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Student behavior can have a positive or negative impact on academic achievement. Here's how one school addressed that.

#4: How our high-poverty school reduced suspensions by 97 percent

School leaders created an environment that would yield better social, emotional, and academic outcomes for students

[Editor’s note: This story, originally published on February 25th of this year, was our #4 most popular story of the year. Happy holidays, and thank you for tuning into our 2019 countdown!]

Student behavior can have a positive or negative impact on academic achievement. Even just one student who is misbehaving can affect how much and how well an entire class is learning.

When we arrived at Betty Best Elementary in Houston in the summer of 2014 and dug into the school’s data, we saw there were 627 office referrals during the previous year. The problem was that there was no information behind that number. There were no reasons listed for the referrals. There were no breakdowns of the data by students, demographics, grade levels, departments, or teachers.

We set out to create an environment that would yield better social, emotional, and academic outcomes for students. From 2014 to 2018, we reduced the number of office referrals by 37 percent, in-school suspension days by 52 percent, and out-of-school suspension days by 97 percent. During this time, students’ passing rate on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) increased by 17 percentage points as well.

Here are five important steps we have taken to change our school’s culture—and a few lessons we’ve learned along the way.

1. Take a positive approach to classroom management.

At our preK-4 school, 93 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and the mobility rate is 33 percent. When students arrive on the first day, some know how to behave appropriately in a classroom, but others don’t because they were never taught. So, in 2014-15, we implemented a Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system incorporating the CHAMPS™ framework from Safe and Civil Schools. CHAMPS is a proactive, positive approach to classroom management that overtly teaches students how to behave responsibly. Following the CHAMPS strategies, we established behavior expectations for every classroom activity and transition. Our teachers teach these expectations to students in the same manner as any core curriculum subject. They also narrate positive behaviors as they see them to provide students with real-time verbal feedback on what they’re doing well.

Related: 4 ways to ensure a successful school culture initiative

One issue we had, however, was that by the end of that first year, office referrals had increased over the previous year. While establishing and communicating student-behavior expectations were important first steps, we learned that ew needed to do a better job tracking and reinforcing those behaviors—particularly for students who struggled.

2. Track the behaviors that matter.

To support our PBIS initiative, we began using a classroom behavior management system called Kickboard. We customized the behavior buttons in the app to match each of the CHAMPS components. Now teachers use their smartphones, tablets, or computers to record student behaviors in real time with just a tap. Each of these “taps” creates a data point that will combine with other data points to provide a more complete picture of each child’s strengths and areas of need.

3. Measure positivity.

To help teachers become more purposeful in their interactions with students, we established a schoolwide goal for a 3:1 positivity ratio. This means that we expect teachers to acknowledge a minimum of three positive student behaviors for every one behavior they correct. This ratio is based on research from Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, which suggests that a ratio of three positive emotions for every negative emotion typically serves as the tipping point at which an individual will flourish rather than languish. We regularly monitor the positivity ratio to ensure we are meeting expectations at the student, classroom, and school levels. It is important to note, however, that some children arrive at school with a deficit in the positivity ratio and they may need a higher ratio of positive to corrective interactions so they can engage and learn. To address this, we have conducted professional development with our teachers on practical, effective ways to interact positively with students throughout the day.

4. Recognize students for the positive choices they make.

While it’s crucial for teachers to consistently acknowledge students for positive behaviors, it’s also helpful to create schoolwide incentives. We recognize students with “Bulldog Bucks” for meeting specific behavior expectations. Students can spend their weekly “paycheck” at the school store or for special incentives. Receiving positive feedback with Bulldog Bucks is very motivating to students, and it shows them that their behavior choices are moving them toward success. We have found that this kind of extrinsic motivation is an effective support as students develop positive habits and move toward more intrinsic motivation. It also emphasizes our collective commitment to common goals.

5. Discuss behavior data in PLCs.

In addition to academic data, our teachers regularly discuss behavior data in grade-level professional learning communities (PLCs). Once a month, each teacher shares and reflects on behavior data for their classes and students, and we provide coaching as the teacher formulates an action plan. We also use this time to highlight common patterns and trends, and identify topics for future professional development and coaching. These meetings not only enable teachers to learn from each other, but they allow them to dig deeper and accomplish more than they could on their own. They feel better supported, too.

Related: How does culture impact our ability to learn?

Reducing suspensions while increasing academic achievement

We know from firsthand experience that no matter how skilled a teacher is, if students are not behaving, then learning is not going to happen. Using PBIS and a behavior data management app, we are better able to address students’ needs in a timely way and keep small problems from becoming large. The results we have experienced in our school are similar to those from a 2018 study that shows that a data-driven approach on student behavior and discipline incidents can have a measurable impact on student outcomes.

With consistent behavior expectations and schoolwide systems and structures in place, we have created a positive, productive, safe environment for teaching and learning, and we’re seeing positive results.

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