Forest Park tries to be more positive with kids

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By KATIE DREWS

What started as a school initiative to promote positive behavior in kids has recently been launched into a community-wide effort involving collaboration among the library, schools, community center, park district and police department.  

Forest Park has become one of the only places in the country to implement the educational system called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports across the entire village. The goal is to deliver the same message about proper social behaviors to children no matter where they are in town.

"We are all receiving training and working together so that we are speaking the same language and using the same techniques with the kids," said Lou Cavallo, District 91 superintendent.

Forest Park Middle School, which was the first place in Forest Park to establish the program, has boasted such "dramatic" positive results that the village thought it would be a good idea to try it community-wide, said Village Administrator Tim Gillian.

For the last couple of months, representatives from each group have been through PBIS training and held meetings to discuss ways of developing the concept across the community. In October, Cavallo co-presented Forest Park's innovative model at a national PBIS conference in Chicago.   

So what is this positive behavior system exactly? Simply put, it's a method of teaching students how to be responsible, respectful and safe. 

"We can teach behaviors like we teach English or algebra," said Bob Liddell, behavior interventionist and PBIS internal coach at the middle school. 

One way of doing that is by telling students what they should do, rather than telling them what they should not do. For example, instead of saying to a child, "Don't walk on the grass," adults should say, according to PBIS, "Please walk on the sidewalk."

The reason is because children - coming from all different types of backgrounds - will interpret commands differently. One person might hear "no talking" but still think whispering is OK, as one example. 

"You can't expect kids to act a certain way until you teach them first," said Beth Kovacic, assistant principal at the middle school.

The behaviors that are expected in the classroom, however, may differ from the cafeteria to the hallway to the washroom to the playground. So teachers explain the expectations at various settings at the beginning of school year and reinforce them daily.

That same concept was recently transferred to places around the village so that appropriate behaviors have been defined according to the location. At the library, that could mean pushing in your chair after leaving. At the park district, it may mean keeping your hands and feet to yourself.

"We don't have students in a controlled environment as they do in schools," said Rodger Brayden, library director. "But the ideas apply here."

Employees at the library, which serves a high amount of student traffic after school, said they have "definitely" seen less behavioral incidents in the first three months of the program.

"In general, we've seen a lot more collaboration when people are asked to do something," said Susan Kunkle, library services manager. "We are able to communicate with them in a much more concrete way."

Gold stars and McDonalds money

At the park district, Superintendent of Recreation Erin Parchert said they are still "trying to get it going," but it's a little more difficult since kids are not supervised. The park district is experimenting with PBIS in their before and after school programs, where kids are rewarded for positive behavior, just as in the schools and library.

"We have a star chart where kids can get stars for good behavior, and then they are able to get prizes," said Parchert, who also said they are thinking about ways to adapt PBIS concepts to the pool and sports leagues.

At the middle school, students can earn tickets called "Panther Paws" when they behave well. Every Friday, then, the school holds a raffle for each grade level, offering a wide range of prizes including lanyards, drawstring backpacks, basketball time in the gym, VIP seating at the pep rally, lunch with a teacher, McDonalds gift certificates or WII playing time during lunch. (Many local businesses have contributed by donating prizes.) The treats can be a great motivator for kids, Cavallo said, but once they learn the appropriate behaviors, they won't continue merely for the reward.  

"It reminds us as adults to recognize kids when they are doing the right thing as opposed to scolding them all the time," Kovacic said.

For those who act inappropriately, Cavallo said there are still punishments, "but the consequences are clear and consistent."

Positive law enforcement?

Though the community-wide PBIS efforts are being funded through a slice of a police department grant, Deputy Chief Tom Aftanas said it's difficult to involve law enforcement in the program. (The Judicial Advisory Council in Cook County awarded the grant for juvenile related projects, such as the junior police academy. Police could not immediately say how much of the total grant was allocated for PBIS, but it mainly pays for PBIS training for village staff.)

The challenge is that police officers don't have too much interaction with kids. And when they do, it's likely because a crime was committed, and at that point, the officers already have a set procedure to follow.

Though the police department is still trying to figure out their role, they do support the initiative.

"If it can prevent a child from being a problem in the future, then it is definitely worth a try," Aftanas said.

 Striking results

So far, the program seems to be working well. The middle school has already seen a 50 percent reduction in infractions compared to last year.

One of the reasons is that the program is very data driven, so schools can tailor their goals to fit their needs. Every two weeks at the middle school, for example, teachers analyze the school's incident report, looking for common problems or patterns. Then they choose a specific behavior that needs more work, which becomes a school-wide goal for the next two weeks.

"We know that we have to do this over and over and over again to have an impact," Liddell said. "We no longer will sit there with our hands tied, saying, 'Oh well, the parents didn't teach it.' We're not accepting that anymore. We're not trying to be the parents, but the question is, what can we do to make Johnny successful?"

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