Power of Positive

Philanthropist Susan McDowell’s $2 million commitment to the Bloomsburg University Foundation is establishing the McDowell Institute for Teacher Excellence in Positive Behavior Support. Teachers and students are benefiting.

Katherine Zimmerman has worked as a camp counselor since she was 16. She is well acquainted with the frustration a teacher feels when faced with a child who consistently misbehaves, despite constant scolding and repeated efforts to reason with him.

But in one of her first education classes at Bloomsburg University, Zimmerman learned a different approach to preventing misbehavior: Instead of telling children only what they’re doing wrong, teach them about appropriate behavior long before problems start. And, when you do have to address misbehavior, keep it positive. Don’t just tell a child to stop doing something but, instead, redirect her to what she should be doing.

“I found that it made sense to me right away. It was everything that was in the back of my mind; however, I never thought of it in that light before,” says Zimmerman, an honors student who graduated in May 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in special and elementary education.

The technique the 22-year-old learned — Positive Behavior Support — is being embraced throughout Bloomsburg’s College of Education and is the focus of the new McDowell Institute for Teacher Excellence. It addresses a problem many new teachers said they were struggling to overcome.

Why PBS?
While recent graduates said they left BU with a thorough understanding of their subject material, they reported struggling with classroom discipline issues, both at the upper and lower grade levels. Bloomsburg’s teaching graduates are not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than 60 percent of first-time teachers report feeling underequipped to handle the social and emotional needs of the students they encounter.

In response, Bloomsburg has taken a comprehensive look at its education classes in the past year and is injecting Positive Behavior Support (PBS) methodologies throughout its curriculum. In practical terms, it means students no longer just take a class concentrating on classroom management techniques and move on, but that the techniques and concepts are reinforced throughout all of their instructional methods courses.

Helping the faculty figure out how to incorporate the elements of Positive Behavior Support into the curriculum is where the McDowell Institute comes in. Housed in the university’s Navy Hall, a soon-to-be-hired director and staff will be tasked with both helping professors work PBS into their classrooms and working directly with students. The budding institute received a major boost in February when philanthropist Susan McDowell of Selinsgrove gave a $2 million gift to the Bloomsburg University Foundation.

Tim Knoster, chair of the university’s Department of Exceptionality Programs, says teachers have historically struggled, to some degree, with how to motivate students to engage in appropriate behavior, but these days the problem is more complex. “Increasingly, there is a greater proportion of kids with really extreme levels of social and emotional need. That need impedes, or makes virtually impossible, helping those kids achieve academic outcomes.”

It’s a problem that cuts across socioeconomic lines at a time when budget cutbacks mean teachers are handling larger classrooms with less support, making an already tough situation more challenging, he says.

Knoster, who is playing a lead role in helping to incorporate PBS into the curriculum, says many of BU’s education faculty members were already talking about this challenge with students. The new emphasis will include a series of short, online training modules that each teacher education major will complete at the start of every academic year.

The PBS approach
“Traditional classroom management approaches are reactive in nature,” Knoster says. “With PBS, the emphasis is placed on prevention through teaching. When you do need to redirect, you are redirecting the student to do what he or she should be doing.”

A key part of the approach is being proactive. Instead of only responding to bad behavior, teachers talk with students about what good behavior looks and sounds like, asking the youngsters to describe what they should be doing when, for example, they are taking a test in the classroom, walking in the halls between classes or eating lunch in the cafeteria. The teacher then makes lists of what constitutes proper behavior in a given circumstance and writes it on posters that are displayed in the classroom. Now everyone knows what is expected, and the students themselves helped create the expectations.

The emphasis is placed on acknowledging students for regularly meeting these expectations. When a student acts out, such as calling out in class, the teacher not only says what not to do, but reminds the student that the way to get her attention is by raising his hand to be called on – just as the class has talked about.

“The basic principle is how we all learn skills. People help us focus on what we are trying to learn, we receive reinforcement as we learn those skills and we receive ongoing reinforcement in our use of those acquired skills over time,” Knoster says.

In practice in Berwick
When Randy Peters, principal of Orange Street Elementary School in Berwick Area School District, came to the school seven years ago, there was a real problem with student behavior. His school, and the rest of the district, began using PBS methods.

One way his school emphasizes good behavior is through Eagle Awards. Every time students are “caught being good,” they receive an eagle-shaped slip which they take to the office. In return, they receive a special pencil and pick an egg from an eagle’s nest created by the art department. Inside the plastic egg is a number that matches a number on a chart with 100 squares in 10 rows of 10. A student puts his name on a corresponding number and, when a row of 10 is filled, all the students whose names are in that row get prizes, such as movie tickets, school supplies and board games. The chart then starts over. At an end-of-the-year assembly, names of all Eagle Award winners are placed in a container and about a dozen names are drawn for special prizes, such as iPods, Peters says.

Teachers also use other PBS methods, and posters hang in various areas to remind students of what is expected. “The key things we talk about here are to be respectful, act responsibly, remember safety and keep trying. Those core values appear in every area of the building to show students what’s expected.”

Peters, who graduated from Bloomsburg in 1982 and won the 2011 National Distinguished Principal Award, says teachers and staff at Orange Street School have seen a dramatic improvement. In 2006-07, there were 81 discipline referrals and 27 out-of-school suspensions, compared with 26 referrals and only one suspension in 2011-12.

“It was amazing to me how quickly we had positive results,” Peters says, adding that even the most difficult students showed some improvement.

Connecting with students
Robert Dampman, chair of the Bloomsburg University Council of Trustees, believes the focus on classroom management is important. Schools are seeing kids with complex problems and teachers must understand what their students are facing and how to best deal with the challenges. New teachers, he says, need to realize that to be effective, they must know how to connect with the students.

Dampman, a 1965 Bloomsburg graduate and former superintendent in Bensalem School District, cautions that despite the best teacher and administrator efforts, there is only so much that can be done in the limited time a child is at school. “The elephant in the room is (that) the child is still going home to the same situation and may come back with the same bad behavior the next day,” he says.

While that’s certainly true, Mike McCormick ’10/’11M, who teaches sixth grade at Danville Middle School, says he’s been surprised at how effective PBS is, even with troubled kids. For some, it marks the first time a teacher has tried to teach appropriate behavior, build rapport and reason with them.

“Sometimes that’s all they need, someone to talk to, someone to confide in,” says McCormick, whose master’s thesis and research on PBS helped the university set up its approach to the training. “If a student’s home life is bad, the structure of school and knowing they have a safe place helps them to feel a sense of normalcy and can allow them to thrive, because that’s what they need.”

For Zimmerman, who was recently hired to teach in the New York City schools, PBS is an important tool she uses as a camp counselor. In addition to providing training at her camp and several others, she is working on a training module that she plans to offer online.

Zimmerman says she found PBS techniques worked, even with children at a juvenile detention facility where she did a student teaching placement. “Right away, I would try to build rapport, getting to know them and trying to use positive reinforcement because many said other teachers told them they would be failures and never pass school,” she says. “It’s important to always positively reinforce, even if it’s a small ‘you’re doing good, you’re on the right track, you’re making progress.’ That was really inspiring to them.” •

Jack Sherzer is a professional writer and Pennsylvania native. He currently lives in Harrisburg.

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