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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Blue Tickets and Big Smiles

At a rural middle school, Positive Behavior Support changed a toxic climate to one in which students feel protected and encouraged.

"The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts."<ATTRIB>—C. S. Lewis</ATTRIB>
Although C. S. Lewis made this claim almost 50 years ago, it rings true for educators trying to reach adolescent students today. As a junior high school administrator who has tried various behavioral intervention programs over the years, I can attest that it is difficult to reach students—to encourage them and give them the guidance they need to bloom. One truism all junior high administrators eventually learn is that you have to get to their hearts before you can get to their minds.
The Positive Behavior Support (PBS) approach to student behavior is all about encouraging learners to pursue behaviors that will make their community respectful and caring—for them and everyone else. This approach helped turn the rural junior high school I colead, which had an atmosphere that students and faculty experienced as "toxic," into a safe, caring, and engaging place.

Why PBS?

In the last decade, more than 10,000 schools in the United States have used Positive Behavior Support to improve faculty, staff, and student behavior (Myers &amp; Briere, 2010). Schools that implement PBS report an improvement in schoolwide social climate and see a correlation between learners' improved social behavior and their academic accomplishment (Horner et al., 2004; Lane, Gresham, &amp; O'Shaughnessy, 2002).
Schoolwide PBS gives all students guidance on how to behave considerately. Historically, behavioral intervention programs targeted high-risk kids who had exhibited problem behaviors. Positive Behavior Support emphasizes preventive programs for everyone. It recommends explicitly teaching behaviors the community has identified as positive ones to all students in elementary and secondary schools (Lewis &amp; Sugai, 1999). Figure 1 identifies seven key practices of schools that successfully implement these programs.

Figure 1. Seven Key Features of Schoolwide Positive Behavior Support Systems

  1. Define 3 to 5 schoolwide expectations for appropriate behavior.

  2. Actively teach schoolwide behavioral expectations to all students.

  3. Monitor and acknowledge how well students engage in behavioral expectations.

  4. Correct problem behaviors using a consistently administered continuum of consequences.

  5. Gather and use information about student behavior to evaluate and guide decision making.

  6. Obtain leadership of schoolwide practices from an administrator who

    1. Establishes a team to develop, implement, and manage the schoolwide behavior support effort in a school.

    2. Serves as a member of the team.

    3. Allocates sufficient time to implement behavior support procedures.

    4. Identifies schoolwide behavior as one of the top three improvement goals for the school.

  7. Obtain district-level support from administrators who

    1. Train school personnel in schoolwide behavior support practices.

    2. Emphasize the expectation that schools will be safe and organized for effective learning.

    3. Communicate the expectation that school personnel will gather and report information on problem behavior patterns.


Positive Behavior Support also helps create meaningful relationships between teachers and students. Students need to feel that teachers care about them and have a vested interest in their future. Teenagers, in particular, want to be independent and make their own decisions, but they need a clear, defined structure within which to make those decisions (Klem &amp; Connell, 2004). They need to know what teachers expect in terms of conduct—and that adults will hand out consistent, predictable, fair consequences when students don't meet those expectations.
This article explores how my colleagues and I implemented Positive Behavior Support at Westover Park Junior High School, a school in the Texas panhandle that educates 800 7th and 8th graders. Twenty-five percent of our students are economically disadvantaged, and 23 percent are classified as "at-risk" because of previous academic and behavioral problems. Westover Park went from a culture with more than 2,000 disciplinary referrals per year to one with fewer than half that number (450), and one in which more than 90 percent of learners feel their school is respectful and supportive. Lessons we learned may help other practitioners bring about such change in their schools.

From Toxic to Positive

Three years ago, teachers, staff, students, and parents described the school culture at Westover Park as toxic and clinical. Today, 98 percent of the school's students (and 88 percent of its teachers) agree that the school climate is respectful; 91 percent of students and 87 percent of teachers believe the school is caring. Fully 100 percent of both teachers and students see Westover Park as safe.
Before 2008, Westover Park had no universal schoolwide support system in place. Our disciplinary policies included in- and out-of-school suspensions, detentions, and expulsions as well as alternative school placements. These were reactive responses intended to produce an immediate result. However, used alone, they had been ineffective in creating a more sustainable, positive school culture and relationships.
When a student received an office referral, teachers sent that learner to the Responsibility Center, where the student sat in an individual carrel and completed worksheets. This took the student away from in-class instruction. Although Westover Park still uses disciplinary referrals, since we began affirming positive behavior, office referrals, detentions, and Responsibility Center visits have greatly decreased. Our teachers say they now look for ways to reward good behavior rather than looking for bad behavior.

