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Preventing classroom conflicts: Positive behavioral interventions and supports

Published: Dec. 16, 2021 at 6:12 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - As the pandemic rages on, state leaders and mental health experts stress time and again that our young students are struggling.

Some school districts across Vermont have contended with violent or disruptive conflicts in the classroom.

So how can we help kids cope before negative behaviors escalate into a crisis putting the safety and education of our children in jeopardy? There’s no one set of solutions but there is one system the state suggests every district adopt. It’s a multitiered framework called PBIS, which stands for positive behavioral interventions and supports that’s proving extremely successful in many Vermont schools.

“We just say what we hear around our classmates and what we think as students at Chamberlin,” said fourth-grader Caylan Wendel, a PBIS student representative.

“We normally talk about what’s happening in class,” said fifth-grader Sheebah Naukenya, a PBIS student representative.

Wendel and Nabukenya, students at the Gertrude Chamberlin Elementary School in South Burlington, are ensuring kids’ voices are heard.

“Some days people feel tired, some days people feel energetic,” Nabukenya said.

“What they like most about the day and if there’s like a teacher they can trust at the school,” Wendel said.

The pair are proud leaders among their peers who know they’re influencing change.

“A lot of the kids are excited and you just think, ‘Hey, I helped improve that,’” Wendel said.

Valuing student input is a strategy the PBIS model prioritizes.

PBIS is a multitiered, schoolwide model to address the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students.

The three levels are universal, targeted and intensive.

Under tier 1 universal supports the school community identifies and defines the expectations for all.

Gertrude Chamberlin’s-- we are kind, we are responsible, we are safe-- hang as reminders throughout the building.

All PBIS schools display three to five of these clear, concise, consistent messages.

Students are taught and then practice the expectations and how they should be followed in each location, from the playground to the cafeteria to the bus.

Staffers are trained to respond to any negative behaviors with common language and strategies.

“So this is our behavior matrix, and it’s what we use to teach students the expectations across settings,” said Holly Rouelle, the principal at Chamberlin. “If you’re walking down the hallway you’re going to notice that just the hallway expectations are blown up and put up around the hallway with visuals.”

When Rouelle took over as principal at Chamberlin 11 years ago, the school didn’t have a structured behavioral support system.

“It was very reactive, and we had some really strong behaviors here, so it was typical to see a child in the hallway ripping the artwork off, some swearing,” Rouelle said.

Now, PBIS is reinforced verbally and visually into every weekly, daily and hourly routine.

Wolf pack time is one core tenant of the PBIS system here. Every Wednesday, students from each grade form a circle in the classroom to learn a social/emotional skill or discuss a challenging topic.

“We really have normalized those practices as an entire school community,” Rouelle said.

Per the PBIS framework, data about behavioral problems drives real-time adjustments.

“So we look at the data and try and make some tweaks to our system,” Rouelle said. “So you can see that November we’ve had a spike, so our universal team was looking at that and trying to come up with some ideas about how to decrease behaviors for the month of December.”

Megan Goyet helps lead that universal team of special educators, counselors and behavioral experts. She’s one of two behavior coaches with experience in social work and clinical psychology employed full-time at Chamberlin, guiding staff and students through the PBIS system.

“Students are more comfortable talking about things that happen to them at school or mistakes that they make instead of being fearful that they’re in trouble,” Goyet said.

Goyet’s job-- collaborate closely with classroom teachers to incorporate social-emotional learning into their curriculum. Some days that means curating lesson plans or mediating interpersonal conflicts, other days it’s designing presentation visuals. But every day her role is to foster trusted relationships with classroom teachers, offering concrete tactics to boost student engagement, provide positive praise or correct inappropriate actions, for example.

“Building that mutual respect and then trying something out. Once a teacher tries something-- they might be hesitant-- but if they’re willing to give it a try and then they see the results, I feel like that gets the ball rolling,” Goyet said.

“The basic idea is we’re looking to do everything we can to change the environment that’s going to set students up for success rather than trying to change individual students’ behavior,” Amy Wheeler-Sutton said.

Wheeler-Sutton is a member of the Vermont PBIS state leadership team. Since the group was established in 2007, 168 schools of the state’s about 300 have joined the tight-knit network.

Wheeler-Sutton explains PBIS is shifting the paradigm from an antiquated, punitive approach to a modern, preventive one.

“Treating behavior much like we do with academics. So on the front end, really explicitly teaching and giving feedback to students just like you would if you’re teaching multiplication. But then on the other end, if a student didn’t know how to multiply, you wouldn’t suspend them or you wouldn’t give them a detention, you would reteach and you would give them the skills and strategies to be able to solve that multiplication problem,” Wheeler-Sutton explained.

Vermont PBIS says about 80% of students should succeed with just tier 1 universal supports.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: What’s proving to you that this system is working at Gertrude Chamberlin?

Megan Goyet: Looking at our data, but also just those moments with the kids when you’re like, oh my goodness, last year if I brought this student down here to talk about something, he would be flipping out crying. This year I’m talking to him and he’s telling his friend, ‘It’s OK, they’re here to help us.’

Christina Guessferd: So the proof is in the progress.

Megan Goyet: Yeah.

The proof is also in the data. Vermont PBIS cites in 2019 the average out-of-school suspension rate in PBIS schools was about 2%. The rate for non-PBIS schools was 3.5%.

Chamberlin has established a system so successful, Vermont Education Secretary Dan French has recognized the school as a model for the state during these challenging times.

Rouelle says she couldn’t imagine navigating the pandemic without PBIS.

“When I talk to my colleagues, it’s a lot calmer here at Chamberlin than what other people are talking about,” Rouelle said.

The Agency of Education says by law, all Vermont schools must implement a multitiered system of support for academics and behavior but they aren’t required to join the formal PBIS network.

Two years into the pandemic, PBIS data demonstrates what the state has been telling us-- students are struggling.

Whereas only 15% of students typically need targeted supports, and about 5% require intensive supports, schools are now seeing those numbers tick up at least an additional 5%, meaning the PBIS pyramid is top-heavy.

Click here for more on Vermont PBIS.

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Violence, fear at Vt. elementary school as kids in crisis disrupt classes

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