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Rewarding good behavior but noting problems steers students from trouble

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Valley Middle School student Nelenah GreyEyes grinned when asked if she used to get into trouble in class.

Her occasional misbehavior was fairly typical for any seventh-grader: She was late, she used to talk a lot with her friends. But this threatened her “citizenship” score, a number reflecting her behavior in school each week. It also jeopardized her participation in basketball, her favorite sport, so she started to change, she said.

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“I take it as a grade and I keep it up,” she said.

The Grand Forks Public School District has long used the score to track student behavior, but it added a full-scale program, Response to Intervention for Behavior, at least a decade ago.

The program, which requires more detailed reports on behavior, has proven to work well, teachers said. It’s especially crucial for middle school-age students who can experience dramatic fluctuations of behavior during those years, they said.

“As time has gone on, they’ve taken ownership of the action and been more accountable,” said Tessany Becker, eighth-grade English teacher.

No trends

The data teachers collect are more comprehensive but not necessarily conclusive of its effectiveness.

Teachers note the time, location, day of the week and intensity level of an offense, which can include harassment, tardiness and acts of defiance. Teachers also track the number of reports per grade level and how many times offenses happen each month.

However, no discernible pattern can be traced in the number of reports teachers have made since 2009, except that the number tends to rise around holidays.

This fall, teachers noted 134 minor acts of defiance, the most common misbehavior. Disruptive students ranked second highest, with 72 reports, and serious acts of defiance ranked third, with 53 reports. More serious behavior, such as harassment, truancy and being caught with a weapon, fell low on the list with one report each.

Becker said the reports are not representative because some students repeat the same behavior. Of the 60-some students she teaches, only about 5 percent repeatedly misbehave, she said.

Shana Lindeman, a seventh-grade math teacher, said reporting can also be complicated by teacher preference, tolerance levels and forgetfulness.

One might find a certain behavior more egregious than others, or report more than others. Some teachers might manage a disruptive student on the spot — or likewise, notice someone helping another — but forget to write it down, she said.

“Sometimes that data isn’t going to be completely accurate,” she said.

District teachers follow a relatively standard process each time a student misbehaves. They detail the nature of the incident, talk to the student about the problem, and work out a follow-up plan. For major incidents, a principal meets with the student.

But teachers also discuss the positive things students accomplish to give them a more balanced perspective of their behavior, teachers said.

“The idea is to learn from the mistake and hopefully move on, and not always focus on the negative,” said Becker.

Positive effect

Students and teachers say they’ve embraced the program.

For a few classes, GreyEyes sat at different tables from her friends so she could minimize talking. It was a hard decision, but she recognized when her behavior wasn’t the best and getting called out for it helped, she said.

“After a teacher says it once, I’m like, maybe I should just stop,” she said. 

To produce similar outcomes, Principal Barry Lentz said teachers model behavior to students and remind them several times.

“Staff understand that this is about teaching what the expectations are, not just telling (students),” he said.

Students are also motivated to be good because of the school’s incentive plan.

For each deed recognized by teachers, students participate in prize drawings and get “pride cards” recognizing the act mailed home to their parents. The more cards collected, the more students can plan fun events at pep rallies, such as dances. They can also participate in projects that help others, too, such as donating money from student fundraising to charities.

Eighth-grader Nick Dohman said his good behavior and leadership will benefit his future. Dohman is current president for the school’s student leadership organization, which helps develop the activities.

“I want to be responsible because high school’s next year, and you have to be responsible to get good grades,” he said.

At Valley, students are asked to take pride in themselves, others and the school, and teachers also keep that in mind as they observe behavior, teachers said. 

“It’s really helped students think about others,” said Becker.

Teacher and school administrators are constantly trying to improve the program, they said. It’s just one part of the district’s character education, which is important for all students, said Lentz.

“Students who don’t behave well don’t learn well, either, and can disrupt the learning of others,” he said. “We have a responsibility to make sure all students know and understand appropriate behaviors, and how those behaviors impact others.”

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Jennifer Johnson
Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 
(701) 787-6736
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