Schools across the state are testing different strategies to improve behavior, and boost social and emotional well-being in the classroom
Pennsylvania is getting into the business of teaching behavior at school. Research suggests ways to boost children’s emotional and social skills, but achieving that goal may take some serious behavior change among teachers and administrators. WHYY reports on one approach advocates say improves the social environment in the classroom.
More than 30 Pennsylvania schools have adopted a concept called school-wide behavior support. After administrators and teachers agree on the same set of expectations, the idea is to catch kids doing good. Stop by Room 308 at Logan Elementary in Philadelphia and you can see that idea in practice.
AMBI: Remember you’re working on trying to get compliments. When I hear nice, quiet voices, Deja. So, now I’m looking for the very best the whole time.
Third-grade teacher Steffanie Staller hands out lots of praise and little slips of paper, called Logan Stars.
Staller: We focus more on the good behavior, and what we notice is that if I say so-in-so you are doing a great job, then the child who wasn’t sitting properly, or who wasn’t quiet, will then become quiet and do the right thing.
AMBI: Nice job, guys. I love how I see Tariq working, nice job, Tariq.
At Logan, getting called down to the office has a whole new meaning. When students earn a star, they write their name on the back, then all the names go into a lottery. At the end of the day, four winners head to the office to pick from an assortment of small prizes usually colored pencils or erasers.
Staller: Their name gets called over the loud-speaker, which, that right there, that’s exciting. They get to go down and choose whatever they’d like.
Principal Mark Wilicki says the reward system works best when it’s reinforced the same way in the cafeteria, in the halls and in every classroom.
Wilicki: You will go to another school and Miss Sally has her rules and regulations, and Miss Joanne has her rules and regulations. You have Mr. Fred who has no rules or regulations, he’s just laid back and let’s ’em do whatever, and that becomes a problem, as well.
Wilicki says the school’s suspension rate and serious offenses, like fighting, have decreased.
Advocates for positive behavior support gathered in Harrisburg recently, where the director of the statewide program in Illinois shared similar results.
Eber: Basically what we know is this, repeated punishment for problem behavior doesn’t change the problem behavior.
Illinois expert Lucille Eber says most schools up punishment for each new infraction. For instance, if a child is tardy three times, they get detention. Rack up enough detentions, suspension comes next. But, she says, that logic works against the goal of getting kids to class.
Eber: We have to teach what on time to class means, and have a big campaign for promoting it, and reinforcing it because we have to get a shift in the behavior.
Eber says students don’t change until administrators and teachers act differently. And, that change, she says, can be a struggle because often schools don’t teach behavior in a deliberate way.
Eber: A lot of times in schools we just expect kids to walk in the door with the behaviors needed to function in a kindergarten class of 25 kids.
Other schools across the state are testing different strategies to improve behavior, and boost social and emotional well-being. Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak says Pennsylvania will pick from the best available, then design a prevention effort aimed at all children, not only those students with identified problems.
Zahorchak: To often our programs in this area of the social, emotional play with the symptoms. Gee whiz, things have gone bad, too many kids are dropping out, etc, etc.
When Zahorchak talks about students with behavior problems, he means students who are withdrawn and those who go unnoticed, as well as students who regularly disrupt class.
Zahorchak: For the poorly behaved children, you need a high degree of skill as a teacher to build the environment in your classroom, or in your school building, that’s going to enhance the emotional, social growth of a child.
Zahorchak says most teachers don’t start their career with enough of that education.
Zahorchak: When you look at the number of kids that get expelled or suspended or when you look at the feeling of a school, you can almost guess the training of adults.
Skeptics say — for the sake orderly instruction — children with serious behavior problems should be removed from class until those problems are fixed. Still, Zahorchak says schools need to step in earlier to teach behavior and prop up social skills.
Zahorchak: Otherwise you’re going to lose those kids, many of them to drop out, many of them there but not really there with you.
Of course, compliments and simple rewards — like colored pencils — don’t work for every student. For the 8 to 10 percent of children who don’t respond to positive reinforcement, Eber says the next step is more intense instruction, perhaps working with an in-school mentor.
Eber says she’s noticed a gap in training that she says pushes teachers to revert to punishment for difficult cases. She says schools are too quick to push children with behavior problems into special education classes or the juvenile justice system
Eber: In other words they will say we did a behavior plan it’s in his folder. Dosage of intervention is an issue. People do a little bit of something and say it didn’t work. So we have a whole lot of, let’s call it professional development catch up to do.