Seventh grader Charlie Cross sometimes gets frustrated with learning.
“If I don’t know what to do, I’ll raise my hand and they’ll go to other kids and then my hand will get tired so I’ll put it down and I just lay my head down on the desk,” he says.
Cross has been sent to the principal’s office for things like this before. He’s also been sent to the district’s alternative school.
He’s not alone.
There are plenty of students like Cross who rack up referrals or are kicked out of class. And studies—like this one from the Texas A&M University—are beginning to show out-of-school punishments like suspensions don’t help students succeed.
Over the past several years, many Kentucky schools and districts have seen success in changing their approach to disciplining students by adopting the Positive Behavioral Inventions and Supports, or PBIS, system for handling bad behavior.
At Bullitt Lick Middle School suspensions have decreased by nearly 70 percent since last year, from 94 to 30. Referrals have been cut in half and in-school suspensions, known as ISAPs, have decreased by 37 percent.
Principal Robert Fulk attributes the drop to PBIS and he’s not the only one.
When Fulk came to Bullitt Lick Middle School two years ago he sat down with staff and looked at each suspension file to determine how the school could improve its results.
Reviewing data, targeting specific problems, and setting clear expectations for students is all part of PBIS. But how schools implement the program will differ depending on the school’s needs, Fulk says, pointing to signs that dress the school halls.
“Look right behind me: silence, whisper, quiet discussion, presentation. We do that in every classroom so it’s common throughout the building. So if I say to a group of kids we’re on voice level zero, guys, they know exactly what I’m talking about and it’s common throughout the building,” he says.
Further, Fulk says PBIS changes the culture of school discipline by promoting alternative responses to behavioral issues, like what to do when a student throws food during lunch.
“An appropriate consequence of that would be, OK, you may need to sit at this table in the lunch room with me and eat lunch as opposed to your friends. You may lose a day of social time during lunch because you decided to throw food,” he says.
The roughly 118 Kentucky schools that implemented PBIS and provided three years of data saw suspensions drop 18.9 percent between the 2009-2010 and 2011-2012 school years, around four times the decrease seen statewide using the old methods of discipline (4.7 percent), according to data from the Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline, which runs the PBIS network in the state.
Further, those 118 PBIS schools make up just 8 percent of the schools that provided data to the Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline, but accounted for 33 percent of the total reductions in suspensions for the years provided.
When PBIS was introduced in Henderson County high schools in 2006 there were more than 10,000 discipline notices, officials say. Last year, there were about 4,000.
PBIS may sound like a simple concept, something you may have experienced when you were in school. But getting teachers and schools to buy in is difficult, says Fulk.
Bullitt Lick Middle School teacher Melisa Hill says that when PBIS was introduced previously in her school, it just didn’t stick.
“We had a turnover of faculty the next year, so we had to start all over again and that hurt us and I don’t think we had the buy in then,” she says.
Eventually, though, “it just becomes habit,” she says.
Teachers have now improved their ability to deal with behavioral problems in the classroom and don’t automatically send students to the principal’s office, Hill says.
“We give them a tool box to use. You can conference with the child. You can move the child in the classroom. You can give them a lunch detention. You can cross team them, which means that I would send them to another teacher for that class period,” she says.
At Bullitt Lick Middle, the first few days of school are used to go over the class and school expectations with students, Fulk says. Then on long vacation breaks, they do it again to remind the teacher and students what’s expected of them.
“For an educator we had to get past the idea of, ‘But we’re going to burn instructional time to do that? But what about the state assessment at the end of the year?’ I don’t care about that. I want kids to learn,” Fulk says.
The Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline staff works with schools who request its help, but officials say it requires a commitment to the program. More than 30 school districts have made that commitment and nearly 400 schools have implemented PBIS to some degree, according to KYCID.