A Values-Based Approach to Discipline

Do any of these situations look familiar?

A lunchroom monitor marches two 3rd grade boys into the principal’s office just as the latter was about to meet with prospective parents. A few minutes prior, several students, including Yanky, had been sitting together at a table in the designated eating area eating their lunch. Chaim walked by holding a lunch bag in one hand and an open drink in the other. Chaim accidentally spilled his drink onto Yanky’s new shirt. Yanky jumped up and took the remainder of Chaim’s drink and poured it into his lunch bag. Both boys began to push and scream at each other until the monitor arrived and separated them. The monitor then shares the entire incident in vivid detail with the principal in front of the boys and the startled couple. The principal sheepishly excuses himself as he hastily addresses the boys outside of his office.

A mother and a 7th grade morah meet up at a communal event. The morah inquires about a recent class gathering that occurred at the mother’s home. The mother replies by saying that the gathering was itself beautiful but that the girls’ conduct was far less than stellar. The conversation was loud and borderline in content. Few girls had offered to assist. Fewer yet expressed appreciation to the parents for hosting. Some even asked her for rides home afterwards! The mother then wondered aloud as to whether the school and other parents were doing enough to train these girls to be wholesome young ladies.

A student in 5th grade routinely comes to class late, often without his core class materials. Once in class, it takes him a really long time to shift into “student mode.” He seems to be completely focused on his own wants and needs and consistently fails to demonstrate respect to the teacher, class and learning environment. Numerous conversation, parent meetings, threats and punishments cannot seem to motivate this young man to change his ways and become a more productive member of the class. Others classmates have noticed and want to know why they’re being held to a different standard than he.

Whether or not these scenarios represent actual situations that you have experienced at your school, they and many others like them certainly do occur with some frequency within our educational network. Granted, sometimes the primary “culprit” is an extenuating circumstance that seems beyond our reach, like student impulsivity, defiance, or domestic challenges. Still, I believe it to be safe to suggest that too many of us lack a clear vision and approach to dealing with the all-encompassing scourge that we call student (mis)conduct.

Without question, the conversation about student comportment can lead us in many valuable directions, so it behooves us to establish a clear sense of purpose from the outset. The objective of this article is not to offer suggestions in the area of discipline or to present curricula that teach students derech Eretz-related concepts and applications. Nor is it my goal to list ways through which we can make class and school more engaging, a strategy that can obviate many students’ (perceived) need to act out and gain attention. Rather, my goal in penning this column is to introduce you to a transformative behavioral system that has already proven to be more far reaching in scope and impact than any rule book, management program or pedagogic technique that preceded it.

Sometimes in our line of work we learn about concepts that are so intuitive that we wonder why we didn’t think of it on our own. Differentiated instruction, which directs us to genuinely meet the academic and other needs of every child in our classroom, is one such example. Active learning, which suggests that we can engage all of our students continually throughout the learning period, is another. PBIS (Positive Behaviors, Interventions and Supports), which focuses us on establishing a school-wide behavioral model based on core values, is yet a third example of such a concept.

I was first introduced to PBIS four years ago at the Yesud Maaloh principal fellowship program offered by Torah Umesorah. The program, which is directed by Rabbi Dovid Bernstein, Educational Director of Torah Umesorah’s Aish Dos Leadership Institute, places a great emphasis on PBIS for reasons that we will highlight below. After learning about PBIS and its implication, I and many of my administrative colleagues successfully implemented it at our schools. Throughout the process, we observed firsthand as to how transformative it was, elevating mindsets and actions (teachers’ as well as students’) throughout our respective buildings.

In the interest of offering a broader perspective on PBIS, I interviewed Rabbi Bernstein. I also talked with Rabbi Yaakov Schwartz, middle school menahel of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim / Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, and Rabbi Yitzchok Gluck, menahel of Talmud Torah Mevakshei Hashem, a chassidishe cheder in Brooklyn. Rabbi Schwartz was a presenter on the topic of PBIS for Yesud Maaloh, in large part because of his successful implementation of the program at TA. Rabbi Gluck was my colleague in Yesud Maaloh and impressed our cohort with his approach to launching as well as sustaining the program at his yeshiva. Rabbis Schwartz, Gluck and I each represented a different type of school (until last year I served as Head of School at Torah Day School of Atlanta (TDSA), a K-8, separate gender community day school), each of which were positively impacted by PBIS.

During our conversation, Rabbi Bernstein explained that PBIS is a grassroots movement that gleaned many of the best qualities that existing programs had to offer, but to frame all of the prevailing language and efforts through a values-based prism. This means that the program is not filled with isolated lists of don’ts or even do’s. Rather, it focuses on the identification of overarching values, such as respect, responsibility and the like, and frames all behavioral expectations through those values. It also seeks to apply the values to each context and setting in a student’s day, such as the classroom, the lunchroom, the restroom, the playground, etc.

Take, for example, the value of “respect”.  In the classroom, respect might include being seated at the bell and waiting with a raised hand before speaking. In the lunchroom or playground, it would include following directions and cleaning up. In the hallway, it could come to incorporate the need to walk quietly and in a straight line. And the list goes on.

This values-based system is universal, meaning to say that it sets the tone for all students, as well as all of those who work in the building. It offers a common language and the opportunity for easy teaching (formal and informal) and reinforcement. It also gives school personnel the opportunity to reward positive conduct more regularly, rather than to respond to misconduct. No wonder that PBIS has been adopted in thousands of schools nationwide and that every state in the union has established its own central PBIS office!

Of course, it’s not enough to establish values and applications. They have to be pulled together in a manner that makes them easy to remember and rally around. In Atlanta, our seven-person committee, which consisted of three administrators (me and two principals) and four teachers, arrived at four core values: safe, friendly, respectful and responsible. We called it the “SeFeRR Program” and, after asking a shailah, commissioned someone to create a caricaturized sefer torah that became known as “SeFeRR” and embodied these values. From there, we created posters that applied each value to different areas in the building. Tickets that were to be distributed to students who acted to expectations were called “torah tickets.”  The tickets were added to a bin and a number were selected each week in a large scale raffle for individual and class prizes.

Naturally, integrating PBIS into your school will not completely stop student misbehavior. There still needs to be a thoughtful list of consequences that guides teacher and administrator responses to delinquency.  Nevertheless, PBIS has been proven to significantly reduce the frequency of student misconduct.

As Rabbis Gluck and Schwartz both emphasized in my conversations with them, PBIS will not work without full (or near-full) faculty support. Our process at TDSA actually started when a number of teachers independently came to me complaining about student comportment. Even once we formed a PBIS committee, we brought the conversation out of committee regularly, in faculty meetings, email, staff memo, etc. to keep people abreast of where we were headed and to get input. For example, teachers were asked which of the four SeFeRR values we should introduce first, and the proper date, venue and program that we should use to in order to introduce it. This really helped to make it a staff-wide endeavor, as did the SeFeRR t-shirts and other paraphernalia that each teacher received.

Of course, a successful PBIS launch will look different in each school. The unique culture, values, language and character of the school will drive each process along a different pathway. But the common outcome – if done properly – will be a transformative, proactive, values-driven progression that will place the spotlight on desired conduct and embed those values deeply into the minds and action of your students.

Rabbi Naphtali Hoff served as a principal and teacher for over fifteen years before becoming an executive and educational coach and consultant. He is available to consult with your school about PBIS or other professional development goals that you may have. He can be reached at 212.470.6139 or www.impactfulcoaching.com.