Catching the good-behavior bug seen as key to school success
Faces of the Future
The Gazette offers a nine-month series about local education in the 21st century. Gazette reporter Frank Schultz will spend time in Amanda Werner's fifth-grade classroom at Janesville's Adams Elementary School throughout the school year and write about the challenges and changes of a modern classroom.
Click here to read earlier installments in the Faces of the Future series.
Here's teacher Amanda Werner's monthly update of what's been happening in her fifth-grade class at Adams Elementary School.
Math—We have delved into fractions, decimals and percentages as our main focus this month. This knowledge naturally transitions into understanding how and when to represent data in various kinds of graphs. The students demonstrated their understanding through self-created survey projects.
Reading—Students are voraciously reading their Battle of the Books selections to prepare for the upcoming competition. Each student has participated in book clubs this month as a way to practice comprehension strategies: questioning, visualizing, inferring, summarizing, determining importance and word study in context.
We have also begun to explore poetry.
Language—We have looked more closely at verbs through songs, games and within context studying irregular forms and past participles. The students are focusing on the comma's job in sentence structure. We are using mentor writers to begin our study of fiction writing. Writing Club has begun researching a person who has overcome challenges for the spring Modern Woodmen speech contest.
Social Studies—We have begun to use our math and technology knowledge to help us investigate a cultural research question: "To what extent are our interests a result of cultural influence?"
We are collaborating with five other classrooms in the United States and around the globe on this project.
We have also continued our studies on life in the colonies and what it was like to be a colonial child. Some have a newfound appreciation for modern conveniences.
Science—Students are enjoying learning more about our bodies' systems. They are coming up with creative ways to remember bones and the functions of various muscles and organs. A local nutritionist is teaching the kids about keeping their bodies healthy.
Technology is integrated into our studies through iPads, SMART Boards and Edmodo, a collaboration tool with a Facebook-like environment.
A portion of each day is carved out to address individual needs, revisiting previous topics that needed strengthening or exploring topics beyond our curriculum.
The days after the winter break are a natural time to revisit school and classroom expectations. We have experienced a small spike in tallies for incomplete work and untimely chattiness. I have yet to make a discipline referral.
Together with our school counselors, we are teaching kids about empathy and subtle ways feelings are hurt along with ways to cope with these feelings positively.
Generally, when tallies start to go up, I also tend to increase the amount of reward coupons I give. Positivity is also contagious. Reward tickets for finding and using vocabulary in regular conversation and making connections between subjects still proves to be a great motivator and accessible to all.
A discussion in Amanda Werner's class got out of control last month.
Children began chattering excitedly.
Werner could have shouted. Instead, she lowered her voice.
"Boys and girls, I have to admit, I'm getting a little bit frustrated."
She went on to talk about classroom behavior. Kids settled down. It took no more than two minutes.
The lesson continued.
Werner's class is no different from many others. Her fifth-graders get antsy before lunch, or they return after recess bursting with energy. Or they get excited about a discussion topic. They get noisy.
Werner and her colleagues have a toolkit for such occasions. One tool she often pulls from the box is to hold up her hand and call out:
"Five, four three, …"
Students join in the countdown. By the time they get to "one," the kids have settled down. They know the drill. They've been through it countless times.
And yet, they will need reminders every day of what to do and when to do it.
Repetition is a key part of a discipline program that Adams School started 18 months ago. It's called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. The name is so ungainly that everyone calls it PBIS.
The program is or soon will be in all Janesville schools. It's widespread across the country. Teachers here say it works.
PBIS is not just one thing, and it's not the only trick in the toolkit. Here's a list of major techniques and procedures that Adams educators say is working to change behavior in their school:
-- Constant reminders. The year begins with a review of what teachers call expectations, what used to be called rules. Teachers brief students on rules for the classroom, rules for walking in the halls, for the lunchroom, the restrooms and playground.
Knowing how to behave at home is different from knowing what's expected at school, educators said.
"You do have to teach behaviors," Parks said. "Kids don't come to school knowing how to behave at school."
The rules come up every day. They become so ingrained that students instantly know what they must do. For example, when any adult calls out: "Line basics!" kids know what to do.
Line basics are the rules for walking in the halls: Walk in a line, stay to the right, don't talk.
This might sound simple. It's not. In the past, different adults might have had different ideas about proper hallway behavior. Now, everyone in the school agrees on the rules, and students know exactly how they should behave at all times, said Adams special ed teacher Stacy Petter.
"I think making expectations clear was a huge part of it," Petter said.
Constant reminders lead to habits.
"It's contagious," Werner said.
