gold foiled business cardsSchools with positive climate have higher teacher retention rates, higher levels of academic achievement, and fewer behavioral issues. The importance of culture and climate in a school is undeniable. So, what options do school leaders have when problem behaviors begin to detract from teaching and learning?

One of four high schools in School District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties in South Carolina, Dutch Fork High School (DFHS) serves students in grades 9–12 with a growing population of 1,830. The student body consists of 57 percent white students, 34 percent African-American, and 9 percent classified as “other.” Approximately 28 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and 8 percent are classified as special education students. Another 2 percent of the student population is classified as ELL, or limited-​English proficiency.

Dutch Fork High School has a long-standing legacy of excellence. Consistently ranked each year among the state’s and nation’s best and most academically challenging high schools by Newsweek, The Washington Post, and U.S. News and World Report, DFHS boasts one of South Carolina’s most successful AP programs, with 40 percent of the total student population taking at least one AP course while maintaining an exemplary overall pass rate. Each year, the graduating class outdoes the one before it in scholarship totals, and more than 90 percent of all graduates attend college. Additionally, DFHS students are frequently featured in the news for their achievements in academics, athletics, the arts, and community service.

With so much to celebrate, school and district officials were concerned when the number of discipline referrals at DFHS reached an all-time high in 2009–10 of 6,887. Although DFHS continued to be a high-​performing school, there was concern about the increase of problem behaviors. Additionally, racial, gender, and socioeconomic disparities began to emerge in the data. Of all minority students in the school, 22 percent had received at least one day of suspension, and minority students accounted for almost 60 percent of all students who had been suspended. Of all students who received free or reduced-price lunch, 23 percent had been suspended at least once. And male students accounted for more than 70 percent of all students who had been suspended in 2009–10.

District and school leaders researched possible solutions to this growing concern and ultimately decided to implement Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) beginning with the 2010–11 school year. School officials were eager to put a structure in place that would improve the conditions that support learning, and PBIS stood out as a sensible approach. Discipline referrals dropped by 36 percent during the first two years of the program, exceeding expectations. And in 2013–14, the school saw a 56 percent decrease in discipline referrals since implementation. A decrease in discipline referrals indicates an improvement in the quality of student and teacher interactions, and fewer behavioral issues create a safer environment that is more conducive to learning.

Practicing Positive Reinforcement

PBIS is a proactive approach to schoolwide discipline, in which behavioral expectations are clearly defined, explicitly taught, and regularly acknowledged. A common misconception is that PBIS replaces the discipline code, which is far from true. Rules and consequences are clearly outlined and consistently enforced, and there are no restrictions on the use of consequence-based strategies. PBIS only adds a dimension of teaching-oriented, positive, and preventive strategies. In addition to the school’s traditional discipline policies, faculty and staff teach appropriate behavior, model it themselves, and acknowledge it. Instead of waiting for misbehavior to occur, proactive measures are taken to establish a climate in which appropriate behavior is the norm.

There are four primary prevention features of PBIS, the first being behavioral expectations that are clearly defined. Schools should choose three to five positively stated, easy-to-remember behavioral expectations that are significant to the school climate. DFHS chose “three Rs”—be respectful, be responsible, and be reputable. In a school of more than 1,800 students and 200 employees, we estimate that 80 percent or more would be able to recite the three behavioral expectations from memory if asked.

Second, appropriate behaviors must be labeled in actions. Educators should not assume that all students know what appropriate school behaviors are. For example, it may be permissible in some households to run down hallways, solve disagreements by shouting, or arrive a few minutes late. Students come to school with an array of varied experiences, and not all families share the same set of values or behavioral expectations. Instead of rushing to label students as “disrespectful” or “troublemakers,” we remember that these students may not have a background that allows them to recognize the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. We should, therefore, take time to teach them what type of behavior is expected of them at school. In a PBIS school, behavioral expectations are defined for each area of the campus where the behavior could be taught, modeled, practiced, or observed—the cafeteria, gymnasium, bus, hallway, restroom, classroom, media center, or learning commons. PBIS schools create a matrix that outlines appropriate behaviors in each location, and then those specific behaviors are prominently posted around campus.

The third prevention feature of PBIS, similar to that of a core content area, is that it is explicitly taught. Teachers and school leaders use modeling/demonstrations, videos, and lesson plans. At DFHS, most of the teaching occurs during an advisory period that is scheduled regularly throughout the school year. Over the years, the responsibility of planning these lessons has been assumed and shared by various teachers, administrators, and even student council members.

Finally, appropriate behaviors should be acknowledged, and students need to be recognized for their efforts to exhibit appropriate behavior. We know that specific praise increases the likelihood of recurrence. A PBIS school should have a “gotcha” card that they give students when they “catch” them behaving appropriately. DFHS came up with “Classy Cash,” which is the same size as a regular business card. There is a place to write the student’s name and the adult’s name who is giving the card, and then check boxes to indicate what type of behavior was observed (responsible, respectful, or reputable). The students can then redeem their cards for prizes. For example, DFHS has a PBIS store where students can exchange their Classy Cash for Dutch Fork “swag” (sunglasses, styluses, blinking bracelets, etc.). They can also use their Classy Cash to purchase temporary IDs, pay library fines, and buy à la carte items in the cafeteria. Finally, for the more expensive prizes (gift cards, tickets to athletic contests, etc.), students use their Classy Cash to enter drawings.

Giving Rewards Pays Off

Students have been awarded Classy Cash for countless reasons over the years. A few examples include giving up a seat for a staff member, helping custodians pick up trash after lunch, holding the door open for a blind student, and a senior helping a lost freshman find her class on the first day of school. When staff members hand out Classy Cash, they log it in a Google Doc, so that the administration is able to track how often students are being acknowledged, which is just one indication of the frequency and quality of positive interactions occurring in the school.

No new initiative is ever met without some resistance. Initially, many teachers were concerned about the use of rewards and feared that students would, from that point on, always expect a reward for doing what was already expected of them. To meet this challenge, administrators implemented PBIS at the teacher level, outlining clear expectations for professional conduct and then acknowledging teachers who modeled it. DFHS faculty are excited to be recognized as Teachers of the Month, and they frequently receive public recognition and small prizes when administrators “catch” them actively supervising the hallways during class changes, consistently showing up for duty on time, volunteering to cover classes for other teachers, and achieving perfect attendance records. As a result of being on the receiving end of such recognition and celebration, the faculty and staff of DFHS have become cheerleaders for the students in our building, looking for every opportunity to congratulate them, thank them, or give them a pat on the back. PBIS has no doubt contributed to a more positive school culture and has reduced the need for discipline referrals through the use of positive reinforcement.

Today DFHS not only continues its legacy of excellence in academics, the arts, athletics, and community service, but it is also a model for creating a positive and caring school climate.

Sarah C. Longshore is the former assistant principal for instruction at Dutch Fork High School, the 2015 South Carolina Assistant Principal of the Year, a 2015 National Assistant Principal of the Year finalist, and is the current principal at Saluda High School in Saluda, SC.