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Frontline Reports   |    
Positive Schools: An Approach to School Discipline
Robert F. Putnam, Ph.D.; Marcie W. Handler, Ph.D.; James K. Luiselli, Ed.D., A.B.P.P.
Psychiatric Services 2003; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.54.7.1039
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Student violence, vandalism, harassment, and disruptive classroom behavior are serious problems in our nation's schools. Chronic discipline problems create a threat to the school community, place excessive demands on teachers, and impede academic performance. In addition to reducing challenging behaviors, there is a need to assist at-risk students (secondary prevention) and to stop problems before they occur (primary prevention). A preventive focus is important because persistent maladjustment among school-age children and adolescents is linked to criminal behavior and incarceration in adult life.

Positive Schools is a prevention-focused, whole-school approach designed to promote student achievement by providing training to school personnel on effective instruction and discipline practices. Its primary objectives are to improve students' academic performance, social skills, and attention during instruction; to decrease student discipline referrals, detentions, suspensions, and attrition; and to increase the proficiencies, satisfaction, and retention of school personnel. Doctoral-level psychologists and postdoctoral fellows from Positive Schools deliver consultation through a coordinated system of service delivery. The Positive Schools model has been implemented in K-12 urban, rural, public, private, and charter schools in seven states for the past three years.

Positive Schools requires an average of 25 days of on-site consultation and training as well as external program evaluation, monitoring, and oversight. The program is funded through a variety of federal, state, and local sources, including Title I and Title II accountability funds, an Innovative Education Program Strategies grant (Title VI), the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration Program, a Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities grant, professional development funds, and state school improvement initiatives.

The Positive Schools program first establishes an in-school team that is responsible for the development and implementation of behavior support policies—typically composed of administrators, teachers, and students. The team identifies and selects intervention objectives, such as strengthening instructional methods used by teachers, improving students' social skills, and overcoming specific discipline problems. Next, the existing school discipline program is reviewed to identify procedures that should be retained and those that should be eliminated in favor of more effective strategies. Before new or modified policies are considered, the Positive Schools consultant guides the school team in selecting evaluation measures—for example, academic productivity, attention during instruction, school attendance, detentions, and suspensions. Typically, there is a preintervention phase of evaluation that considers these and similar measures and serves as a benchmark by which to judge intervention efficacy.

The objective of Positive Schools is to establish systems of behavior support that incorporate positively oriented, skills-building, and preventive approaches to discipline. This objective is realized by having students, teachers, and administrators define school "rules" (behavioral expectations), rewarding students' successes through systematic positive reinforcement (prizes in a school lottery, recognition letters, and personal acknowledgments), training teachers to conduct more effective classroom instruction, enhancing students' social skills and problem-solving abilities, and, when necessary, instituting more intensive behavior-support interventions with "high-profile" students.

The effectiveness of Positive Schools is assessed by using multiple sources of data. Results show a substantial reduction in office discipline referrals, with corresponding increases in school attendance and academic achievement. Similar gains have been recorded with significantly fewer suspensions and expulsions. Beyond desirable changes in the classroom, the intervention has succeeded in decreasing disruptive and potentially dangerous behavior on school buses. Finally, teachers and school administrative personnel consistently give positive ratings to the training and consultation they receive.

In contrast with traditional mental health services, the Positive Schools model is implemented "in context" by individuals who are part of the students' daily life. Thus students receive therapeutic and preventive interventions in the same way that they are exposed to academic instruction, namely through daily, systematic, and predictable routines with teachers. We strive to equip school personnel with strategies for implementing positive discipline programs that can be maintained independently of additional consultation. In the future, we hope to address such research questions as the persistence of behavior change over time (for example, multiple school years), efficacy with the most at-risk students, and potential cost savings to school districts through the adoption of prevention strategies.

Dr. Putnam is vice-president of consultation and school support services and director of Positive Schools in Norwood, Massachusetts, and Dr. Handler is assistant director. Dr. Luiselli is vice-president of applied research and peer review at the May Institute, Inc. Send correspondence to Dr. Luiselli at the May Institute, Inc., One Commerce Way, Norwood, Massachusetts 02062 (e-mail, jluiselli@mayinstitute.org).




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