Fort Worth

Texas schools try to get a grip on discipline problems with social-emotional lessons

Keller Students Practice "positive" Discipline

Keller schools have adopted a social-emotional, discipline practice that is taught like math, science and social studies. District leaders say office referrals have dropped as a result. Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Yamil Berard
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Keller schools have adopted a social-emotional, discipline practice that is taught like math, science and social studies. District leaders say office referrals have dropped as a result. Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Yamil Berard

This is the second in an occasional series of articles on the changing face of K-12 school discipline in Texas.

Twelve-year-old Brandon House couldn’t do anything right at school.

“He was just always in trouble,” Brandon’s mother said.

Then, a mind-shift occurred. Brandon showed respect for his teacher. Brandon came ready to learn, bringing the right books and supplies to class at South Keller Intermediate School. As Brandon demonstrated more examples of admirable behavior, teachers heaped on praise.

Texas is on its way to reversing years of “strike-out” discipline that cast out of classrooms disruptive students by the thousands. It is replacing it with a “social-emotional” competency program that spells out what good behavior looks like for children, then lavishes those “caught being good” with treats and adulation.

“We had zero-tolerance [policies] as a reaction to some really bad things that happened in our schools,” said Ginger E. Gates, one of a group of Houston educators who provide support to Texas educators who want to practice the new discipline.

“Now, we realize that we went too far in one direction and we’re coming back to remembering what we do best, and what we do best is we teach,’’ Gates said. “It’s about teaching appropriate behaviors — not punishing it out of them.’’

Nationally, schools have adopted their own versions of social-emotional learning — the buzzword for lessons on how to manage emotions and develop skills, including empathy, responsibility and problem solving. Of these social-emotional programs, Texas educators are flocking to adopt Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports, or PBIS, for short.

Five years ago, Texas had only 78 schools that had adopted PBIS. Now, South Keller Intermediate School, where Brandon is a sixth-grader, is among the 516 schools in the state that have embraced it. The nation has about 21,000 schools that use it, said Gates, an educator at Houston Education Service Center Region IV, which is the state’s specialty training center for PBIS.

Last summer, almost 1,000 Texas educators from all over the state sought training at Houston Education Service Center IV. A decade ago, only 139 participants took part in training.

In Tarrant County, the Keller school district has adopted PBIS in almost two dozen elementary and intermediate schools over the last six years. Other districts, including Arlington, Dallas and Fort Worth, say they are using it. Many school districts begin implementation in the early grades, Gates said.

Whether PBIS, like other social-emotional learning, can work is up for debate. A comparison of data that shows its impact on the number of disciplinary actions at individual schools can be accessed at a free national database, but not all campuses in Texas do input into that database.

However, a few dozen elementary and intermediate school practitioners, including those in Keller, say that a consistent implementation, over a number of years has curbed disciplinary referrals at their campuses. The district has concluded that the adoption of PBIS has led to “a reduction of nonaggressive, disruptive student behaviors.”

Last year, at Caprock Elementary School in Fort Worth, the 800-pupil campus had almost fewer than 90 office referrals, dozens fewer than the year before. Caprock, which is in the Keller school district, has been using PBIS for six years.

At Heritage Elementary School in Keller, the school had 113 discipline referrals in 2013-2014. One year later, it had 67 discipline referrals. The school has used PBIS for three years.

At South Keller Intermediate, this year’s discipline referrals have been cut in half compared with a year ago. PBIS is in its third year at South Keller.

Jane Evans, now an assistant principal at Keller-Harvel Elementary School, used to be one of those teachers who had little or no time for kids squirming in chairs and other annoyances. She thought that, surely, by the fourth grade, her students would know how to raise their hand, sit quietly and walk in a straight line in the hallway.

“But they don’t,’’ Evans said.

Evans changed her mind when she learned about the social-emotional skills taught as part of PBIS.

She decided that students needed to be taught appropriate behaviors; it was her job to teach those behaviors as many times as it took students to grasp.

“We don’t have the expectation that kids know all their math facts by fourth grade, why do we have the expectation that they know always to behave?” Evans said. “This is something that we have to continually teach.”

‘Authentic compliments’

One crisp February morning at Ridgeview Elementary in Keller, more than a dozen 8-year-olds sit cross-legged in a circle. Teacher Amanda Self is leading them in a daily exercise.

Self’s goal is not to impart empty self-esteem talk or praise a poor grade as long as a student stays upbeat about school. She is trying to build empathy.

For weeks, she has tried to teach the students to give each other “authentic compliments,” Assistant Principal Jacque Hughes said. An authentic compliment can be something like, “I liked the way you helped me solve a math problem,” or “I appreciate the way you were a good friend and let Suzy come and play with us,” Hughes explained. An authentic compliment is not, “I like your shoes and the way you wear your hair,” Hughes said.