-- Classroom modifications. In the old days, students were told to sit quietly at their desks. Now, teachers recognize some students need to move around. Teachers also take a tip from the business community, which is calling for workers who know how to collaborate, so kids work in small groups every day. Working in groups means talking.
Silence no longer is golden. What seems like chaos to someone who was in fifth grade 40 years ago is how things are done today.
"I don't like to sit down for long periods of time, and neither do they," Werner said.
Another example: SMART Boards and other computing devices have become part of lesson plans, catering to students who have grown up with the fast pace of digital communications.
"Our technology has changed the way kids learn, and they're busier, and their minds are busier, so I've learned to accept that fact," said veteran second-grade teacher Terri Kislia.
-- Data-driven campaigns. The school tracks where infractions occur, the time of day and the students involved. When a pattern emerges, a campaign is launched.
The data at Adams showed that after winter break, kids were not lining up properly to return to class after recess. Solution: a contest to see which class in each grade could line up best.
Kids in Werner's class said they didn't know what the prize would be, but they grumbled one day when they were the last fifth grade allowed back into the building. They wanted to win.
Data also helps track individual students' behavior.
-- Individualized incentive programs. Kids with the most severe difficulties are put on a program, with parents involved. Goals are set and special rewards offered. A child who likes phy ed might get time helping younger students in that class. Another student's motivator might be time spent shelving books in the library.
-- A crisis team, led by the principal, which reacts when a student endangers others and can't be controlled by normal means.
-- Frequent rewards. Students are awarded coupons or tickets when "caught" doing good things. Coupons are drawn at the end of the week, and winners receive inexpensive trinkets.
"It really does work with most kids," Werner said.
Adams has a "golden ticket" program to reward a class for how it behaves as a group, as well. Rewards might be a sidewalk chalk art event or a pizza party.
Adams selects exemplary students from each grade, putting their photographs on a board in the hall, where their good behavior is extolled.
Winners also get to spend time with Principal Sally Parks. For some reason, hanging with the principal is desirable.
Kids whose behavior has been exemplary get certificates each trimester.
"OK, boys and girls. Because you're so fabulous, we have to give you awards," Werner announced one day this month.
Werner asked them to line up for a fifth-grade assembly in the auditorium, where they received awards for "citizenship."
"We get this every year," remarked Annika Leverson.
Most fifth-graders, however, beamed as they were called to the stage.
Principal Parks handed out the awards and told the kids who didn't get any to talk to their teachers for tips on how to win next time.
"Your teachers and I are proud of you and all your good work," Parks told them.
Parks reminded the fifth-graders that they are examples for the younger kids. Older classes are matched with younger students in positive-behavior activities as another part of PBIS.
"The younger kids are seeing you make those good choices, and they're making good choices, as well," Parks told them.
Parks said kids behaved better last fall, just one year after starting PBIS.
Of course, the "P" in PBIS does not stand for perfect. Kids still misbehave.
One of the most exuberant students in Werner's class often lets her enthusiasm get the better of her.
On a recent day as Werner was trying to get students to pay attention, she seemed to have reached the end of her rope.
"OK, the next person to just shout right out …" she said.
The girl shouted.
"That would be a tally," Werner said.
"Sorry," the girl responded, seeming genuinely contrite.
Tallies are like demerits. They are recorded in a student's assignment notebook, which parents are supposed to sign each night. Werner also keeps track.
Minor classroom behavior is important, but sometimes, just one child can spoil everyone's day.
Some kids have diagnosed emotional problems. Some bring a bad attitude from home. A big factor? The economy, several local educators said.
Teachers interviewed steered away from saying parents are to blame. They said, rather, that more families are under economic stress. They cited single parents—or two parents—working multiple jobs to get by, for example.
One teacher who asked not to be identified said PBIS works, but she remembers a time when behavior was better, when PBIS wasn't needed.
On the record, teachers and administrators say children are different in the digital age, and they acknowledge that the area's economy has increased pressures on families.
"We are here to help all children be successful, not to come up with excuses if they are not," Werner said. "We try to support a family's needs. Janesville families' needs have changed. Educational success requires the trio of school, parent, child to work together. Sometimes, that requires us to think outside the box to solve and prevent problems."
One idea that helps at Adams is a twice-a-week, after-school homework club, "because, for a number of reasons, homework just isn't always finished at home," Werner said.
When bad gets worse
Students have to make a lot of trouble to get suspended. Usually, it's a matter of hurting or threatening others' safety, Parks said.
Statistics on Janesville elementary school suspensions—an indicator of the more serious infractions—shows a general uptrend. The 12 schools registered around 100 suspensions for the three years ending in 2007-08, and then 144 elementary students were suspended in 2009-10 and 121 in 2010-11, the last year for which official state numbers are available.
