Several years ago, my school adopted a Positive Behavior Support Program (PBSIS) program. Solutions to persistent problems pointed school climate in the right direction, reduced disciplinary referrals, and tackled bullying incidents (suspensions decreased by four times, and bullying incidents by three times).

PBSIS and programs like it are replicable, if school communities and their leaders are patient and sustained in adoption. Resources are available for free. Part of implementing such a program includes a schoolwide identification of problem areas in the school. This should be done through data analysis (run a report of how frequently incidents happen in various locations) and from voting by staff and students. (We use Google Forms to determine school community perceptions.)

Survey says…
When we surveyed our school community and compared this to our own data, four problem areas emerged:

  • Hallways
  • Cafeteria
  • Stairwells
  • Buses

Once identified, we targeted those areas with increased supervision and an incentives-based model, which is proven to work, with the exception of one area: school buses. Why?

Buses were clearly the most difficult to address. School administrators and faculty never have direct oversight of school buses. We struggled trying to encourage better bus behavior, announcing and promoting this as part of our overall PBSIS program. We boarded buses and tried to change our approach when drivers demanded action on those few persistent students, by encouraging positive behavior rather than highlighting negative behavior. Little change resulted.

How to cut your bus disciplinary referrals by 67 percent

Start by empowering the drivers
As a school community, we looked at bus behavior as our most stubborn challenge in an otherwise successful behavior program. One summer, I examined research and literature on successful bus behavior programs and parallel programs that could be implemented on our buses. The first and most prominent change that needed to take place was to allow our bus drivers to assign bus seats, rather than having an assistant principal assign student seats. The reason? We wanted drivers to have some skin in the game; historically, they were pawns, being dictated to. This was a risk, but why not try? Nothing else had worked.

Even before we implemented our PBSIS model with bus drivers, we saw an immediate result in giving bus drivers the power to assign seats. In fact, it resulted in an immediate 60 percent reduction in student referrals. Why? Bus drivers now had authority over their buses. This is the same way effective teachers manage their classrooms. Why not give the drivers the same respect and opportunity?

I won’t deny that among our large bus fleet of 36 buses, a few drivers are ineffective managers, just as a few teachers are ineffective managers. What do we do when teachers are ineffective classroom managers? We coach them. Don’t bus drivers deserve the same support? Of greater significance, most drivers seem to manage well on their own. After several years of implementing the PBSIS model, it was time to do what we should have done from the outset: Bring bus drivers into the fold by supporting them with coaching and empowerment.

Next, provide additional support to the drivers
When I called the transportation supervisor to explain that her drivers were an important part of our PBSIS system and that it was time to bring them on board with support, she was silent. Used to hearing nothing but complaints, she either thought I had officially lost my mind—or she was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I asked if we could have a meeting with the bus drivers one morning early in the school year and shared my plan. She wished me good luck, as this was a hardened group of blue-collar workers who were used to being blamed for problems and viewed administrators as “stuffed shirts.” I prepared a presentation to demonstrate to the drivers. Here’s what happened next.

About the Author:

Dr. Michael Gaskell has been principal of Hammarskjold Middle School in East Brunswick, N.J. since 2006, following experience as a special educator and assistant principal in Paramus, NJ. Gaskell achieved his doctorate in educational leadership in 2014 and continues to model the pursuit of lifelong learning as he serves as a mentor to new principals in other schools through the NJEA Leaders to Leaders program. In his work as a principal, he works tirelessly to support instructional excellence, his faculty, the district, and, most important, the children as benefactors of idea sharing.


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