to the school setting.”


To implement PBIS, the school first puts together a leadership team, consisting of administrators, teachers, support workers, family members and community members. Together, they come up with three to five clearly stated behavior expectations for the school. For example, they may decide that respect for self, others, and property is a set of behaviors they would like to target in the school.

Second, the school teaches target behaviors.

The team decides what respect for self, others and property looks like in the classroom, in the cafeteria, in the gymnasium, in the hallway, in the restroom, on the school bus—in all school areas—and how the school is going to teach these behaviors to the students.

Ricci, a middle school in North Providence, incorporated the PBIS system in September 2010. Its target behavior expectations are: respectful, responsible and ready to learn.

“We teach behavior expectations to the children as a parent would,” said Assistant Principal Steven Clarke ’01. “We go over them verbally and we demonstrate them. Every adult in the school is present during the demonstration.

Steven Clarke ’01, assistant principal of Ricci middle school.
“In the past, kids had seven classes and seven different sets of expectations in each class. For example, in one class you could chew gum and in the other you couldn’t. Kids are now more aware of what their expectations are.”

Mary Rathier, a Ricci sixth-grader, said, “In my old school, if you forgot your math notebook, you just used a sheet of paper. But at Ricci, if you forget your notebook, you get written up – the teacher checks off what you did wrong on a form.”

Another Ricci sixth-grader, Piper-Lauren Aycock, was asked why forgetting a notebook should get you written up. She answered by reciting the school’s behavior expectations: “Respectful. Responsible. Ready to learn. If you don’t have your notebook, you’re not ready to learn.”

Third, the school tracks problem behavior.

Wawaloam and Lineham elementary schools in Exeter/West Greenwich
also incorporated PBIS in September 2010.

Melissa Marino ‘95, principal of Wawaloam and Lineham
elementary schools.
Melissa Marino ’95, principal of both schools, said, they had to shift the way they thought about discipline referrals. There are levels of problem behavior. Not all behavior is subject to a pass to the principal’s office. Yet it’s important that all problem behavior be written up in order to detect a pattern of problem behavior.

According to Nkomo, a minor referral is a “single occurrence” problem. This kind of referral is handled by the classroom teacher. Whereas a major office referral is a “severe or chronic” problem that is dealt with by the principal.

Data gathering and data-based decisions are central to PBIS practices. PBIS schools use SWIS, a database system that not only tracks problem behavior but identifies the probable cause of the behavior.

Ricci school is still in the process of gathering data, but already Assistant Principal Clarke is able to say, “with the data we’ve gathered, we can tell you how each child is doing in every class.”

Fourth, if there is a pattern of problem behavior, the school intervenes.

Intervention is one of the unique features of PBIS. If the school begins to see a pattern of problem behavior, the school intervenes before the behavior becomes chronic. “The point is to get kids to achieve by intervening early,” Clarke said.

Intervention involves evaluating the data that has been gathered and coming up with a strategy to help the child.

For example, Johnny may have been written up four or five times for acting up in math class because he’s uncomfortable with math, but he doesn’t know how to ask for help.

Nkomo said one intervention might be to hand out the math test with 20 problems on it, but tell Johnny to cross out 10 and do only 10.

“The teacher is giving Johnny a way out of doing a task he’s uncomfortable with, while still engaging him in the task,” Nkomo said.

If this intervention doesn't work, the teacher continues to try different strategies until she finds one that does work. Intervention, Nkomo said, is one of the main reasons for the dramatic reduction in discipline referrals.

Fifth, the school creates an acknowledgment system.

PBIS schools acknowledge students and staff for engaging in school-wide expectations because acknowledgment increases the reoccurrence of target behaviors.

“Every PBIS school should have an acknowledgment system,” said Nkomo. “Children, like adults, need to hear, ‘Job well done.’”

One school’s acknowledgment system may be to hand out paper coins when a child engages in a target behavior. Once the child accumulates $10 in coins, a donation is made to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. Another school may give out “high-five tickets.” Another may give out “bee bucks.” The acknowledgment system will look differently at each school.

The Wawaloam and Lineham schools give out “bee bucks.” Whenever a student is “caught” using target behaviors, the teacher first praises the child for using the behavior then gives the child a bee buck (a cut-out of a bumble bee). The child’s name is written on the buck and the teacher signs it. On Wednesday, all the bee bucks are collected and a school raffle is held. If the student’s bee buck is pulled, the student might win an ice cream and the teacher who signed the buck might win the principal’s parking spot for a week.

“Not only the student but the teacher is acknowledged for doing what is expected,” said Nkomo. “The student is acknowledged for being respectful, responsible and ready to learn, and the teacher is acknowledged for teaching school-wide expectations (handing out bee bucks).

“The point is, every time the teacher hands a child a buck, there’s a positive interaction between student and teacher. The verbal acknowledgment is immediate. The raffle is extra.”

Intervention, acknowledgment, and a structured learning environment where students develop internal controls doesn’t work for every child. Though PBIS works for over 80 percent of all students, it doesn’t work for every student across the board, according to research data.

Some students exhibit behavior that requires more specialized, individualized support plans. A student may have a behavior disorder that requires IEP or community supports. The school team gathers as much information as possible and makes an informed intervention. School teams also participate in Wraparound Meetings to develop a plan to support the student in the home and community.

Nkomo concedes that the PBIS framework initially takes more time and effort. School staff must gather data and find out what works and what doesn’t work. But when successfully incorporated, PBIS leads to huge time savings.

First, PBIS schools are seeing dramatic reductions in the number of office referrals. Second, having a system for documenting the occurrence of office referrals provides a way to determine which students need more intensive intervention. Third, student-teacher interaction, peer interaction, school safety and school spirit all markedly improve in PBIS schools.

Marino said, “Students, parents and faculty praise the PBIS program at Wawaloam and Lineham. We even worked with the bus company to create bus expectations and added "bus bucks” to the acknowledgment system. We created parent expectations, recognizing the importance of families as partners in education. Every time I turn around, the program gets bigger and better.

“One of the greatest compliments I received was when a retired teacher said she had never seen the school so well managed.

“PBIS motivates students to make good choices, which results in more time for instruction versus time dealing with discipline issues.”

Nkomo’s team has trained 11 Rhode Island school districts: Barrington, Burrillville, Coventry, Cumberland, East Providence, Exeter/West Greenwich, Lincoln, Narragansett, Providence, South Kingston and Warwick.

In the spring of 2011, she will send out a schedule of PBIS informational sessions to schools and districts who have not yet incorporated the system. Two types of training and support are offered: 1) to individual schools interested in implementing PBIS, and 2) to districts that have committed all schools in the district to training within five years. Agreement from the district superintendent is needed for training at the district level and agreement from the superintendent, principal and teachers are necessary for training at the individual school level. Currently training and support is free.

Click here for more information on PBIS.