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Improve bus behavior by empowering your bus drivers.

How to cut your bus disciplinary referrals by 67 percent

It starts with empowering your bus drivers ...

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.

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.

Among the three dozen drivers, there were doubters, just as there are with teachers when adopting a new program.

I showed them research and statistics:

  • A study found drivers who have frequent positive interactions with students generally experience significantly better bus behaviors than drivers who primarily emphasize reprimands and punishments.
  • Students’ behavior on the bus will improve if they know that they can earn or lose school incentives as a result of their bus conduct.
  • When interacting with students, drivers who maintain a ratio of at least three positive interactions for every reprimand or other disciplinary consequence have less disciplinary issues.
  • Greeting at the door is positive. One study showed improvement from 45 percent to 72 percent in on-task behavior. Indeed, greeting each student in some way improves behavior.

I explained the primal psychology of misbehavior:
Behavior serves one of two purposes: to get something, such as attention, objects, sensory regulation; or to get out of/away from something (escape).

Once we understand the function, we can implement interventions. I advised that they institute simple strategies consistently to make a big difference. Just scolding or disciplining a student with behavior issues is like mud wrestling a pig—you both get dirty but only the pig enjoys it! Also, as with ineffective teachers, they are doing all the work and the student is getting all the attention. Reverse this and reward the vast majority of good kids instead.

Back to the naysayers: You might imagine that a few chimed in to try to poison the moment. They did. I was ready. Here’s what one said: “This is so elementary, it won’t work with middle schoolers.” Using my own basic psychological advice, I knew never to argue with this naysayer. Instead, I agreed. “You are right, it is so elementary, and that’s the beauty of it, it’s so simple to make work.” There was silence and then, when I issued the incentive tickets, almost every driver asked for extra packs of them, including the naysayer!

Ongoing success
I continue annual meetings like this and made it clear to our bus drivers that I support them. The results have been overwhelmingly successful: 67 percent less discipline than before implementing driver-assigned seats and participating in an incentive program. You might think that’s a lot to do, but it’s a heck of a lot better than encountering constant bus issues, angry drivers, upset parents, and troubled kids. Minimizing discipline is an investment that positively affects the whole school. Knowing they have my support, drivers are an active part of our positive behavior support program.

If you have bus discipline problems, try meeting with drivers, giving them support, and being prepared for some of the humor and bonding that results.

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