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by Julie Perron on Nov 9, 2016
Creating and sustaining school cultures that support the social and emotional needs of children is a topic of continual discussion in educational forums.
I have spent decades exploring how to best support students when we can only truly control the seven or eight hours a day they are in our care. How do we then find ways to make a positive impact that is self-sustaining, while keeping the learning rigorous and the programs relevant on campus?
One way we have seen positive impacts on school campus is through the framework of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). According to the PBIS website, PBIS is a framework or approach for assisting school personnel in adopting and organizing evidence-based behavioral interventions into an integrated continuum that enhances academic and social behavior outcomes for all students (pbis.org). Clearly, Supports (PBIS) receives considerable acclai, and is considered to be one of the best ways to ensure student learning and a healthy school climate. However, it is a framework that must be implemented with fidelity, but sometimes requires fresh thinking and a creative approach to keep the climate positive and productive.
PBIS presents multiple incentives and reminders for positive behavior, and they are worthy and powerful change agents. Walls painted vibrantly with school mottos and rules, bright banners adorning chain link fences and cafeteria entries, and school entryways remind students of expectations. Nevertheless, spirit shirts, bracelets, tickets, drawings, water bottles, lanyards, bumper stickers and banners, complete with school mascots and mottos, can grow tiresome for staff and students after time. What was once shiny and new becomes simply part of the daily routine, and even the most enthusiastic educator can become less inspired by the wellintentioned and positive messages surrounding us.
Years ago, at a school where I was principal, I was blessed with bus duty at 7 a.m.on a cold December day in Eastern Washington. The bus was late, and when it finally arrived, students scrambled to disembark and walk to class. Backpacks, coats, scarves and hats, the flurry of students passed me as I greeted, “Good morning” through shattering teeth. Suddenly, an upper-grade student slipped, falling hard in the ice and snow. Another student put down his backpack and reached out to help her. My heart warmed to witness such an act of kindness. Not wanting to let this moment pass without proper principal recognition, I called him over to thank him for his caring gesture. I cheerfully recognized his helpful and responsible choice to help her up. “Wow, that was so kind!” I remarked. The student responded, “Well, can I get a PAWs award?” (PAWs is an acronym for “Practice safety, Act responsibly, Work hard, and Show respect”.) Incredulously, I shared, “Um, no.” He looked shocked, “Why not?” he responded. “Well,” I explained, “because sometimes it’s just awesome to do the right thing.” With a frown he turned to walk away, and then turned back, irritated, and retorted, “Well, if I had known you wouldn’t give me a PAWs award, I wouldn’t have helped her up,” and sauntered off to class, leaving me speechless.
This question of “Do I get a PAWs award?” recurs throughout my tenure as a principal. And each time, I have been perplexed by incredulous faces of students looking to “get something” in return for behavior that should be expected as part of our daily routine.
“Do I get a PAWs award?” mentality has forced me to reflect with an action plan in mind. Of course, we know that teaching students to demonstrate respectful and responsible behavior is part of our daily routine. However, we must find ways to recognize those moments of kindness, of simple courtesy, of caring, without always providing a prize, a sticker, or some kind of award. We must teach students the reward is in the action itself—in the feeling of care, kindness, affection we feel for our fellow human beings. If we cannot emphasize this truth to our students, we make no real progress, and we continue to prepare our students for a society where the reflective question, “What’s in it for me?” continues, other ather than “How can I make the world a better place?”
Like all educators, I wish I held the magic fairy dust to sprinkle on our playgrounds, in our classrooms, in our cafeterias and parking lots to transform our students into inherently compassionate human beings with a natural sense of integrity. However, the real magic starts with the adults in students’ lives. If we promote, tolerate or even participate in the “What’s in it for me?” philosophy, we will always be faced with real challenges in changing students’ behavior. If all adults model kindness and civility and the desire to help for the sake of being a better person, perhaps students will do the same.
We live in a society where “us vs. them,” and “not my problem” reign as excuses of the day. As educators whose moral imperative is to prepare students for successful life experiences and post-secondary pursuits, we must challenge such thinking. In taking the high road, hopefully, we will model for students what true respect and responsibility look, sound, and feel like and how the real reward is in the act, not in the prize. In this way, hopefully, the next one of us who stumbles and falls getting off the school bus of life will be helped by a bystander not looking for a reward, but rather because it’s the right thing to do.
Watch this webinar to learn to assess and build a positive, inclusive school culture: "From Restorative Justice to Restorative Discipline in Schools: Challenges and Opportunities", presented by Jeffrey Sprague, Ph.D.
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