This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
For Amy Williams, principal of the William Dick Elementary School in North Philadelphia, it had to rank among the strangest frantic parent calls she had ever received.
“He’s crying because I washed his pants,” the mother of a 4th-grade boy told her.
Unfortunately, the pants had contained the boy’s wad of “Cat Cash,” play money handed out by teachers at the school to reward good behavior by individual students and whole classes.
For the students, collecting the Cat Cash — named for the school mascot, the panther — may be a game, trading the cash for goodies ranging from stuffed animals to class trips.
But for Williams and other educators around the country, it’s part of a serious effort to improve the climate at their schools and reduce disruptive behavior so that learning can take place.
Dick, a K-8 school, is among the 19,000-plus schools in the country that use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). The system, which reinforces good behavior, was developed by education researchers in the 1980s as an alternative to discipline practices that relied on suspensions and expulsions for bad behavior.
“The thought is to change the culture of the school,” said Ellen O’Neill, who coordinates the PBIS effort at Dick. “The goal is for the teacher to be spending time on instruction and not on behavior.”
Quanayah Sanders, a 12-year-old 6th grader, had a simpler summary.
“It makes people act better,” she said. “It’s quieter. There’s less punishment.”
Kati Verica, who teaches 6th grade at Dick, said PBIS “has given the students a sense of ownership of their behavior. The rewards and consequences are clearly defined."
“I’ve seen positive behaviors take shape,” Verica said. ”I’ve seen some children step up to be leaders, monitor the behavior of their classmates. I have one girl who said, ‘Be quiet and get in line, so we can get more class cash.”
Random acts of courtesy result in teachers or Williams giving out Cat Cash on the spot. The school calls it “caught being good.”
“If we didn’t have it, [the class] wouldn’t listen” said Emmanuel Byrd, 13, also a 6th grader, who is known throughout the school for his large accumulation of the cash.
“I get a lot of 20s,” he said.
How it works
The program operates on three tiers. The lowest tier, generally aimed at about 80 percent of the students, involves setting standards for behavior in class, in the cafeteria, in the hallways, or elsewhere in the school.
A second tier is aimed at about 15 percent of the students considered “at risk” and less likely to meet behavior standards.
This might include, for example, a “check in, check out" system in which the student starts the day with a mentor who goes over expectations, carries a behavior report card from class to class, and checks in with the mentor at the end of the day.
The third tier, aimed at “high-risk” students – estimated at 5 percent – includes more serious interventions, including possible removal from the classroom or even the school setting.
Because PBIS is an approach rather than a standardized program, assessing its effects is tricky, although some schools report fewer disruptive incidents and higher academic achievement, particularly in lower grades.
But there is general agreement on several points.
• It is easier to introduce in elementary schools than in middle schools or high schools.
• It should be instituted schoolwide, and staff buy-in is vital.
• It is most effective when implemented over a period of years, with staff training by experts and an emphasis on gathering data.
Dick is one of 20 District schools receiving support in implementing PBIS from the Devereux Center for Effective Schools, through a federal grant from the Department of Education and the Department of Justice.
The grant supported training for teachers last summer and coaching throughout the year.
An eight-member PBIS committee meets monthly to discuss progress under the program. A detailed flowchart sets out classroom strategies and procedures for handling behavior problems.
Inappropriate language and disrespect, for example, are to be handled by the classroom teacher, while cutting class or use of alcohol or drugs are to be managed by the school office.
At a recent committee meeting, computer teacher Brian Dunfee showed a series of data charts on students being sent to the office for disruptive behavior: how often the incidents occurred, where they occurred, and on what day of the week.
“It’s all in transition times,” said Dunfee – when the students were going from place to place. Some suggested that fights were being started by students seeking attention rather than retaliating for a provocation.
“If they’re doing this for attention, perhaps we could find another way” to deal with the problem, said Jacquelyn Briesch, the Devereux coach.
Although the school has been following some of the general principles of PBIS for several years, O’Neill said that until the grant from Devereux, “I don’t think we spent much time reflecting on the data and what it was showing us.”
Although the results are preliminary, principal Williams said it is now rare to see students in the lower grades, K-4, sent to the office for misbehavior. “We struggle more with middle-school students,” she said.
Williams and O’Neill said they see Dick as a laboratory, a place to see whether PBIS can work in an urban setting with students who come from difficult circumstances.
“It is tougher in urban schools,” said Laura Rutherford, a research psychologist at Devereux.
“It’s harder to sustain.”
In stressed systems like Philadelphia, she said, high staff and administration turnover and lack of resources present particular challenges. These can even include a lack of funds to institute a reward system.
Implementing PBIS into schools can involve growing pains.
At William D. Kelley, another school that Devereux is working with, suspensions have increased because “students are being asked to adhere to expectations they weren’t used to,” said principal Amelia Coleman-Brown.
In the surrounding neighborhoods, said Orissa Adams, the school’s dean of climate and culture, “they’re taught survival skills. But in a classroom, sometimes those skills don’t apply.”
The school is also struggling to accommodate an increase in the student population from 350 two years ago to 462, after the closing of Reynolds Elementary School.
Still, Brown remains optimistic about what PBIS can accomplish at Kelley.
“Next year, we’re looking toward improving academic achievement,” she said.
It has happened elsewhere. A districtwide study in one Oregon county showed that schools implementing PBIS had higher scores than schools without it, even though many of the PBIS schools started with lower scores.
In Maryland, where PBIS has now been adopted statewide, Anne Arundel County found that over a five-year-period, students in PBIS schools were more likely to be “proficient” or “advanced” in reading and math than those in non-PBIS schools.
In Pennsylvania, where about 400 schools are either partially or fully implementing PBIS, full implementation schools showed higher test scores, according to the Pennsylvania Positive Behavior Support Network, a coalition of about 20 organizations, including the state Department of Education, providers, advocacy networks, and others.
(Partial implementation might be, for example, having a structure for first-tier interventions but not for second or third tier).
Asked whether the system is sometimes described as bribing students to behave, O’Neill said it is viewed that way “mostly by veteran teachers” wedded to punishment-oriented models.
Her response, she said, is to ask them whether the traditional methods had solved their classroom behavior problems and then come back with the saying popularized by Dr. Phil: “How’s it workin’ for ya?’”
“That’s how the system works,” she said. “I do my job. I get a paycheck.”
Aaron Dallaire, a 7th- and 8th-grade writing teacher who acts as a mentor to several students on the "check in, check out" system, described the effect of PBIS on one of his students.
As the day started, Dallaire said, the boy told him, “‘I’m not going to behave until it’s 9:15.’ And as soon as 9:14 hit, I swear he sat down and started to do the assignment on the board.”
Paul Jablow is a regular freelance contributor to the Notebook.
This story is part of a continuing series by the Notebook on student behavioral health, with support from the Van Ameringen Foundation.