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pbis positive behaviors

Using rewards to encourage positive behavior from your students–and teachers

Incentivizing positive behaviors instead of punishing negative ones is an effective way to build school culture, but it’s also a powerful way to get teachers to practice PBIS

When GEMS American Academy returned to in-person schooling after the COVID shutdowns, one of the first things our positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) team noticed was that we had a significant increase in behavior problems. We knew that our students would respond well to rewards for positive behaviors, but in the past, we found it difficult to manage a schoolwide system and to ensure it was used consistently by teachers.

We decided to continue using our updated House system, CritterCoin, to track positive behaviors and manage rewards, and took some extra steps to encourage teachers to use it. Each year our use of the system has grown. In year one, some teachers struggled to make the transition, but those same teachers are now taking the lead in using it to encourage positive behaviors in their classrooms. Here’s how we’ve been working to bring teachers and students on board.

Addressing Negative Behaviors

Though we believe the most effective way to improve student behavior is to encourage positive behaviors, negative behaviors don’t just go away if we ignore them. In order to be able to fully address them, we need to have the necessary data to be able to identify key areas of concern. We’d previously been using a shared Google form where all teachers could log negative behaviors, but this data can easily be lost and is hard to track. Due to those struggles, we are moving our behavior tracking system over to PowerSchool so that our admin is able to see the log of information for any student for as long as they are in our school.

Once that data is all collected together, we can see patterns, such as cohorts of students who are having a difficult time or problem areas in the school where incidents tend to occur more frequently. If we notice that young students are frequently having issues in the bathroom, for example, we will send lesson plans to the teachers in those early grades so that they can take their students to the bathroom—or wherever else the behavior is occurring—and teach them what the expected behaviors in that place are.

We also have posters printed to put up in specific areas, such as the hallways, bathrooms, classrooms, auditorium, outdoor play areas, and even on the iPad and laptop trolleys. These also focus on the positive behaviors we’d like to see in those areas, which are all based on our four values. Those attributes are that we are Respectful, we take Ownership, we have a positive Attitude, and we are Responsible. Our school mascot is a wildcat, so we use the acronym ROAR to help students remember these attributes.

How Our PBIS System Works

To award and track points by students and by House, we use the CritterCoin system. Right now we have two separate systems because our secondary students were using a different set of values to identify positive behaviors, but we plan to combine the two with a single set of shared attributes in the next few years. We also plan to add a school-wide display with the running House totals at the same time.

Aside from the values, both systems work the same. Students are divided into four Houses, with some students from each grade in each House. Teachers can award individual students custom-designed 3D digital coins, each of which have a set point value, for exhibiting positive behaviors. Students can use the points to buy prizes whenever they want, though they must save over time to earn enough for the most exciting prizes. Each time a student earns a coin, they earn reward points for themselves and also points for their House.

Teachers can assign points from their phones, laptops, or any device with an internet connection. One of our teachers who didn’t hand out a single coin to students last year has awarded by far the most this year. He pulls up the class list on his laptop at the beginning of each period and displays it on the board for everyone to see, and then he can easily award students coins for positive behavior throughout class without interrupting instruction at all. This has led to fewer behavior concerns during his lessons.

In the elementary school, we have two competitions each year, one per semester, and the winning House gets an ice cream party or some other collective award.

Early on, one student complained to me that she didn’t want to spend her coins because there was nothing in the store she wanted. So, I asked her to talk with the other students and give me a list of things they would like to purchase with their coins. They had such charming ideas—such as notebooks with their House symbols on the front, House pencils, and Rubik’s Cubes—that I now make it a point to ask them regularly for suggestions. Adding rewards that teachers would like to see is just as easy. They just tell me what they want it to be, how many points they think it should take to earn it, and I add it into the system.

At first, we had a few experiential rewards, but we found they were not used very often. Eventually we decided to replace them with generic rewards of various values (5 points, 10 points, 20 points, 50 points, 100 points). The idea behind this is that it allows the teachers and students to have more agency and voice to choose the rewards and also to decide how much they should cost. Some examples are getting extra recess time or VIP seating in the classroom. These awards give teachers more leeway in rewarding their students with experiences that will be meaningful to them, instead of choosing from a list the whole school uses.

Earning Teacher Buy-In

No matter how easy a new system is to use, it takes some teachers time to dive in. They have to think about the House system in order to award points in it, and it simply won’t be front of mind on day one.

In the earlier grades, where teachers have been slower to begin using the system, students themselves have helped bring their own teachers on board. They see older students with things like House backpacks that are only available through the CritterCoin store and immediately want them. They let their teachers know they need coins so they can have the cool gear the big kids have.

But sometimes the whole school needs a reminder that Houses are an important part of building a positive culture on campus. Recently, we decided to increase teacher engagement with the system using the positive incentive of free cookies and coffee. Once teachers had a cookie in hand, we asked them how CritterCoin was working for them in class.

Sure, we leveraged a bit of guilt to bring them on board, but just as with the PBIS system as a whole, the focus was on a positive experience to reinforce the behaviors we want to see. If you catch more flies with honey, we think we’ll catch more teachers with cookies—and they’ll in turn catch more students with coins.

Using house points and digital coins to promote school values

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