Thinking positive

School and extracurricular programs focus on managing student behavior

No parent is proud when negative behavior or discipline reports come home in their child's backpack. Regardless of many other differences among parents, most want to raise responsible, respectful kids who ultimately will grow into adults able to handle life's inevitable tense situations with tact and integrity. It can be a daunting and bewildering goal today, with bullying and school violence on the rise. Schools can play a significant role in providing the footprint for positive behavior. While parental modeling is key, especially in the preschool years, school and extracurricular programs that use behavior management systems (or BMS) are also significant in eliciting positive behavior from kids.

Many area schools are trying to be out front in promoting positive behaviors in their students, setting the tone right from the beginning of the year. One school working hard to augment positive behaviors in its students is C.H. Bird Elementary School in Sun Prairie. The overriding goal at Bird School is to have each student learn responsibility for his or her own behavior. To that end, Bird School uses several approaches.

At a school-wide assembly held in the gym, students are introduced to Jay Time. Named for the school mascot the Blue Jay, Jay Time is a new twist on an old practice. It replaces the monthly assemblies from previous years when students learned about important character traits such as responsibility, courage and honesty. Why the change? Counselor Judy Thompson says the faculty and staff wanted to break the students and faculty into 45 small groups to create better connections within their school family, to open the door to team building, and, of course, to continue their discussion of character traits.

During the assembly five teachers hold up huge, brightly colored puzzle pieces that, when fit together, read, "Blue Jay Rights. Everyone has the right to...Be Respected. Be Heard. Feel Safe. Have fun!" This theme is carried into each group, where students from every grade level are represented. The thinking is that discussions will have more impact this year due to the new close-knit environment that provides students a safe place to express their thoughts and feel heard.

Jay-Time is the latest endeavor at Bird School aimed at underlining the importance of positive behaviors. Levels Behavior, a BMS already in place at Bird School, teaches kids to associate their behavior with four colors: red = unacceptable; yellow = slow down and think; green = acceptable; blue = outstanding.

Thompson feels this behavior modification system is effective on its own, but likes the idea of supplementing it with another BMS called "Creating an Above the Line Classroom." Developed by retired teacher Corwin Kronenberg, it teaches that behaviors should always be respectful, responsible and safe. If behavior falls below this line of acceptability, kids are given the choice to fix the behavior or be given a consequence, thereby putting the responsibility of the behavior back on the child. After attending Kronenberg's seminar this summer, one of Bird School's kindergarten teachers, Jill Zimmerman, has already begun to incorporate several core concepts in her classroom this year.

Bird's principal, Chad Wiedmeyer, hopes the school's efforts will help "anchor kids to positive behaviors" and give them the "ability to problem-solve through their own decision-making processes." He recognizes that while schools are certainly an important part of developing desired behavior in kids, they are just one part of a larger whole. He cites other activities such as Scouting, sports teams and family time as having high value.

Does this BMS have any effect? Audra Yentz, whose five children have all attended Bird School, finds the Levels Behavior not only "very effective," but it mirrors "the way I try to parent. Emphasizing the positive aspects of behavior rather than focusing on the negative." She was especially impressed when her youngest, Jack, came home from kindergarten last year with exciting news. One of his classmates had demonstrated such outstanding behavior during the day that his name, as Jack put it, had "got on blue." The system works so well, she feels, that not only do kids feel great when recognized for their own positive behavior, but are equally thrilled when a friend has success.

Madison public schools also practice Kronenberg's "Above the Line Behavior" approach and use assemblies to teach positive behaviors. Teachers reinforce those lessons and also come up with "fix it" plans appropriate to misbehaviors, says Sue Abplanalp, assistant superintendent for Madison elementary schools.

At the East Madison Community Center, where Alternatives to Violence classes are held each week, youth program manager John Harmelink describes resources available there to kids who enroll: board games, CD-ROMs, magazines and books, many of which enable kids to role-play appropriate behavior or hear inspiring stories. Each game or story is intended to teach them that alternatives to violent behavior do exist.

Harmelink says that most kids want control over their emotions - particularly anger - and they recognize that the pay-off from positive behavior is far more desirable than the consequences of negative behavior. As a result, no one has to force kids to participate in these classes. They choose to sign up, and come voluntarily.

Conducted in four-week sessions, classes of four to six kids are open to youth ages 5 to 17; preteens on Tuesday nights and teens on Saturday mornings. As an added community-building exercise, Saturday's teens also pitch in to make breakfast. Each activity, discussion and resource used in class aims to help kids understand a key message: Anger is a normal emotion; we all experience it, and the way we respond to it is within our control. Key to this lesson is for kids to identify their own "anger triggers." Harmelink lists teasing, bullying, name-calling, competition, and bad-mouthing family members among those most common. He says through class participation, kids learn to recognize their personal triggers and in a tense situation, to "stop, think, relax...and then act."

Positive behavior is also encouraged in the center's Teen Boys and Girls Development Groups, where teens ages 11-17 work on building self-esteem, job skills, life skills, study skills, personal responsibility, cooking and nutrition, and community service projects.

With school-based and extracurricular programs like these that aim to produce more confident, responsible, and respectful kids, is there more that parents can do?

It comes back to those crucial years prior to school when kids' most important teachers - their parents - have so much influence (see sidebar). Harmelink also points to an absence of parenting resources - there are plenty of classes available to teach expectant parents how to give birth, but few devoted to helping raise kids once they've arrived. He believes additional funding in this area is called for, and would go a long way to keeping negative or violent behaviors from becoming problematic. Some classes do exist, and he strongly suggests parents take advantage of them whenever possible.

Alternatives to Violence classes
East Madison Community Center , 608-249-0861

Family Enhancement
Contact: Teri Wieland, 241-5150. Parenting classes cover all age groups. Call for class schedule and nearest location

Parental Stress Center Inc.
Contact: Sherry Stroup, 241-4888. Call for parenting class information

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