Reframe Podcast: Episode 2

Teaching Expectations: How Proactive Positivity is Transforming School Culture


Both inside the classroom and out, the goal is to cultivate an optimal learning environment that can build social, emotional, and academic success.

Read the transcript

James M. Loy:

This is Reframe, The podcast from the College of Education, Health and Society on the campus of Miami university. 

In this episode . . . 

We look at how a new behavioral model called PBIS is gaining momentum as an alternative way to promote a healthy learning environment, and how some schools are using PBIS to transform their entire internal cultures. 

A few years ago, Wilson Elementary in the Forrest 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, or PBIS for short. 

According to Wilson Elementary School Counselor Jean Bode, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS for short, is something the school came across while looking for and answer to its hallway problem.

Jean Bode:

“We had a committee that we got together from the guidance of our principal to start looking at, okay, how we could move kids in the hall. And from that we started researching what was out there besides us, just our own brains thinking about this. And there was information that came to us from our education support center about PBIS. So we went to the training and it was a perfect fit for what we needed.”

James M. Loy:

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. 

The goal, she says, is to cultivate an optimal learning environment that can build social, emotional, and academic success both inside and outside of the classroom. 

Amity Noltemeyer:

“It is a way to not just improve student behavior, but to improve the whole climate of the school. Everybody’s kind of on a team and it becomes a community where we all share in these values and promote them. Rather than just focusing on you’re not doing this right. You’re not following the rules. It is really trying to get ahead of the game and really encourage the positive behaviors.” 

James M. Loy:

So 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. 

Here’s Professor Noltemeyer again:

Amity Noltemeyer:

“The whole idea about PBIS is that schools traditionally have been very reactive. They wait until the child misbehaves and then you send them to the office, you suspend them, you expel them. But we know that that does not really work to change behavior. The idea of PBIS is the school creates a leadership team and that team, with feedback from parents and community members, they develop three to five positively worded behaviors expectations that are taught consistently across the school. The cafeteria workers know them, the bus drivers know them. Everybody follows these expectations and it is a core part of what they do.” 

James M. Loy:

In the past, it was not uncommon for different teachers to have different rules in different classrooms for different students all within the same school. But this kind of ambiguity can be confusing to younger school children. 

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,” as Bode explains:

Jean Bode:

“Our expectations are Take Care of Yourself, Take Care of Others, and Take Care of Our Wonderful Wilson School. And it is rooted so deeply in common language within a building that everyone can understand, relate to, and use. We are all in the community together. We all have similar expectations and we all speak the same language, which is so beneficial for kids.”

James M. Loy:

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 another 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. Instead it is about acknowledging.

Karen Coe:

“We counteract that with it is acknowledgement. We all need acknowledgment. So it’s some of the myths that we have to counteract, or they will say it is ‘bribery.’ Well, no. Bribery is paying something illicit or illegal so we are about acknowledging the behaviors that we want.” 

James M. Loy:

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, this system has been amazingly successful for Wilson, so much so it 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. 

This showcase was organized as part of Noltemeyer’s School Climate Transformation Grant, and it 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, including Wilson Elementary, were also grateful to be acknowledged for a job well done.

Jean Bode:

“It is our community that is getting that recognition – the whole entire Wilson Community. Our parents, our students, and our staff. It is definitely our whole team. The big community is getting acknowledged for something that we are just kind of doing every day. It is just really exciting to get that recognition.” 

James M. Loy:

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 are smooth sailing all the way to class.