Program for shaping student behavior is key following violence at Spring Valley High 

Controlling the Classroom

click to enlarge Penny Arnau is a psychologist and behavior support coach with the Charleston County School District

Dustin Waters

Penny Arnau is a psychologist and behavior support coach with the Charleston County School District

How do you define discipline in the classroom? Is it a matter of just maintaining order or do educators play a more important role in shaping the behavior of students?

Last week, cellphone footage emerged showing Richland County Senior Deputy Ben Fields, a school resource officer at Spring Valley High School, enter a classroom to remove a student who was refusing to participate in class. In the video, Fields forcibly pulls the student from her desk and throws her to the ground as the rest of the class looks on. The shocking incident was enough to cost Fields his job and stir a national conversation about how students are disciplined.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 43 percent of all public schools have one or more security guards, security personnel, school resource officers, or sworn law enforcement officers on school grounds at least once a week. The center's report specifies that more than 84,000 public schools throughout the nation employ 82,400 guards and officers. Of this total, more than half are school resource officers or sworn law enforcement. While the presence of police in schools isn't uncommon and the need to protect students is important, what is the true role of law enforcement in the classroom?

Following the incident at Spring Valley, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told the Associated Press that Fields should have never even been called to remove the student. Lott said the student wasn't threatening the safety of the classroom; she was merely exhibiting defiant behavior and being disrespectful to the teacher. According to Lott, the role of a school resource officer is to keep the peace. Their role isn't to be a disciplinarian, he said. Ultimately, it seems the job of shaping student behavior in the classroom falls to educators. And for more than 10 years in Charleston County, a tested system has been in place to train teachers and administrators to promote positive behavior in students and diffuse situations like the one at Spring Valley.

Throughout the nation, the strategy of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) has been used to move beyond punishing students who exhibit bad behavior and instead focus more on teaching students the proper way to behave in school. By actively acknowledging good behavior throughout the school day and paying less attention to minor displays of disobedience, teachers can promote positive attitudes while avoiding problem situations that can quickly get out of control.

"The adults have to control their impulse to escalate the situation by reprimanding the student for being 'disrespectful.' It does take a lot of change on the teachers' part to be able to overlook some things and to not take the behaviors personally," says Penny Arnau, psychologist and behavior support coach for the Charleston County School District. "That's really big and it's a tall order to not take the behavior of the students personally. When you're in a classroom, I think it's one of the hardest professions that a person can take on because being in a classroom, dealing with all sorts of behaviors, and maintaining that professional role when you learn to care about the students, it becomes a very personal relationship."

In order to help educators better manage their classrooms, schools utilizing PBIS organize a leadership team to define clear guidelines for good behavior and communicate these to students. Examples of behavioral expectations include respecting the property of others, maintaining a clean workspace, picking up trash, being prepared for class at all times, and simply following directions. Often, these guidelines are posted throughout the school, so that students and teachers are constantly aware of what is expected. Teachers are trained to verbally acknowledge students when they observe these guidelines. Some schools impose a simple reward system that offers prizes to students who exhibit good behavior, but the most important thing is that students receive attention for positive behavior rather than only acknowledging students who misbehave.

"You can seek attention two ways. If a teacher gives more attention for being appropriate, then the likelihood of students exhibiting those behaviors will increase dramatically, whereas if the teacher is more focused on the negative behaviors, then the likelihood of students increasing their negative behaviors goes up," says Arnau. "It also increases the likelihood that students who are well behaved, if they are attention seeking in their mindset, they may actually start exhibiting inappropriate behaviors."

One major component of PBIS is for educators to move away from disciplinary tactics that force students out of the classroom, such as suspensions and expulsions. An important reason to abandon these forms of punishment is that they have been proven to disproportionately affect African-American students. A recent study by Edward Smith and Shaun Harper with the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education reported that although African-American students accounted for only 36 percent of South Carolina's public school population, these students comprised 60 percent of suspensions and 62 percent of expulsions. While the state has a long way to go before this problem is solved, Charleston County School District has shown a decrease in the number of overall suspensions across all races since the PBIS program was implemented. In 2005-2006, almost 18 percent of the district's student population had been suspended at least one time. Now that number sits a little under 10 percent.

Arnau says that the drop in suspension rates is a part of PBIS, but what those pushing the program really want to see is students demonstrating more appropriate behavior. And that all starts with teachers providing positive reinforcement for students.

"The basic premise is that rather than waiting for students to fail and then imposing some kind of punishment for an infraction, it takes on an instructional model where you think about what are the skills we want a student to develop, so then we can teach those skills to the students," says Arnau. "I look at it as we are really asking teachers to do exactly what they are trained to do, teach."

A 2012 study on the effects of schoolwide PBIS on child behavior problems examined 37 elementary schools over the course of four years. Researcher Catherine Bradshaw, and corresponding authors Tracy Waasdorp and Philip J. Leaf, found that children in schools with a PBIS system in place were 33 percent less likely to receive an office discipline referral than students in schools not using the system.

According to Arnau, a big part of PBIS is training teachers to respond appropriately to students who don't realize that their behavior is seen as inappropriate. The system is especially important for educators who must manage a diverse group of students from multiple backgrounds.

"A lot of our students, especially in some of our communities that have lower socioeconomic levels, there's a certain element of a survival instinct. There's a lot of aggression on the streets," says Arnau. "There's physical aggression, and students have to have certain skills to function in their community, but they can't use those same skills to survive in the school setting because oftentimes those are the offenses that will get a student expelled from school or suspended. We would be hard pressed to teach students that fighting is always wrong because that might be the only reason they survive in their community."

In situations like this, Arnau says that it is important for students to believe that when they are in school, adults serve as the protection. If students are able to feel safe and protected, then they are more likely to abandon aggressive behavior in the classroom, and they will carry on this positive attitude into adulthood.

"What our focus is with PBIS is to teach students a certain set of skills that will make them successful in the school setting," says Arnau, "and hopefully, those skills will transfer to their situation later in life when they might actually find a way out of their community into a community that's more successful, less violent, less aggressive."


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