By Tom Holmes
School has started and Forest Park Elementary School District 91 hopes to get an early jump on one of the perennial issues of schools since the beginning of time: bullying.
When Dr. Louis Cavallo became the superintendent of schools in 2007, he knew he had to address the problem of behavior in general and bullying in particular.
"The perception of behavior concerns at the middle school" he recalled, "was one of the key challenges identified by the search firm that was employed to hire a superintendent."
One of the first actions he took, therefore, was to institute a program called Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) in 2008. Michelle Washington, who has master's degrees in both social work and school leadership oversees the PBIS program district wide. Washington explained that PBIS replaces the old "spare the rod and spoil the child" tactic with a positive approach to discipline in the schools. Although negative behavior is certainly addressed, she said, the emphasis in PBIS is on reinforcing positive behavior.
The same is true for the program aimed at the prevention of bullying which Washington began implementing in the Middle School in 2012 and in the elementary schools at the beginning of this calendar year.
The program is called Expect Respect, and, as the name implies, the focus is on encouraging the positive. "Everybody," Washington stated, "should be able to go about their lives and expect to be respected by peers, adults and everybody in their community."
"You won't hear us saying this is our anti bullying program because we don't want to focus on the word bullying. The program is based on respect," Washington said.
Here's how Expect Respect works. To begin with, the program recognizes that children come to school with widely differing pictures of what constitutes respectful behavior. The first task, therefore, is for the teachers and staff at each school to lay out specifically what appropriate behavior is in the classroom, what is expected in the lunch room and which behaviors are expected on the playground.
Cavallo explained, "PBIS [and Expect Respect] is all about changing culture. I often say that PBIS is more about changing adult behavior than it is about changing youth behavior."
"[In a multicultural school] different cultures have different definitions and different expectations related to social behavior. Therefore, the adults in the system need to do more than expect certain behaviors that fit with their definition and actually teach and model an agreed upon expected behavior for youth," Cavallo said.
"We can't simply ask youth to demonstrate behaviors, we need to TEACH them the behaviors based on agreed upon definitions," he added.
"The process of getting the adults to agree on those behaviors and agree that it is their responsibility to teach those behaviors is the challenge and the process has the remarkable 'side effect' of improving overall relationships between adults and youth resulting in a positive culture."
With everyone on the same page regarding expectations, the students are taught how to deal with situations in which they feel they are being disrespected. According to the Illinois PBIS website, "If someone treats you or someone else in a way that feels disrespectful, step one is to use the school-wide stop phrase."
In each of the Forest Park schools, the students helped pick out the stop word or phrase. In the middle school, the phrase is "fall back" while at Garfield the word is simply "stop." Along with the word is a hand motion. For example, along with the word stop, Garfield students will make a motion like police officers do when directing traffic to stop.
What step one does, said Washington, is to empower students to advocate for themselves without resorting to either fighting or fleeing. What step two does is give the person doing the behavior a way to gracefully stop without feeling disrespected themselves.
"When someone tells you to stop, they're not saying you did anything wrong," she explained. "They are saying that what you are doing in this moment feels disrespectful, and you are supposed to take a deep breath and say 'it's OK,' let it go and move on with the situation. It eliminates the argument 'you did this' or 'you said this about me'—'no I didn't'—'yes you did.' It's like can you just stop whatever you're doing and let it go and move on? It's not 'I'm going to tell on you or beat you up.'"
Step three is taken when the person doing the behavior does not stop. At that point an adult is brought in to mediate. One reason hand signals are used along with spoken words is to alert teachers in the area that students are engaged in the process and whether the drill is being followed.
D91 jumps right in to training kids in the new program at the beginning of the school year. Teachers review with students what is expected in terms of behavior. Washington said that they might even do skits in which the teachers act out bad behaviors, invite the students to tell them what they did wrong and then ask them to model behaviors which are appropriate. Posters can be seen all around the school which positively reinforce expected behaviors and every week or so students are given "cool tools" which identify problem behaviors in advance and give the kids resources for dealing with situations in which they feel disrespected.
Washington said that one reason most teachers are on board with PBIS and Expect Respect is that they are seeing results. "Wow," she exclaimed. "We've seen like a 50 percent decrease in the referrals we're getting in any negative behaviors. "There was a huge reduction from last year to this year, so something clicking."
In addition, D91 gets statewide and even national attention to the work they are doing. Some of the district's results have been published in the Illinois state PBIS guide. Washington said that Forest Park is the first village in the U.S. to attempt implementing PBIS community-wide. She and Cavallo, Tim Gillian, Susan Kunkle from the Library, Mike O'Connor from the Police, Brenda Powers from the Community Center, Denise Murray and representatives from the Illinois PBIS Network have presented more than once on their community-wide work.