In sports, players are given specific instructions on what to do according to which position they’re playing. If the coach shuffles his players into new roles, but doesn’t teach them how to do the job, it may not be fair to yell at that player when he makes a mistake.

According to Bob Lidell, a behavior specialist at the Forest Park Middle School, adults often do this to children.

Lidell uses this analogy of athletes playing out of position to explain why educators at the school have adopted a back-to-basics approach to student discipline. Adults, whether parents or teachers, expect kids to behave in certain ways, he said, but those expectations aren’t always made clear and they can vary from one setting to the next.

“There are certain things that we take for granted, and that’s where we have problems,” Lidell said.

As part of the school’s new Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program, clear and consistent instructions are part of the foundation for improving student behavior. If one teacher allows students to shout answers without raising their hands, kids will carry that behavior into other classrooms where it’s not appropriate. Some teachers may be nonchalant about seeing students run in the hallways while others are vigilant monitors. Before long, said Lidell, students will be tripped up by an ever-changing set of rules.

In fact, during the very first staff meeting in May 2008 when teachers were asked to begin defining how students should behave, Lidell said the problem was clear.

“We realized right there these kids were getting mixed messages,” Lidell said.

Teachers and staff began learning the new behavior model about a year ago, and it was implemented at the start of the current school year. Principal Karen Bukowski has said that year over year, students are getting into less trouble because of the new system. Infractions that merit a detention or a phone call to the student’s parents are down 20 percent, she said.

“Anybody that thinks there’s a discipline problem, my standard response is you need to come in and see for yourself and spend a day here,” Bukowski said.

As the name of the program suggests, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports puts the emphasis on rewarding good behavior rather than punishing poor behavior. Teachers and administrators aggressively track how many times a student steps out of line, but that system is largely shielded from the kids. What students see instead is a classmate earning special privileges and congratulations for following the rules.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of progress, but it’s still a work in progress,” Bukowski said. “The implementation process is three to five years. We’re barely into the shallow end of the pool.”

This approach also puts an onus on teachers to look for good behavior, which, according to Lidell, makes their day more enjoyable.

Every Friday afternoon, students who are “caught behaving” are eligible to win prizes in a raffle. Also, one teacher is entered into the drawing each week. For teachers who had their doubts about the new system, the reward system is part of the incentive to buy-in. Hopefully, said Lidell, teachers are able to spend more time on instruction and less time on discipline.

Though educators are making an effort to flip their disciplinary model upside down, it is not to say that punishment doesn’t have a role to play. That process, too, has been redrawn so that teachers know which infractions they should handle and which ones to invite administrators to resolve.

After warning a student that something is not appropriate, teachers can issue a 10-minute detention if the behavior persists. The next time, it’s a 20-minute detention and, after that, parents are brought into the picture.

With the start of the 2009-2010 school year, teachers will begin working with students who aren’t responding to the new tactic. Lidell suspects that some 45 kids – based on the new discipline records – will be targeted. A handful of these students will be assigned to a teacher whose job it will be to meet with the students for five minutes at the beginning and end of each day. The idea is to give the student a consistent message that someone is taking an interest in them.

“You can teach behavior just like you teach algebra,” Lidell said.

Those students who still struggle to follow the rules could be referred to a social worker or other outside resources as necessary. Parents will be notified of each step in the process, should their child be selected, said Lidell.