As each student takes a turn, a student can either give praise or ask for it, Hughes said. On that day, more than half of the 8-year-olds gush with admiration for their classmates.

“It just builds relationships within that classroom so when problems arise, the teacher can deal with it a lot easier when she establishes a culture and climate of kindness. Problem-solving comes a lot easier,’’ Hughes said.

PBIS has been particularly effective among vulnerable students, who often enter school lacking in academic readiness and in social skills. In many cases those students are experiencing a number of social obstacles that hamper their learning, educators say.

“Some of these stories are very sad,’’ Hughes said. “And if you don’t recognize them, until you fix this part of them, their academics are not going to be where they need to be.”

Children may be worried about having enough food at home or whether their parents are getting a divorce, Hughes said.

“They have so many things on their plate,’’ she said. But “until we can help them deal with that socially, they’re going to continue acting out and that’s often why the academics are low.”

Focus on learning

Principal Angie Nayfa wasn’t faced with a frightening campus culture or violent students when she implemented PBIS six years ago at Caprock Elementary. It was her way to “get a handle on behaviors that were taking away from teaching and learning.” That included clowning around in class, excessive talking and rudeness.

Half of the school population at Caprock Elementary School is Hispanic or African-American; 28 percent is made up of English-language learners and 48 percent are socio-economically disadvantaged.

Nayfa began implementation with considerable campuswide, buy-in and a lot of discussion among staff. The staff collectively selected two virtues to reinforce with students, day-in, day-out — respect and responsibility. To illustrate, Caprock’s hallways, bathrooms and cafeteria are lined with posters that remind students to show respect. In the bathroom, the posters advise, respect means that you don’t peek under a stall or bother others. In the hallway, it means to walk in a straight line. In the playground, it means to follow whistle cues and “to walk away from conflict.”

Caprock’s teachers have delivered results in some unusual ways.

Jamie Bird, who teaches fourth grade at Caprock, has some creative ideas. One child, she said, had ants in the pants. Bird couldn’t get the youngster to sit still. So each time the fourth grader would put her bottom on a chair, Bird was there at her side with a “Gator buck,” which the youngster can use to purchase a gift from the treasure box at school.

Another student, a 10-year-old boy, would erupt in loud laughter in class while Bird was teaching a lesson. He would also get up and dance or tell jokes. The boy stopped the behavior when Bird agreed to allow him to be a comedian in front of the class for 10 minutes twice a week.

“At the end of the day, that 10 minutes was less time than the amount of time that I was spending to try to correct him and then trying to get everybody back on task,” Bird said.

Joanie South, a counselor at South Keller Intermediate, said she notices that a growing number of students experience anxiety at school. In her office, she has plenty of stress balls that students can squeeze. If the student is fidgety in class, South sometimes will invite the student to complete classwork in her office or just to chat. She advises teachers to give students who are wiggle worms a separate or an additional workspace in class.

“These are what we call replacement behaviors,’’ South said.

South has been working with a student who has a habit of offering unwanted bear hugs, sometimes from behind, to peers and teachers. South has talked to the youngster to try to help her understand that the behavior has made her unpopular.

“We’re doing a lot more coaching and guiding kids on their behavior,’’ South said. “We’re honest with kids in a nice way but basically letting them know that, when this happens, it makes other people uncomfortable.

“We are sharing that awareness with them in a sincere way.”

Work never ends

Anna Michaels, assistant principal at South Keller Intermediate, says the work is never over with PBIS. She recently had to revamp the procedures for the assembly of more than 600 fifth-graders and sixth-graders at South Keller, when students became unruly and it got too loud.

After multiple attempts to show 600 students how to enter, exist and behave during an assembly, she said the noise level was reduced.

Students are asked to brush up on their emotional-social skills every day, she said.

Every morning, every South Keller student engages in a campuswide, shout-out of the school’s conduct code. A student in the office leads the exercise, and it is broadcast live in every classroom. “Respect!” the leader shouts. “Respect!” the study body echoes. Each virtue or social-emotional skill is handled separately. “Ownership! Choices! Kindness! Safety!”

During the school day, if you are in doubt about what you’re supposed to do in the hallway, signs and posters point to concrete examples. In an assembly, “sit cross-legged in lodge assigned areas.” When the speaker is on stage, “voice level is zero.” And don’t forget to “clap and participate appropriately.”

As students are caught being good, the treats and adulations are pumped out. Any school employee can provide a treat. That includes cafeteria workers, bus drivers, teachers and the principal.

“Our philosophy is that if we can focus more on that positive, we will decrease the negative and we’re seeing that happen,’’ said Principal Trish McKeel, of South Keller Intermediate School. “We’re seeing kids really want to work for that positive behavior.”

Yamil Berard: 817-390-7705, @yberard

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