Program Profile

Impact Feature Issue on Fostering Success in School and Beyond for Students with Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Planning Behavior Improvement at Nebraska's Beatrice High School


Reece L. Peterson is a professor in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders, and Courtney Miller is a doctoral student in school psychology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Russell Skiba is a professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Seven years ago Beatrice High School in Beatrice, Nebraska, became one of the field sites for the Safe and Responsive Schools Project (SRS), a project developing a process by which schools would use data to plan and implement school-wide student behavior improvement and violence prevention activities. The federally-funded project was a collaboration of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Indiana University, in partnership with several field site schools in those two states. At Beatrice, a school in a rural community of about 13,000, the effort has focused on improving the behavior and safety of its students by employing a school-wide team to plan and implement specific activities.

The SRS project started with a working plan and a framework for planning related to behavior using three levels of action: Creating a Positive Climate (activities designed to promote good behavior and prevent problems), Early Identification and Intervention (efforts to intervene early and quickly when signs of problem behavior were detected), and Effective Responses to Chronic Behavior Problems (efforts to manage the behavior of students with chronic behavior problems). As plans were developed they were usually coordinated with or incorporated into specific schools’ comprehensive school improvement planning. While the focus of planning was not specifically on students with emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD), more effective ways to meet the needs of students with EBD were considered and addressed at all three levels of action. An emphasis on establishing a positive behavioral environment was seen as supporting these students and possibly preventing some of the altercations they had with classroom teachers. Because there was concern about suspending students with EBD too frequently, earlier and alternative intervention options that did not interrupt their schooling were desired by participating schools.

At Beatrice High School, a SRS team was formed which included the principal, assistant principal, counselor, special education teacher, school psychologist, and several other teachers. The team immediately started to gather data from existing sources (office referral, and suspension and expulsion data) and made plans to gather survey data as well. Three safety questionnaires (one for students, one for school staff, and one for parents) were administered. The team completed and discussed a needs assessment which identified components that were in place or lacking at each of the three framework levels: Creating a Positive Climate, Early Identification and Intervention, and Effective Responses. The team then prioritized its concerns or areas in which they wanted to improve, and began to formulate the plans to address each level of action.

The Beatrice High School team identified two top areas to address: increasing parental involvement (Creating a Positive Climate), and establishing a building-wide behavior/discipline program (Effective Responses). The team wanted to involve parents more in the daily workings of school life and explored two possible avenues to achieve this. These avenues were the creation of a Parent Coordination Council through which parents may serve as volunteers to monitor students during faculty meetings, before/after school, in the gym at lunch time, and during the day in the student lounge; additionally the team hoped to train parents to use a Web-based communication module to improve teacher communication with parents. Both were implemented and have had varying degrees of success. Overall, all staff have felt that having parents more visible around school has been a strong benefit to the school. It has extended the level of adult supervision of students in school, and spread responsibility for maintaining good student behavior beyond administrators and teachers. Although the Web-based communication was used effectively by some parents, others did not find it helpful. Nevertheless, it did provide an alternative means of parent-educator communication, and everyone feels that improved communication with parents helped students both academically and with behavior.

The team also wished to address a building-wide behavior/discipline program, evaluating and possibly revamping the high school’s current discipline system. The plan involved the implementation of an “after-school school” in lieu of out-of-school suspension, and changes to the building’s in-school suspension program. The team implemented a revision of the office referral discipline procedures, which attempts to more appropriately match the consequence with the student’s offense, and the use of a “time-out” strategy, allowing students to problem solve in a different environment and resolve the conflict without an office referral. The resulting new time-out procedure (referred to as Out-of-Classroom Intervention; OCI) became operational the next school year. The purpose was to afford students and teachers a break from the situation and to allow for a brief cool-down period for instances that did not warrant an office referral. Teachers were allowed to send a student to OCI if the classroom educational process was being interrupted because of the student’s actions and presence in the classroom, and if the teacher deemed that no administrative involvement was necessary. Students sent to the designated OCI room then completed a problem-solving form with a paraeducator. Students who successfully completed the problem-solving form and complied with the OCI rules were then allowed to return to their next scheduled class. In an effort to evaluate the effectiveness of this procedure, the completed problem-solving forms were analyzed and the frequency of referrals per teacher and per student, referring student behaviors, and whether the forms were filled out appropriately by the students. In addition, teachers were given a survey in an effort to assess their knowledge of the OCI procedure, their use of it, and their feedback regarding its implementation. After reviewing the data obtained from the problem-solving forms as well as from a teacher survey about the program, the team has continued to further improve and “tweak” the effectiveness of the OCI procedure.

The team also implemented a program called BASE (Beatrice After-School Education). BASE is a student management program that works with students who chronically violate school policy and have not been able to adjust appropriately to basic behavior guidelines as set forth in district policies. BASE is used as a program assignment for students who have received an out-of-school suspension, as a tutoring program for students who are behind in class assignments, and as an alternative program for students who do not regularly attend school or have been assigned a long-term suspension. BASE begins at 4:00 p.m. and ends at 6:00 p.m., Monday through Thursdays. The team continues to evaluate the effectiveness of the BASE program by monitoring the numbers, sources, and types of referrals, and has made several minor modifications. So far the BASE program has been useful particularly for out-of-school suspended students, including students with EBD or other disabilities, as an alternative to suspension or expulsion. It has provided a vehicle to maintain school ties and to continue educational services on the one hand, but on the other hand has made a BASE “suspension” more aversive, interrupting the student’s social time with peers after school and ending the often unsupervised, “free time” of a traditional out of school suspension.

Subsequently, while continuing to refine the Parent Council, OCI, and BASE, the team focused on improving climate issues in the school as a result of the data from the safety questionnaire. The team was particularly concerned about how well students were being appreciated for their positive behavior, and decided to implement celebration events for students with perfect attendance, for students with no tardiness, and for students whose grades or behavior had improved during the semester. These celebration events included a half-day pizza party to recognize these deserving students and other forms of recognition at the end of each semester. These have also brought recognition by all staff of positive student behavior in a range of ways throughout the school day and year.

While Beatrice High School continues to refine its own planning process to better meet the needs of all of its students, a couple of lessons have been learned. Improving climate and behavior are a process, not a one-time event. And good local ideas can emerge and are enhanced when placed within the structure of a comprehensive planning framework.

An outgrowth of this project was the development of the Safe and Responsive Schools Guide, materials created in part as a result of the Beatrice High School experience.

Note: The activities described in this article were funded in part by a grant from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, #H324N990009. The article was prepared with assistance from Jason Sutter, Principal, John Jerosh, Assistant Principal, and members of the planning team at Beatrice High School.