Living the Warrior Code

Evaluating a school's current situation is the foundation for developing Positive Behavior Support in any school (Safran &amp; Oswald, 2003). Westover Park began by administering the Effective Behavior Supports Self-Assessment Survey schoolwide (Lewis &amp; Sugai, 1999). The survey examines the current status and the need for improvement of four behavior support systems: schoolwide discipline; behavior management outside classrooms (such as in the cafeteria); classroom management; and guiding individual students with chronic behavior problems. Respondents mark what they perceive as the current status (and the importance of instituting such policies in the future) for statements like "A small number of positively and clearly stated student expectations or rules are defined."
The school also used archival data on disciplinary office referrals to define patterns of challenging behavior present in the school. We realized that the school was handling discipline in a clinical manner; there was a specific consequence for each offense but no heart behind corrective actions. Kids felt this lack of personal care, which decreased the discipline's effectiveness.
After looking at the existing picture, we chose to implement a universal support program, meaning one that focuses on improving all parties' behavior in all settings. Research by George Sugai, the cofounder of PBS (Lewis-Palmer, Sugai, &amp; Larson, 1999), recommends that junior high schools with high rates of office referrals implement schoolwide supports to reach larger numbers of students and involve teachers.
Administrators created our "warrior code": behavioral expectations that apply to all students and educators. We explain this code—and 15 introductory specific social practices or rules that our community wants students to adopt—at assemblies at the beginning of the year. Westover's faculty and administrators worked with the Parent Teacher Association and student leaders to develop these social expectations, taking some direction from Ron Clark's work identifying rules for school success (Clark, 2003). From day one, administrators make clear the expectations for the upcoming school year. Teachers post the code and expectations in the hallways and reinforce them in classrooms.

Figure 2. Westover Park Junior High School's Warrior Code

  1. Be Respectful

    • Respect yourself, others, and their property.

  2. Be Safe

    • Keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself.

  3. Be Responsible

    • Be on time and prepared for school.

    • Accept consequences for your actions.

  4. Be Successful

    • Listen and follow directions the first time.

    • Do your best each day.

  • When you respond to adults, say "Yes, Sir" and "Yes, Ma'am."
  • When you speak to another person, make good eye contact.
  • If you win, do not brag; if you lose, do not show anger.
  • Do not show disrespect with gestures.
  • Surprise people with random acts of kindness.
  • When given something, always say, "Thank you."
  • Do not ask for rewards.
  • Get to know the teachers and greet them in the hallways.
  • Keep your body and the bathrooms clean and germ free.
  • Do not save seats in the lunchroom.
  • If someone drops something, pick it up.
  • Hold the door for people.
  • If someone bumps into you, say "Excuse me," even if it was not your fault.
  • During an assembly, do not talk or call out to friends.
  • Let an adult you trust know when someone is messing with you.
During our daily homeroom period, students throughout the school work on the same social practice, using what we call "sponge activities" directed by teachers. Teachers directly discuss the day's social practice, model it, and let students role-play that practice so students learn how to interact respectfully with others and ultimately reach their goals. We try to keep it lighthearted so the practice doesn't seem like just another rule.
When a teacher, administrator, or staff member sees a student living the warrior code or actively promoting one of these expectations—such as picking up trash in the hall, thanking a peer, or showing self-control—the teacher gives that student a blue ticket. A positive chain reaction is set in motion. That student receives a prize from one of the school's principals, his or her name and action are announced to the school, and an adult calls the students' parents with the positive news. The ticket with the student's name on it goes into a drawing that happens each six weeks (for an iPod, movie passes, and other rewards). The teacher who gives the blue ticket is also eligible for the drawing. Westover Park kids know that when they hear of a peer getting a blue ticket, they should congratulate that student with applause or a high five.

