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Over the last two decades, schools have faced enormous pressure with standards-based accountability reform efforts, and more recently, with the introduction of the Common Core. As administrators try to balance competing demands and initiatives, they also are charged to lead schools that are safe and supportive environments. One initiative that has demonstrated measurable success and has been supported through federal mandates is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). According to the National Technical Assistance Center on PBIS, in the last 15 years this preventive approach to creating a safe and supportive environment has been adopted by more than 14,000 schools across the country.

PBIS is a multitiered framework designed to prevent and respond to students’ behavior. This schoolwide, systems-based approach involves a continuum of supports for students based on need with intervention allocation and implementation driven by data. At Tier 1, the universal level of support, all students in the building are taught three to five schoolwide expectations, they have opportunities to practice meeting those expectations, and they receive reinforcement for meeting expectations. As school teams on site collect and analyze data such as grades, office discipline referrals, schoolwide screeners, and attendance, they determine which students need additional targeted support (Tier 2) or intensive support (Tier 3). 

Numerous studies on the effects of PBIS have been conducted, and the results are clear. Schools implementing PBIS have seen improvements in school climate and academic achievement, as well as decreases in discipline problems. Research shows that in order for schools to implement the program with fidelity, the school must buy in to the program, be given adequate resources to handle the load, and provide effective staff training. Once a school is implementing PBIS with a high degree of fidelity, the best predictors of sustainability are having a strong, functioning team that collects and uses data, and capacity building that involves access to ongoing professional development and external coaching. 

Professional development literature is available for the initial training and adoption of schoolwide PBIS, but less is known about how best to remediate a “failing school” when the PBIS plan is either no longer working or no longer in place. Consider the following case example.

Case Example: Plainland School District

Plainland School District-a small, southern district serving 10,300 students in grades pre-K-12-had attempted to stay aligned with national standards by adopting research-based initiatives such as Response to Intervention (RtI). For years, the Plainland RtI framework focused exclusively on Response to Intervention in the academic domain. In 2007, Plainland introduced a PBIS initiative. The district provided brief professional development on PBIS and trained a few staff members from each school. All schools in the district were mandated to implement the three Rs-Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Resourceful. Definitions of these expectations varied across schools. Additionally, the district printed uniform posters with these three expectations for all schools to display. 

Due to not meeting Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) expectations for several years, one of the elementary schools (Sunny Elementary School) was labeled a “failing school” and ultimately received a School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the U.S. Department of Education earmarked for the “lowest performing schools.” Sunny served approximately 385 students in grades K-5. Of these, half were male, 99.5 percent were African American, and 94.5 percent were labeled “economically disadvantaged.” Several key initiatives were identified for improvement and support with SIG funds, including PBIS remediation. Additionally, Sunny Elementary replaced its principal and several teachers. PBIS remediation and personnel restructuring were targeted due to overall school climate, discipline, and academic shortfalls. 

Four-Step PBIS Turnaround Model 

To move Sunny Elementary from a “failing” school to a thriving one and improve school climate, the external coach hired by the district developed a turnaround training and support plan. The plan required monthly meetings with the established leadership team on an annual basis and one two-day retraining session in PBIS for school leaders. The school developed a four-step process from the remediation plan.

Step 1: Establish a Leadership Team

The first step was to establish a representative PBIS leadership team. The external coach provided guidelines about the team makeup to the school principal, who then nominated faculty members and asked for their participation. The program required representation from all grade levels, at least one nonclassroom staff member, no more than six people on the team, and member agreement to the commitment and time requirements. 

Step 2: Institute Monthly PBIS Meetings

Once the leadership team was established, the external coach began hosting monthly meetings with the team on the second Tuesday of every month after school (a common date and time convenient for all team members). During initial meetings, the coach described the purposes of the monthly PBIS leadership team meetings and functions of the team. Together they practiced locating discipline data as well as inspecting and comparing data. At full faculty meetings, the leadership team reported on their activities to the rest of the faculty. This step was completed and continued through the second semester of Year 1. 

Step 3: Retrain and Develop a New Framework

After the coach established a working relationship with the principal and the PBIS leadership team and after the leadership team was accustomed to holding monthly meetings and working as a team, the external coach conducted a two-day summer retraining on PBIS for the leadership team. 

Retraining, which focused on remediating the Tier 1 plan, focused on several things. The staff was given a history and background of PBIS, including defining PBIS and its core features, and they were shown examples of student outcome changes resulting from PBIS implementation. Additionally, the external coach helped the school establish new behavioral expectations aligned to its own beliefs and values and created a behavioral matrix. The retraining also outlined procedures for teaching expectations and instructed staff on how to make data-based decisions. Final components included designing a reinforcement system, designing a roll-out plan, and securing staff buy-in. 

In the two-day training session, the PBIS leadership team designed an entirely new, customized PBIS framework based on the schoolwide expectations of SOAR: Solve problems peacefully, Own your choices, Always follow directions, and Respect everyone. 

In lieu of developing a ticket-based reinforcement system, the leadership team decided to initiate a web-based tool for tracking behavior and providing reinforcement called Class Dojo (www.classdojo.com). In this system, students earned “dojo points” for displaying prosocial behavior, and the teacher allowed students to “cash in” their dojo points in the classroom or school store. Additionally, the PBIS leadership team set a dojo point goal for all students each month; every student that met the goal was invited to participate in a fun end-of-the-month activity (i.e., movie and popcorn, water play on the playground, dance party, etc.).  

Step 4: Building Capacity with Team-Based Decision Making

The two-day retraining and planning workshop was completed in time for materials and activities to be put in place at the beginning of Year 2 SIG support. There were two kick-off celebrations-one for staff and one for students.

In Year 2, the PBIS leadership team met regularly to plan monthly activities and set goals for participation. Additionally, each month the PBIS team reported to the full faculty and met with the external coach for data-driven programming decisions. For example, in a certain month discipline data indicated behavioral problems were occurring frequently in and around the bathroom. So the decision was made to reteach SOAR bathroom expectations. The external coach continued this level of support throughout the second year, completed the SET (schoolwide evaluation tool) in December and April comparing implementation fidelity to the year prior to retraining, and examined schoolwide discipline data.

Turnaround Outcomes

Overall, school climate and discipline improved dramatically once Sunny Elementary began the turn-around process-the result of coaching support and consistent follow-through on behalf of the school. Prior to the retraining component of the turnaround process, the SET score indicated only 29 percent of essential PBIS components were in place. After one semester of implementation, the SET score improved to 74 percent, and at the end of one year the score was 96 percent. 

Sara C. McDaniel, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, AL, in the Department of Special Education and Multiple Abilities. 

Allison L. Bruhn, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, IA, in special education.