Director of Student Services Yolanda Cargile said 147 were suspended in 2011-12.
Teacher Dori MacFarlane, whose experience at Janesville's Jackson Elementary School goes back 12 years, said behavior has gotten worse, but it's not overwhelming.
"Some children are not as equipped as others to handle anger. They come to school tired. They come to school hungry, and it's hard for them to figure out which is it: ‘Am I tired?' or ‘Am I angry?' Basic needs aren't being met."
The economy means that sometimes several families live in the same house, and several children have to sleep in the same bed or on a couch and don't get a good night's sleep, which makes them cranky at school, MacFarlane aid.
MacFarlane said she doesn't blame parents, but "I think right now in Janesville our parents have so much on their plates. It's difficult for them to do everything we're expecting parents to do. Some work two jobs just to make ends meet. The kids have to get up at 5 in morning to go to the babysitter so the mom can go to work."
MacFarlane remembers her first year of teaching when a student got so angry that he threw a computer monitor to the floor. It's been better lately, she said.
Part of the reason is the programs schools now have in place, MacFarlane said.
"I think we've gotten a grip on a lot of the negative behaviors."
A big part of that is making the kids understand that people care about them and helping them care about their school, said MacFarlane, who gives a lot of credit to aides, who develop close ties with students.
"It's all about relationships. I think kids need stability, and they need good relationships with adults and their friends. When they feel safe and secure and included, they tend not to act up as much."
The worst offenders end up in the principal's office. Parks said she works to find the cause of the problem. Sometimes this takes several meetings.
Also key is mending the relationships between students or students and adults, Parks said. That keeps the problem from recurring. This means the student takes responsibility, apologizes and makes amends.
Battling for minutes
The Holy Grail for Janesville School District principals these days is academic achievement, measured by test scores. Principals are not allowed excuses such as having more poor kids than at another school, Cargile said.
But boosting scores means having the time to teach.
"We don't have enough of them," Werner said of the precious classroom minutes.
Time can get wasted in calming a class as kids return from music or lunch or art or recess.
"You can easily lose five minutes in poor transitioning," Werner said.
MacFarlane said she tries to avoid sending kids to the office.
"My goal with the kids in my class is to keep them in my class as much as I can, because if they're out of my class then they not learning," she said.
The Gazette requested police reports of calls to Janesville's 12 elementary schools for the past calendar year and selected all the reports available on student misbehavior.
The following summaries show that school officials deal with difficult cases, but cases in which police are called are rare.
Of these eight cases, three were at Wilson Elementary School, in the poorest section of the city. The rest are scattered around the city, on both sides of town. None of these incidents was at Adams Elementary.
The principal reported a boy, 9, had run through the halls, out of control. He and another student ran into the restroom and threw trashcans, banged on stalls and kicked walls.
The principal told him he could leave the restroom if he was under control. He ran at her, she turned, and he punched her on the lower back.
The principal called for help from a custodian, but the boy escaped and ran through the halls. He and the second student then ran outside. The boy was sent home and suspended.
The principal told the officer that the previous year, the boy:
-- Punched and pushed a girl in class. Upon being brought to the office, he head-butted and bit the principal and threw and kicked items.
-- Was sent to the resource room for refusing to do as he was told. He began throwing items in the room and struck the principal.
-- Pushed a staff member and punched her in the stomach. He also kicked a desk, denting it, and threw items in the room and tipped over chairs. He was on medication but had not taken it that morning.
Police contacted a juvenile probation officer, who said he was somewhat familiar with the boy's behavior and that social services was "involved with the family" and the boy. The officer asked the principal to contact him if new incidents occurred.
An officer responded to report of an 8-year-old boy who had bitten two teachers and struck, kicked and spat on the caretaker from the boy's group home.
The caretaker was restraining the boy and sweating heavily when police arrived. He requested a spit hood, which officer brought from his squad car. The officer then handcuffed the boy.
Another officer arrived, and the boy continued to kick as they put him into a squad car. They strapped in his legs and put a seat belt on him. He began to try to knock his head against the car's window and then tried to hit his head against the hard plastic seatback. One officer sat next to him and held his head.
The principal said a substitute teacher had been teaching him in the special-education room when he bit the teacher on the hand. A second teacher who helped move the boy to the timeout room was bit on the finger and buttocks.
Inside the timeout room, the boy disrobed and urinated on the walls. He defecated in the center of the room. Teachers offered him toilet paper if he would calm down. He calmed down. They gave him toilet paper. He used it to smear feces on the walls.
