Behavior in our schools: Why discipline isn’t always the answer

University College of Education faculty partner with the Nevada Department of Education to create a sustainable program embedding the teaching of social skills into education

Behavior in our schools: Why discipline isn’t always the answer

University College of Education faculty partner with the Nevada Department of Education to create a sustainable program embedding the teaching of social skills into education

For decades, punishment-based strategies including reprimands, loss of privileges, office referrals, suspensions and expulsions have been the normal disciplinary actions at schools. These disciplines primarily react to specific student misbehavior rather than preventing it. Now, a group of University of Nevada, Reno College of Education faculty members, along with the newly formed Office of Safe and Respectful Learning Environments at the Nevada Department of Education, are aiming to change how behavior is addressed in Nevada schools.

Nevada's School Climate Transformation Project
With the objective to shift education culture in the state, the group launched Nevada's School Climate Transformation Project, implementing School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a multi-tiered behavior framework for improving student academic and behavior outcomes. The framework is based on decades of research in applied behavior analysis and positive behavior support that guides behavioral practices in schools.

"School culture historically has taken a reactive approach to discipline," Ashley Greenwald, Nevada PBIS project director and principal investigator, said. "As a result, student behaviors are often punished and little attention is paid to teaching appropriate behavior; therein lies the need for a cultural shift in education. The PBIS framework is designed to replace the student's undesirable behavior with a newly taught behavior or skill."

The project, which received $4 million over five years from the U.S. Department of Education, started implementation in October 2015 and includes taking the School-wide PBIS framework to schools in seven Nevada school districts with the intention of eventually scaling up statewide. Nevada was one of 12 states awarded funding for this project as part of President Obama's Now is the Time act. For schools to participate in the project, faculty had to actively make the decision to participate with support from at least 80 percent of school personnel.

Using schools for social learning
School-wide PBIS offers schools a positive and preventative behavioral approach that becomes engrained in the school culture and its academics. As part of a three-tiered system, Tier 1 of the framework offers universal strategies implemented across all settings for all students. The outcome of this tier results in a school environment that is predictable (common language, common vision, common experience), positive (recognition for positive behavior), safe (violent and disruptive behavior is not tolerated) and consistent (all adults use the same language).

Tiers 2 and 3 of the framework focus on more targeted interventions either for a group of students presenting with similar challenges or for an individual student identified as needing intensive support.

"Adequate social and emotional skills are necessary for academic achievement," Greenwald said. "In addition to explicitly teaching students social skills, this program educates teachers on the importance of social and emotional learning, which traditionally has not been an area of focus in education."

Initial implementation began this school year. The first cohort includes three school districts -Douglas County, Humboldt County and Pershing County - with 10 total pilot schools. Future counties, identified for work in the second cohort, include Clark County, Washoe County, Elko County and Lander County. Full implementation takes between three and five years.  

"We're not telling these schools what they have to do, instead we're giving them the tools to more effectively manage regularly identified behavioral needs with their students," Greenwald said.

Building a multi-tiered behavior framework through PBIS provides schools with both systems and interventions. Systems include the structure, data collection, an online data entry system and coaching at the district and building level. Each school collects their data via a national database offered through the project. This allows for the school to drill down where the behavioral issues are coming from and provide for data-based decision making. The interventions are the programs Greenwald and her team are teaching schools how to implement. This includes teaching school-wide expectations, acknowledging appropriate behavior and making sure that discipline is standardized across the school and ensures all adults at the school - from teaching staff to the bus drivers - understand the school's core values and rules.

What participating schools are saying
"It is so refreshing to hear everyone using the same lingo - 'Hey buddy, that's unsafe. What's the rule about safety in the hallways?'" Sheri Grove, speech and language pathologist at Scarselli Elementary School in Gardnerville, who began implementing PBIS at the beginning of the school year, said. "It's not just the teachers, it's the custodian, the yard aides, the office staff, everyone. Our school is much calmer and happier."

Since each school has varied needs and challenges, PBIS is adaptable for every school. Greenwald and her team of board certified behavior analysts work closely with each school to identify areas of improvement, provide contextually appropriate and culturally sensitive training on the new format, and ongoing coaching throughout to ensure high fidelity of implementation.

"We decided as a staff to adopt the PBIS framework because of office referrals, unsafe behaviors from students, and wasted time spent by staff dealing with discipline," Krystal Koontz, 3rd grade teacher of CC Meneley Elementary School in Gardnerville, said. "This is our first year, and first month using the PBIS framework. We have seen exceptional results. The climate of the school is more positive. The front office is able to complete their tasks instead of dealing with disruptive students and frustrated parents and teachers. We have seen an overall improvement in our school's behavior and are continuing to change our mindset on behavior and expectations."

Across the country, 14 states with more than 500 schools are implementing School-wide PBIS. Some schools have been implementing PBIS for more than 10 years.

"Research has shown that schools who make conscious efforts to create positive and supportive learning environments within their buildings see less behavioral incidences, greater teacher retention and better outcomes for students among other key improvements," Ken Coll, dean of the University's College of Education, said.

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