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New culture: PBIS system aims to change behavior from the ground up in Rockdale schools
Memorial Middle School teachers and students use shared and commonly agreed upon values and behaviors to regain focus during a Skype session with NASA engineers. - photo by Michelle Kim/The News

Eric Landers has been overhauling student behavior in public schools for well over a decade.

Now, Landers is using the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support, PBIS, program, a program he’s used at schools throughout the country, on schools in Rockdale County. 

The key to the program’s success is to increase prevention of particular student behaviors before it even becomes a problem by first unifying the teachers of the particular school on an established set of behavioral expectations for the students, says Landers, who holds a doctorate in special education with a specialty in children with behavioral disorders from the University of Florida.

“The biggest issue at most schools is that every teacher has their own concept of what a student should do,” he said. “(PBIS) brings the school together and we define in the common areas what are the acceptable behaviors that we want kids to do so every teacher is aware of it and every teacher is teaching the same thing.”


What is PBIS?

The program, developed in the mid-1990s by two professors from the University of Oregon and now used in over 20,000 schools across the nation, is designed to be a framework for all teachers and administrators to build consistent reactions to student’s actions.  This will help reduce environmental deficiencies within the school, says Landers. 

“A lot of kids fail in school because of us adults,” he said. “We create these environmental deficiencies by not communicating with one other and saying, ‘Hey, what are our expectations of these kids. ‘ We don’t want to setup a system where we give kids things to behave.”

While the letter “P” in the acronym PBIS means positive, Landers stresses that just being positive about unacceptable behavioral will only get school teachers and officials more of the same with little to no results. 

Stopping the behavior before it escalates is the only way to solve problems because, “if I can be preventative I’m not dealing with that behavior in the first place therefore I’m teaching more and therefore I can have a critical interaction with that child.”


Rockdale getting proactive

Landers met some of the school system officials at his annual southeastern conference on PBIS in June.  After hearing more about the program, Rockdale officials were interested, says Landers, and he’s been working with the teachers and school officials since the early part of July. 

Rockdale County Public Schools began implementing this program in middle and high schools in July. Elementary schools will start the PBIS program next year.

April Fallon, director of community and student support for Rockdale County Public Schools, says that the school system has been discussing implementing a PBIS program at schools “to establish a really positive, social culture for teachers and students.”

Teaching behavioral skills sometimes go overlooked as students get older and progress through their academic careers, she said.

“I think sometimes we think (students) should know how to behave, but if it isn’t reiterated as they get older, it can be forgotten,” said Fallon. “We do that a lot in academics but not so much with behavior.”

Landers met with representatives from the participating schools and school system administrators Aug. 29 to evaluate the first month of the program and continue the help the teachers and school officials establish behavioral guidelines for their school.

“They are doing a superb job at implementing these programs at their secondary schools,” Landers said of the teachers and administrators. “My goal for myself is to work myself out of a job.”


But does it work?

The best way to determine if the program is successful is by looking at the number of student referrals, says Landers. 

 He postulates that within the first year of him facilitating a school’s implementation of the program the school’s number of referrals decreases 20 to 30% on average. 

“The percentage continues to drop after the first year,” he said. 

Rockdale County High School teacher Dean Poole, PBIS team coordinator for Rockdale County High School, says that there’s been a visual change in the way the teachers interact with the students and vice versa within the first month of the program. 

 “We’re still building, but even in the first month, walking through our halls in week four versus week one I’ve seen just how much clearer they are and (how students are with) talking to teachers,” said Poole, who’s worked at the school for six years.  

The school has its PBIS goals for students, being responsible, respectful, on time and ready to learn, shouted out over the loud speaker every morning to reinforce that message.

But, he’s quick to acknowledge that this program is still brand new to everyone and it will take time more time before the desired effect is achieved. 

“This is a slow burn process,” said Poole. “The whole process is designed to be implemented over three to five years. You’re kind of changing the school’s culture.”

Rockdale County High School is currently tracking data, such as tardy referrals, behavioral referrals and other academic data, so they “have a base data so we can look back at each month.” Data for the month of August wasn’t readily available at the time of print. 


Follow up meetings

Landers is scheduled to make a return to Rockdale Sept. 23. He’ll be here for three days monitoring the progress of the program at schools by walking the halls of every school and getting a first-person view of the two-month trial.

He’ll make a return again Oct. 1 to begin facilitating the program for elementary schools in the county. 

Since elementary school teachers spend so much time teaching behavior to their students, the RPSS thought it best to rollout the plan early with the secondary schools, says Fallon.

“Students are younger and they spend a lot of time learning about behavior,” she said. “(Elementary Schools) have a lot of that in place already. We just want to enhance (what they learn).”