Oscar Suarez is Culver School’s assistant principal. That title is often interpreted as “chief disciplinarian,” but at Culver there’s more to the story. If a student needs to be disciplined for doing something out of line, Suarez will hand out a detention or contact parents when necessary. But he is just as likely to invite a student who has done something outstanding to bring a few friends to the gym for a round of basketball with the assistant principal.
“We use an approach called PBIS — positive behavior interventions and supports,” Suarez said. “We set expectations for how students should act at school and then set forth behaviors that enable them to meet the expectations. And when students do meet or surpass our expectations, we call attention to it. The best way to foster positive behavior is to reward it.”
That is contrary to the traditional approach, where the students who receive the most attention in school tend to be the ones who behave badly. Unfortunately, that approach overlooks the great majority of students who follow the rules and behave appropriately every day.
So students who disrupt a class or bully another child on the playground may still receive a disciplinary referral to the principal’s office. But now students whose behavior goes above and beyond may be sent to the principal’s office with a positive behavior referral.
“Our approach is to create a positive environment for students and celebrate our successes,” said Superintendent John Kosirog.
Using PBIS, teachers and administrators define specific positive behaviors and communicate them to students clearly and consistently. Students are expected to practice these behaviors during the school day in the classroom, in hallways and bathrooms, in the cafeteria, on the playground, even on the bus. PBIS rolled out at Culver in 2009 as part of the Response to Intervention (RTI) program. Two years ago, a core group of teachers and administrators attended a two-day training session to get updated about PBIS best practices.
“This year has been a revitalization year for us,” said Laura Guarraci, director of student services. “PBIS has changed since we initiated it. Now there is less focus on consequences and more on what we can do to change how students behave in school by teaching and reteaching and reinforcing positive behaviors.”
“PBIS is premised on the basic principle that guides us: Be responsible, be respectful, be safe,” Suarez said.
The school focuses on a different behavior each month. For example, during one month this year the school focused on positive behavior in the hallways. Following that guiding principle required students to be responsible by getting to class on time, to be respectful by talking softly, and to be safe by walking instead of running in the halls.
Taking a cue from the school’s bulldog mascot, staff members hand out “paws” when they see students practicing those behaviors. Students can swap “paws” for items such as pencils or stickers, or save them up to exchange for lunch with the principal or a chance to operate the scoreboard at a basketball game.
The rewards are typically different for older students than for the younger ones, but the program is getting buy-in from students of all ages.
The goal for that month was a total of 2,000 paws, and Culver students easily surpassed it. “The entire student body was rewarded with a game show assembly called Wheel of Wisdom sponsored by the PTA, and they had a blast. They far exceeded our expectations,” Guarraci said.
Suarez added, “Some kids need more support than others, but they all have the same opportunities. We try to praise all students for making the effort.”