Bob Liddell is in his late 50s and he’s the behavior interventionist at the Forest Park Middle School.  Years ago, his title would have had something to do with discipline, but Liddell says that has changed. That’s mostly because the task of creating and maintaining a classroom environment that is conducive to learning has changed.

And the task has changed, he contends, because kids have changed.  While acknowledging that kids are kids regardless of what generation they come from, he nevertheless maintains that 21st century middle-school students are different than he was – for two reasons.

First, they are more sophisticated.  “We have found that these young adults are different than the kids of the ’50s and ’60s,” he explained.  “They are more exposed to video games and TV.  You’re dealing with a different kid, a ‘smarter’ kid.”

And second, children are not always taught how to behave in the classroom, at home.

“Some of these kids today are not taught respect for authority,” he continued, “so we have to teach the kids how to be respectful, responsible and safe, because they may not have been taught those things before they get here.”

Michelle Gossett, the assistant principal at the middle school, added that the diversity of cultures represented at her school complicates the situation.  “It’s a whole different ball game than when I went to Mother McAuley High School on the South Side [of Chicago],” she said.  “When all of us were growing up you did what you were supposed to do, and there were a couple kids that didn’t follow that.  But now kids sometimes grow up with different family lives, and not everybody has the same expectations.”

So, when District 91 Superintendant Lou Cavallo introduced a national program known as Positive Behavior Intervention Strategies (PBIS) a few years back, Liddell and Gossett immediately got on board. In year one, the first stage of the strategy, called Tier One, was implemented.  Tier One attempts to create a culture in the whole school – students, teachers, secretaries, custodians – that is conducive to learning. 

Under Gossett and Liddell’s leadership a team of teachers created a set of three basic behaviors expectations – be respectful, be responsible, be safe – that were to be held as standards for the middle school.  PBIS, as its name implies, is a behavior-driven strategy.  The focus is not on changing students’ psychology, character or spirit, but, rather, on their behavior.

Every student is given a notebook at the beginning of the school year in which the three rules are printed along with specific examples of what the rules mean.  For example, under “Be Responsible” it states: “come to class prepared, cheating will not be tolerated, [and] note-writing and passing of notes is not permitted.”

Gossett said that positive behavior is reinforced with a weekly raffle in which students exhibiting appropriate behavior are rewarded with prizes. (An ice cream social is planned for the end of September.)

Liddell recalled an “‘Aha!’ moment” when he realized that PBIS was working.  As he was leading a group of students from the school to the park, he told them not to walk on the neighbors’ grass.  To which, one student responded, “Mr. Liddell, shouldn’t you be saying ‘walk on the sidewalk?'”

Tier Two, according to Liddell, has to do with “kids who are having major or minor infractions.  They are provided with a mentor with whom they must check in and out … every day to see how well the student is doing at changing his or her behavior.”

Tier Three is what Liddell called a “wrap around” approach, in which teachers, a counselor, a social worker and parents could all be involved in addressing a student’s behavior issue(s).

Karen Bukowski, the Middle School principal, emphasized that PBIS is data driven.  Extensive records are kept that include data on which infractions are made and where they are observed.  That way, Liddell explained, the middle-school staff knows which behavior to focus on for a two- week period.  He called the daily emphasis a “cool tool.”  For example, if shouting in the hallway were identified as an issue, then teachers and staff would use a variety of tactics like announcements, posters and reminders at the end of class to reinforce the week’s “cool tool.”

Such data also show that PBIS has been effective thus far.  Statistics show that the number of infractions at the middle school decreased from 1,504 during the 2009-2010 school year to 1,347 in 2010-11.

On the whole, students at the middle school seem to like PBIS.  Although 8th-grader Kyle Carter acknowledged that many of the kids who get to the last step in the hierarchy of consequences are critical of the strategy, most like it because they know what to expect.  With a self-conscious laugh, he said that he got to step three once but thought that he was treated fairly.  “It was fair,” he said.  “What I did was wrong. I have to follow by the steps.  So, yeah, it was fair.”

Charles Rodgers, another 8th-grader, likes the positive reinforcements, such as the raffles.  He also likes the fact that there is a hierarchy of consequences, (i.e. the first time you disobey a rule, all you get is a warning).  He also said that, at the middle school, the teachers walk what they talk.  “It’s a good school,” he said.  “The teachers are respectful of us students.  They help you out.”

Michael Ballard, who is also in 8th grade, said that he thinks the rules are enforced in an even-handed manner, except that, “if anything, they are harder on the 8th-graders, because they want to push us to be the best we can.”  He also expressed appreciation for how the behavior interventionist does his job.  “Mr. Liddell is kind of like a father, because he is one of those people you can come and talk to if you have a problem.”