Positive Perceptions

Administrators at Westover Park have received an overwhelmingly satisfied response to the PBS program. For the past two years, we've administered an internal survey to teachers, other school staff members, students, and parents seeking feedback on seven aspects of school culture. Students and teachers have expressed positive views about the program and increasing comfort with the school climate. On the 2011 survey, besides agreeing that Westover Park is safe and respectful, a large majority of both students and teachers agreed that the school is caring (91 percent of students; 87 percent of teachers), engaging (90 and 77 percent of students and teachers, respectively), and supportive (91 and 83 percent of students and teachers, respectively).
Westover Park also measured students' understanding of the school community's overall expectations—something PBS generally improves. We found that students feel quite clear on expectations (100 percent said they understand or "somewhat understand" academic and behavioral expectations). Another frequently mentioned benefit of adopting PBS—a greater sense of security among students—showed up when we asked students how safe they felt in different areas of the school building; fewer than 7 percent felt unsafe anywhere in the school. And a random sample of 100 parents revealed that 91 percent who responded were satisfied overall with the school's climate.
Interviews and focus groups with teachers, staff, students, parents, and administrators about the blue ticket program revealed positive perceptions. Students said they felt more cared for and encouraged by teachers and administrators. As this teacher's statement shows, teachers and staff saw improvements in student responsibility, overall climate, and parental relationships:I've called countless parents who are used to receiving phone calls from the school [about] a mistake their child has made. Often on blue ticket contacts, parents tell me this was the first positive phone call they have had after eight years in school. They are always thankful for the call, and sometimes shocked. If nothing else, it shows the parents we care, and that we look for the good things in their children…. It can even change their perception of schools.

Lessons Learned

  • Use data. Lewis and Sugai (1999) emphasize the need to use assessment data to first target school needs and then develop effective programs for your individual school. It's important to understand the school's past and present culture and discipline policies before trying to force new programs.
  • Work hard to get buy-in from faculty, staff, students, and parents. For instance, making teachers eligible for the drawing each six weeks helps keep our faculty involved and motivated. Support from the school district will have a trickle-down effect on school administrators, who will in turn affect the views of teachers and parents. Ultimately, teachers will sell this program to the students.
  • Get the community involved. Community members want schools to produce good citizens and are typically willing to invest in a PBS program. The prizes we give in our blue-ticket program are donated from local businesses. Community members and school administrators often communicate through our Parent Teacher Association.
  • Be consistent. It takes a lot of work at the beginning of a PBS program to keep enthusiasm high and teachers and students involved. Administrators keep blue tickets circulating by giving each teacher two blue tickets to hand out every six weeks and encouraging teachers to ask for more tickets. This keeps the blue tickets in high demand.
  • Celebrate good choices. To encourage continued stellar behavior, make sure the community knows when students make positive choices. For instance, each time a student receives a blue ticket, Westover Park administrators announce it to the whole school. When it becomes cool to behave respectfully, the job of a junior high administrator is almost complete.

Clark, R. (2003). The essential 55: An award-winning educator's rules for discovering the successful student in every child. New York: Hyperion.

Horner, R. H., Todd, A. W., Lewis-Palmer, T., Irvin, L. K., Sugai, G., &amp; Boland, J. B. (2004). The school-wide evaluation tool (SET): A research instrument for assessing school-wide positive behavior support. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, 6(1), 3–12.

Klem, A. M., &amp; Connell, J. P. (2004). Relationships matter: Linking teacher support to student engagement and achievement. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 262–273.

Lane, K. L., Gresham, F. M., &amp; O'Shaughnessy, T. E. (Eds.). (2002). Interventions for children with or at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Lewis, T. J., &amp; Sugai, G. (1999). Effective behavior support: A systems approach to proactive school-wide management. Focus on Exceptional Children, 31(6), 1–24.

Lewis-Palmer, T., Sugai, G., &amp; Larson, S. (1999). Using data to guide decisions about program implementation and effectiveness. Effective School Practices, 17(4), 47–53.

Myers, D. M., &amp; Briere, D. (2010). Lessons learned from implementing a check-in/check-out behavioral program in an urban middle school. Beyond Behavior, 19(2), 21–27.

Safran, S. P., &amp; Oswald, K. (2003). Positive behavior supports: Can schools reshape disciplinary practices? Exceptional Children, 69, 361–373.

Sugai, G., Horner, R. H., &amp; Todd, A. W. (2003). EBS Self-Assessment Survey version 2.0. Eugene: Educational and Community Supports, University of Oregon.

End Notes

1 Because this survey was first given in 2010, there is only one year of comparison data.

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