Traditionally school has acted as a mirror of society. The best students get honors and awards like top businessmen make money, the troublemakers get all the attention like murderers and thieves end up in the news, and the general public, trying to do their best to make the grades, are forgotten once the post-grad hangover has been healed with a tub of fried chicken.
It’s common knowledge that you make news for the best and the worst of actions but just being a positive and helpful member of society gets you little recognition and for children at least, provides little satisfaction.
It has become blatantly obvious, from school and society (and "Criminal Minds") that while attention can be gained from being ridiculously good it’s much easier to get attention by being bad. Which is perhaps why educators in the US have finally decided to come up decided to implement a better way to deal with behavior in school.
Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is now being implemented at Cairo American College’s elementary school and for parents the results have been noteworthy. According to their site the system, originally founded by teachers in the US, been in action there for the past 10 years and has been implemented in over 40 states. Here in Egypt, it is only taking its first step but it tackles issues in the Egyptian education system and social norms as well.
In a nutshell, PBIS attempts to “turn the triangle upside-down” according to elementary school counselor Zach Secrist. He is referring to the so-called “behavioral triangle,” a model that pointed out that schools spent most of their time on the minority troublemakers and very little time supporting those students who were doing well, following rules and making their schools a better, safer place.
PBIS looks to re-evaluate time spent and redistribute it across the student body, making time for students who are doing well — recognizing effort and initiative — and estimating that time taken away from troubled students will be replenished by stronger peer role models created by positive feedback for students doing well. It is believed that students who were doing well and left unrecognized had a tendency to look for other means (breaking rules) in order to get attention.
Under PBIS, the way to deal with “bad” behavior is restructured as well — rather than telling students what they should not do, teachers, administrators and parents have the responsibility to tell students what they should be doing. In real life, this means that schools across the US are actually defining proper behavior with a list of “DOs” for each school area — playground, cafeteria, bathrooms — to let students be inspired by what they should do rather then give them a list of tempting “DON’Ts” to break.
Secrist offers an example, “In the cafeteria, we have signs that say “put your lunch litter in the trash” rather than “don’t drop lunch litter on the floor — this way students have directions as to what is appropriate behavior.”
“It’s been a challenge for my family,” says Angela, a mother of a second grade student, “it’s so easy to say, ‘Don’t do that!’ rather than pre-emptively offer the right thing to do. I’ve had to re-structure my whole vernacular towards my son but I have already seen results.”
Of course, this kind of work goes hand in hand with a lot of positive feedback when children do the right thing. Secrist reminds parents to look for productive means of rewarding children — avoiding food (eating disorder, maybe?) and toys and looking at activities they like to do or family time spent together. For instance, if a child remembers to clear his plate after dinner he could be given the privilege of choosing which board game the family will play before bedtime.
Between work, commitments and life, it is not always easy for both or even one parent to take the time to create such a system, but for Mona and Karim, parents of Judy in fourth grade, even little changes have made a difference. “I only realized Judy had always put her clothes in the laundry basket when she threw them on the floor of her room one day,” says Karim. “I ended up scolding her and punishing her but it might not have happened if I had just recognized the good behavior she had been following all along.”
“As soon as Karim and I sat down and made a list of behaviors we’d like Judy to follow, we realized she’d been doing 80 percent of them already,” admits Mona. By simply starting to recognize some of the good things she had been doing, Judy felt appreciated and more confident.
The system was introduced at Cairo American College recently and many teachers are on board, but it’s hard to keep positive feedback consistent and easy to forget to tell students they’re doing a good job. In any case, a difference can be made at home — Lucille Eber of the PBIS network offers the following advice to parents dealing with difficult behavior at home.
Tips to turn behavior around:
1. Write out appropriate behavior — make a list of four or five main activities your child participates in during the day (getting dressed in the morning, eating breakfast, getting to school, eating dinner, brushing teeth, going to bed, coloring, etc.) and envision the perfect way your child could do these activities. Write out these ideas or brainstorm and write them with an older child. Refrain from using the words "don’t" or "not."
2. Put up a chart or keep a notebook where you can mark good behavior — you may not have time for a party every time your child puts on his socks without getting distracted but you can keep note of a week of good sock etiquette and decide to celebrate with a trip to the zoo at the end.
3. Change the way your speak — a switch from “I told you not to do that” to “How do you think you could have done that in a better way?” may sound cheesy to you but it makes a huge difference to a child.