Teaching Expectations: How Proactive Positivity is Transforming School Culture


James M. Loy, Miami University's College of Education, Health, and Society

A few years ago, Wilson Elementary in the Forest Hills School District of Cincinnati, OH, had a problem. Its hallways were becoming increasingly disorganized, the kids a bit disorderly, and chaos began to brew. This might not be considered the most serious concern facing schools today, but it was a problem. It was often disruptive, certainly unproductive, and it led to an unnecessarily hectic environment.

So rather than letting things get worse, Wilson took a proactive approach, and began setting clear expectations about appropriate behavior. But, first things first, it felt that students needed to actually understand these expectations before they could be reinforced. This may seem like an obvious step, but it’s one that some schools are just now embracing through a systemic model called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).

“We started looking at how we could move kids in the hall,” said Jean Bode, Wilson Elementary School Counselor. “From that, we started researching what was out there, and PBIS was a perfect fit for what we needed.”

Like Wilson Elementary, Amity Noltemeyer, Miami University associate professor of educational psychology in the College of Education, Health and Society, also sees PBIS as a viable way to positively impact school environments, and she is the recipient of a major federal grant to support it.

As co-director of the Ohio School Climate Transformation Grant, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and through the Ohio Department of Education, Noltemeyer’s mission is to educate, train, assist, and recognize schools seeking to integrate PBIS. Both inside the classroom and out, the goal is to cultivate an optimal learning environment that can build social, emotional, and academic success.

“It is not just a way to improve student behavior, but to improve the whole school culture,” said Noltemeyer. “Everybody gets on the same team and it becomes a community that shares the same values and promotes them. Rather than just focusing on students who are not following the rules, it is about promoting and recognizing positive behavior.”

At its core, PBIS is also about being preemptive, and getting in front of a problem before it becomes a crisis.

Across the nation, anxiety over the state of schools and the occurrence of potentially dangerous student behaviors have hit a crescendo in the country’s collective consciousness. Many high profile incidents such as the Newtown tragedy have stimulated public debates and even political action. In response to the Sandy Hook shooting, President Obama enacted the “Now is the Time” initiative, which led directly to the School Climate Transformation Grant funding.

The growing interest in PBIS is a partial response to some of these heightened concerns. And as an alternative way to promote a healthy school climate, PBIS is gaining momentum, but it does mark a departure from many typical ideologies still present in schools today.

All schools teach math, language, and science. Most even teach art, music, and more. But until recently, teaching children how to act was not part of the curriculum. Like the knowledge for a test they were expected to prepare for in advance, good behavior was just something kids were supposed to bring with them.

Almost everyone will recognize this kind of system, most people grew up with it, and many experts still support it. But it can produce a school climate that is inconsistent and potentially ineffective.

“Schools traditionally have been very reactive,” Noltemeyer explained. “They waited until the child misbehaved and then they would punish them. But we know that that does not really change behavior. In the past, teachers would often have different rules, or there was a long laundry list of rules. And that can be confusing.”

By contrast, PBIS works by setting consistent expectation standards, clearly communicating and modeling those expectations at every opportunity, and then recognizing those students that reinforce appropriate behaviors. It also relies on evidence-based data to determine decisions, and since it is not a curriculum or a standardized set of lessons, each school can adapt PBIS to meet their particular needs.

For Wilson Elementary, this lead to the “Wilson Way.”

“Our expectations are, ‘take care of yourself, take care of others, and take care of our wonderful Wilson school,’” Bode explained. “They are rooted deeply in a common language that everyone can understand, relate to, and use. It is not just what students should do in math class, which may look different than reading class. Rather, everybody is all in the community together. We all have similar expectations and we all speak the same language.”

The school spent a lot of time planning the language around the Wilson Way, which has since been so thoroughly woven throughout nearly all daily activities that when students get disruptive, most teachers can restore order by simply saying, “Let me see what the ‘Wilson Way’ looks like right now.”

The students understand immediately. They respond, in part, because they know exactly what appropriate behavior looks like in the hallways, and in the bathrooms, the classrooms, the cafeteria, and so on.

But, of course, these are school children, after all, and additional positive reinforcement goes a long way toward this kind of success. So a crucial aspect of PBIS is predicated on recognizing those behaviors that align with, and ideally exceed, expectations.

At Wilson Elementary, exemplary individual behavior is recognized with blue cards, and good classroom behavior with gold cards. As students accumulate cards, they can be exchanged for a variety of rewards or activities through an acknowledgement system.

Admittedly, this is one of the program’s primary criticisms, which is that kids should not be rewarded for simply doing what they are supposed to do anyway. But Karen Coe, Hamilton County Educational Service Center Supervisor and Consultant, pushes back against this critique, positing that it is not rewarding, but acknowledging.

“We all need acknowledgement,” Coe said. “We all need to hear that we are being respectful or that we are just doing a good job. PBIS is about acknowledging the behaviors that we want to see, whether those are academic or social behaviors.”

Wilson Elementary is cognizant of these concerns and it follows a “no salt, no sugar, no cost” philosophy, which means students never earn candy or treats, and usually never toys (though rarely a student will select a small trinket). Instead, the perks are more experiential in nature. Students can, for example, trade in blue cards to eat lunch with the principal or help out in the cafeteria. Entire classrooms can also trade gold cards for a pajama day or to spend an hour on their electronic devices.

So far, the school has been so successful in these efforts that Wilson was recently a top winner at the 2016 Ohio PBIS Showcase. Along with McKinley Elementary School in Xenia, Ohio, Wilson Elementary was one of only two schools to win a gold award for its outstanding work.

Organized as part of Noltemeyer’s School Climate Transformation Grant, the Showcase brought together almost 400 educational professionals from approximately 149 Ohio schools. It was an opportunity to give a growing community of PBIS-minded schools the ability to learn from the challenges and accomplishments of its peers.

The Showcase was also a way to recognize the hard work of all the schools who, like Wilson Elementary, are striving to create a better overall learning environment. As award contenders, participating schools were judged on their comprehensive PBIS planning, overall level of administrative support, and on a review of all relevant data documenting an ability to remedy problematic areas.

And much like their own students who enjoy a bit of encouragement themselves, the bronze, silver, and gold award winners were also grateful to be acknowledged for a job well done.

“It is our community that is getting that recognition -- the whole entire Wilson Community,” Bode said. “Our parents, our students, and our staff. It is definitely our whole team getting acknowledged for something that we are just trying to do every day. So it is super exciting for us to get that recognition.”

Today at Wilson Elementary, the effects of PBIS can be felt across the entire school. Office disciplines are down, the cafeteria is calm, and trips down the hallways, of course, are smooth sailing all the way to class.