The group home caretaker was called, and they were leaving the school when the boy lost his temper again.
The caretaker told officers that despite several prescription drugs used to manage his emotions, the boy loses his temper about once every two weeks in similar incidents.
The boy's social worker, from another county, told the officer she had no long-term or emergency care plan for the boy. Rock County Crisis Intervention was called and found inpatient treatment for him at Winnebago Mental Health Institute.
A principal suspended a boy, 11, for having a knife at school. The next day she heard the student might have threatened another 11-year-old boy with the knife. She called police.
The boy who said he was threatened said he believes the other boy did it because the first boy had picked on him in the past.
The boy with the knife was said to have committed six infractions during the school year, from using bad language to being disruptive in class to threatening other students. Police were not called for those incidents, and the boy had never been arrested.
The mother of the boy with the knife told police the boy was in counseling and that her ex-husband had committed suicide.
Police sent a copy of the report to juvenile probation "to make them aware of the problems."
The boy who had the knife denied threatening anyone. The officer was unable to prove otherwise.
A mother of a kindergartner called police, saying that a few days earlier her daughter came home saying a boy pinched her on the chest and buttocks. The girl called her mother May 15, saying she was not feeling well.
The grandmother came to sit with the girl until the mother arrived. The girl told her grandmother that the same boy who had pinched her had pointed a pair of scissors at her that day.
The mother said her daughter had come home with bruises from being poked several times in January. The mother did not seem satisfied with the response of the principal or district administration.
The teacher told the officer that the earlier complaints of poking and pinching were true and "were taken care of." The teacher said she and an aide had not witnessed that day's incidents, and the girl had not said anything.
The teacher "was reluctant to provide much more information, as she was unsure how much information or details she could provide."
The officer concluded nothing criminal had occurred and advised the mother to work things out with school authorities.
A mother contacted police, saying a boy had assaulted her son.
Both boys were age 11. The mother was upset because her son was suspended for five days, while nothing was done to the other boy, she believed.
The boys apparently had a disagreement. The boy who was accused said he had not punched the boy in the arm, that he accidentally bumped him with his elbow.
The boy who said he was struck was taken to the office, got upset and pushed a chair forcefully against a table, the principal told police. The boy then got upset and used vulgar language. The principal told him to stop swearing, and he swept a pair of shoes off a counter and knocked over another chair. He later picked up the chair and sat to wait for his mother to pick him up.
The principal said the two boys had been suspended the previous week for fighting with each other.
The officer asked why police were not called. The principal said it was one boy's word against the other.
The principal said the boy accused of hitting the other boy would serve an in-school suspension, and the boy who was hit was suspended for his tantrum in the office.
The officer talked to the mother, who suggested that next time the officer should just let her son beat up the other boy. The officer said that would not be smart and suggested the boy discuss this with his teacher and let the teachers work it out.
An 11-year-old boy left his classroom without permission. Then he kicked the window in the bottom of a door. It cracked in several places, causing $500 damage.
When asked why, the boy told the principal he was upset from earlier in the day with a student he said had been "kicking at him and overall aggravating him." He would not elaborate.
The boy was told that based on the principal's authority, he was not welcome at school for the rest of the school year.
Police referred the boy to juvenile authorities on a charge of criminal damage.
A staff member called police, saying a boy was trying to stab the principal with a pen.
The principal told officers she had told the boy, 11, that he was not allowed to attend a school dance "due to disciplinary problems. (The student) oftentimes disrupts class and without permission will get up and walk out."
The student reacted by grabbing a pen and telling the principal that he was going to kill her. He said he would stab her, and he would keep stabbing her.
When told police would be called, the boy said he would kill the principal before they arrived. Moments later, he pulled a fire alarm. "He at that time was lunging at her with the pen."
The principal said the boy has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, was seeing a therapist and has "a history of disruptive behavior at the school."
The principal said he would be suspended pending an expulsion hearing.
Police referred him to juvenile authorities on a charge of disorderly and turned him over to his mother.
An 8-year-old boy ran through the school, disrupting classes, tipping over a bookshelf and pushing in the screen of a TV.
The boy had been working with his EBD teacher. EBD stands for emotionally-behaviorally disturbed. The boy preferred his regular EBD teacher and left the room to look for him, at times screaming.
Staff members caught up with him. He kicked and bit them. The boy eventually was detained. Staff members held him for five minutes before he began to calm down. He was sent home.
A teacher told police that the boy is usually OK, but if he doesn't get what he wants, "he goes off."
The boy was referred to juvenile authorities on a charge of disorderly conduct.
A foster parent whom police referred to as supportive said the boy has had "a lot of issues."