HOW ONE SCHOOL CREATED A POSITIVE BEHAVIOR SUPPORT (PBS) PROGRAM THAT HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS ACTUALLY RESPOND TO
When Steve Whittle started at Homestead Senior High as the Dean of Discipline four years ago, he knew he had to implement a PBS program—Miami-Dade County had mandated it. Of course he had learned about the principles of PBS, but he had never rolled out a program before. In the years since, he’s proven that with a little insight, passion, and some trial-and-error, even a PBS beginner can implement a really successful program.
“Our biggest challenge is getting the students motivated.”
CREATING AN INCLUSIVE REWARD CULTURE
Mr. Whittle comes from a long line of educators. His grandmother was a teacher, his mom is still a teacher, so he’s no stranger to the struggles and triumphs that come from dedicating your life to students. Steve mentions that one of the things he sees first-hand is that in some cases, by the time his students get to High School, they no longer have a strong desire to succeed. As he explains, “They get numb. Through some of our students’ experience, they don’t get credit for the little things they do. And some of them, for whatever reason, don’t do big achievements very often, so they aren’t getting the praise. So by the time they get to us, it’s like, ‘I know I’m not going to win this, I’m not even going to try.’”
“You have to go big or go home.”
Steve found that the best way to combat and reverse this perception is to set up a series of smaller positive reinforcers. “One of the things I like about PBS, is that you can set it up within Hero so that you’re recognizing them for very simple and basic things they can do, like getting to class on time. Just something that simple, if you’re doing it consistently, not only changes the culture and behavior of the student, but it recognizes them and it’s something they can count on—I might not be able to get an A on that math test, but I can get to class on time. If I can just do that, then I can be rewarded, and I can be a part of the reward culture instead of watching and knowing that I’ll never be able to be involved.”
FINDING INCENTIVES THAT HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS CARE ABOUT
With the mindset of providing plenty of opportunities to have small successes, Mr. Whittle chose to track behaviors that were attainable every day. Random Acts of Kindness, being an Early Bird by showing up before class, and wearing the Proper Uniform are all acts that will earn a student Hero points at Homestead Senior High. In terms of incentives, Steve acknowledges that something like a monthly pizza party for top performers is not a fiscally feasible solution for them. And, typically, high school kids are harder to incentivize. Unlike some of the younger kids, high school students aren’t as motivated by things like cookies or candy. So, he had to get creative.
One of the most unique and interesting PBS incentives that Homestead has is a special “VIP” section of the cafeteria. This area is blocked off with a bright red partition, and can only be accessed if you have a certain number of PBS points. Inside, there are booths and couches, opposed to the typical bench seating throughout the rest of the cafeteria. But the big draw is that there are games. Two flat screen TVs are mounted to the wall, each with it’s own game console and cart full of video games. And there are more traditional games, too, like checkers and chess, which, surprisingly, the students seem to like just as much. This little area, in the middle of cafeteria bustling with up to 500 students, is a genius idea. Not only does it command a tremendous amount of attention (which means more students wanting to participate), but it’s a brilliantly age-appropriate reward.
Raffle tickets are an idea whose popularity took Homestead Administration by surprise. The motivation was that the students were feeling discouraged having to save up a large number of points to win a “big ticket” item (Herff Jones donated a few class rings, for example). So with the raffle tickets, a small number of points can be turned in for one chance at the prize. This seems more attainable for the students, and participation was overwhelming, right from the beginning.
At a lot of schools, students may be denied access to a field trip if they have any “unserved actions,” say, a detention they haven’t shown up for. But Homestead uses the big draw of the field trip as an opportunity to boost positive behavior—they require a certain number of Hero points for permission. The last trip Homestead coordinated for the students was a trip to Islands of Adventure in Orlando. They allowed students to earn extra points by attending Saturday School, or as they call it, The Saturday Success Academy. The attendance was staggering, with up to 200 kids showing up for one session, all motivated by the prospect of earning enough points to join the class trip.
GETTING THE TEACHERS INVOLVED
Despite the eventual and ongoing success of the program, one of the initial challenges Homestead faced is one that many schools face—getting all the teachers on board. Whittle explained how many of the teachers were familiar with a certain cycle—a new system is introduced, it sputters, and shortly thereafter it is taken away. This leads to fatigue, and a general hesitation to adopt any new programs. This mindset is completely understandable. Why invest time in something that’s just a temporary solution?
“Here today, gone tomorrow.”
Whittle believed in the potential of Hero and PBS, so he patiently chipped away at this implementation roadblock. First, he used the same primary enforcer teachers were using to encourage their students—food. Whittle is a part-time baker (he has a cake company on the side, A Whittle Treat Bakery) and he rewarded his most active Hero teachers by baking them a cake. But, what was most effective was getting the students excited, and having them inadvertently do the outreach themselves. When students saw their friends taking part in Whittle’s “reward culture,” they wanted in. The teachers became so bombarded with requests that their initial hesitance dissolved. If their students were on board, so were they.
CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
Now that the PBS program is established, the teachers really see the value. Kids at Homestead are motivated to behave better. Rosie McNeil is a teacher at Homestead, and one of Hero’s biggest fans. As she explains, “the other teachers ask me, ‘Rosie, why do the kids behave so well in your class?’ and I ask them, ‘well, have you given them points on PBS?” To Rosie, the connection is simple—start recognizing the good behavior, and there will be more of it.
The data backs this up. Homestead has seen improvement in most of the positive behaviors they choose to keep track of. But, perhaps more importantly, Mr. Whittle sees something in his school that is not so easily quantifiable. The students are happier, more involved, and have a sense of being part of a larger and more positive community. This shift helps motivate him as an Administrator, too. As he says, “you can feel burnt out. You want to see that what you’re doing is making a difference.”
And that’s exactly what he’s doing.