Incentivizing Great Behavior in Challenging School Settings

student trauma and storytelling

By: Wayne D’Orio

Two years ago, Indian Springs High School was in trouble. Although the San Bernardino, California school had just opened in 2012, staff morale was sinking and students faced serious problems.

“People didn’t want to work here,” says Chelsea Ramirez, the school’s PBIS (Positive Behavioral and Interventions Supports) program manager. A large percentage of the staff was inexperienced. Given that the 1,760 student school was located in one of the poorest areas in the country, many students faced a range of problems outside school, from poverty to living with the daily violence they saw on the streets or at home. Nearly 85 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and two in 10 are English language learners.

“The first two years we were just trying to get through the day,” explains Ramirez. So when Ramirez and Vice Principal Jacob Rosario came up with an idea to reward students’ positive behavior, the plan was met with a fair amount of skepticism.

High school teachers tend to think differently than elementary or even middle school teachers. They are more focused on content and less with adorning classroom walls with colorful posters and stamping homework with “thumbs up” and “good job.” Some of the Indian Springs’ teachers felt a program offering rewards to students wouldn’t fit in their school, let alone be well received by high schoolers. “Why should we tell them they are doing a good job when they are doing what they are supposed to be doing,” a number of teachers asked. But Rosario thought, “What do we have to lose?”

The school chose Hero K12 an online behavior program where teachers award students points for various acts, such as being on time to class, being dressed appropriately, and being ready to learn. Rosario was careful to start the program slowly. In the beginning, he had eight teachers try the program out for a semester. When he expanded the program to all 70 teachers, he did so cautiously, asking them to first use Hero in just one period a week. Now the school uses the program for every period and 90 percent of teachers participate.

Teachers were a bit of a hard sell, but students accepted the program much easier. They appreciated earning recognition and points for positive behavior. When Ramirez and Rosario created a school store where students could use their points to redeem school themed items, they hoped it would prove popular. On the store’s first day, the line of students quickly stretched past 100 and interest hasn’t wavered a bit. Every student in the school has signed up for the program.

At first, prizes consisted of food and school apparel. When the staff decided to include tickets for a homecoming dance and football games at the store, they saw students who wouldn’t normally be able to afford such events participating. “It’s an incredibly huge change,” Ramirez says. These students are now more integrated into the school’s culture because they can attend these events. And it isn’t charity paving the way for them. They are earning their spots.

She also noticed prize redemption picking up around holidays, as some students use their points to purchase items that can be given as gifts to family. She first realized this when one student asked for a XXXL sweatshirt. “He was a small kid, so I said, ‘Honey, this will be way too big for you. He said, ‘No, I earned it for my mom for Christmas because I can’t afford to get her anything else.”

“It goes right to your heart,” she adds. “It’s a reminder that many of our kids go without in their home life.”

The store is stocked with high quality clothing items, Ramirez says. While plush school sweatshirts are hard for students to earn, there’s a big payoff when they persevere. “Kids and staff know that not everybody has that,” she says, “it’s a VIP item.”

As the initiative caught on with students, staff noticed the change in their demeanor. The number of students late for every period has plummeted from 200 to about 15, the number of students who are tardy to school has plummeted from 619 (at the beginning of the school year) to 56, and the number of fights involving three or more students has decreased from 16 in 2015 to just three in 2016, the Vice Principal says. Most remarkably, students were actually staying on the school’s campus until 5 or 6 p.m. because it offered them a safe haven in a violent area.

Better student habits have led to academic gains too, Rosario says. Indian Springs has the highest state rating for English Learner Progress. The percentage of students who made gains towards English proficiency rose from 59 percent in 2015 to 83 percent in 2017. The assessments for all 11th grade students have also increased in the last three years, although the school still has room for further improvement. Enrollment in AP courses at the school has risen and more students are passing their classes than before, the Vice Principal says.

The initiative has even improved communication with parents, Rosario says. Many parents are apprehensive to come to school, feeling intimidated or so busy from working multiple jobs that they can’t create extra time. Now when parents do come in for conferences, teachers can show parents their children’s positive behavior, as well as any discipline. “It’s changed the conversations we are having with parents,” says Rosario.

The initiative’s biggest benefit has been to change the culture of the school. Students are now concentrating on what they need to do to earn rewards and the staff is spending much more time rewarding students rather than handing out punishments.

“Go for the heartstrings first. Get the kids’ heart and respect, and they will follow you through graduation. Culture beats strategy. If you have a strong culture, the strategy you choose isn’t quite as important. But you can pick the best strategy, and without the right culture, without the right paradigm it will just be misused, or ineffective. So we’ve really focused on “the heart” and making sure the culture was correct.” says Rosario.

“We were open with our teachers. We said no more being negative. So much of teaching is behavior and discipline. This helps teachers stay in a positive mindset,” Ramirez says. As the program has become more accepted, it now is used to track students’ attendance, both being on time and being late, or missing a period.

Ultimately, “It’s a lesson in how to build strong relationships with people,” Rosario says. Our staff went from “reactive to proactive.”

“Relationship building is a huge part of a school’s success,” Ramirez says. “Six years ago, when the school opened, people didn’t want to work here. Now teachers want to come here.”

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Wayne D’Orio is an award-winning journalist who writes frequently about education. 

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