Photo courtesy Light Field Studios, Getty Images

Photo courtesy Light Field Studios, Getty Images

Over the last several years, many school districts nationwide have spent considerable time, energy, and resources on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in their schools, and the Wausau (Wis.) School District is no different.

The district introduced PBIS, which focuses on acknowledging desired rather than problematic behavior, in its elementary schools in 2008, with statewide recognition given to various schools for their success that year and each year since.

The essential tenets of PBIS include systematic implementation of a three-tiered structure: I, II, and III. Tier I often covers the majority of students, who don’t typically demonstrate significant behavior issues. This tier provides the foundation for a positive, supportive climate for the students. Tiers II and III are additional interventions for students who need more behavior support. These tiers rely on a behavior assessment to identify the student’s needs and the type of intervention that will support them.

The structure benefits from use of data-driven decision making, evidence-based practices, family and community engagement, and a strong universal level of supports to build a positive culture. Failing to attempt implementation of these same proven strategies to improve student behavior on school buses would be most unfortunate and an oversight. Everywhere else in education, we go to great lengths to identify clear expectations and then reward those who meet those expectations, so why should the school bus, which may be considered an extension of the classroom, be any different?

In 2013, the Wausau School District began a joint venture with school bus contractor First Student to bring the language and practices associated with PBIS from the classroom to the school buses and further establish a common standard for behavior regardless of the setting.

The underpinning for this work included establishing a committee of First Student drivers, bus monitors, and management, along with district representation of teachers, PBIS coaches, building administrators, and district-level administrators. This joint effort would benefit from district personnel already speaking the PBIS language and having the necessary structure in place, including the use of a behavior tracking software called BusConduct.

To give focus for this work, the PBIS Transportation Committee — as it became known — developed a vision statement that dovetailed with existing district interests.

The vision of the committee is a commitment to excellence in safely transporting students and encouraging respectful and caring behavior while supporting district Shared Key Interests. (We on the committee strive to encourage collaboration between First Student and the district for proactive communication with mutual respect.)

The Transportation Committee quickly realized that what was already seen as a valuable tool for managing behavior in classrooms would translate well into other settings, such as the school bus.

Research revealed that although bus drivers often benefit from professional development in the safe operation of a large vehicle, passenger behavior management is often neglected. Bus drivers have indicated a desire for this type of training as many feel unprepared for the challenges that come with managing student behavior.

The committee recognized that, although difficult to manage the behavior of a group of 25 students in one classroom when that is a top priority, it may be considerably more difficult to manage the behavior of 50 students when the top priority is what is occurring outside the bus, where the driver’s focus should remain.

Andy Place, one of the school district’s principals, is a member of the PBIS Transportation Committee. He is shown here with Safety Dog, First Student’s mascot.

Andy Place, one of the school district’s principals, is a member of the PBIS Transportation Committee. He is shown here with Safety Dog, First Student’s mascot.

Bus Rollout

To implement the program, all First Student drivers, monitors, and dispatchers were provided professional development from a regional PBIS expert on the PBIS model and strategies for implementation.

The committee developed clear expectations for student behavior. These expectations were communicated through behavior matrix signs posted in all buses and verbalized to students. A flow chart defining communication between drivers, First Student management, school principals, and parents, as well as follow-up expectations for drivers and principals, was also created and implemented to close any gaps in communication.

Meanwhile, student behaviors requiring follow-up were reported using BusConduct. These efforts have resulted in more useable data available through the behavior tracking software. Students’ positive behavior was supported through the use of Bus Bucks, a system that rewards students for behaviors such as staying seated and talking quietly on the bus. The system was jointly administered by the drivers and the schools.

Driver Response

The drivers who embraced PBIS are optimistic and feel it is working.

Timely and accurate reporting by the drivers and principals has allowed the drivers to receive more quality feedback, which they felt they needed.

Members of the Transportation Committee have attended most First Student safety meetings over the past school year. Our presence makes the drivers feel like the district cares about them and values what they have to say, thus making them feel more like one unit rather than two separate organizations. It also lets the drivers know that safety and PBIS represent priorities for the district, rather than just a casual initiative.

Moreover, as a result of the Transportation Committee’s efforts, there has been increased communication and an overall improvement in the relationship between First Student and the district.

Evidence of Success

District-wide data suggests that PBIS is working, as the number of behavior referrals has initially decreased. Behavior incidents have increased recently, but the quality of referrals, in terms of depth and use of PBIS terminology, has increased and principal response time on referrals has improved.

Two years after implementing PBIS on the bus initiatives, we are seeing evidence that suggests our efforts are paying off. Student data on bus behavior incidents gathered through BusConduct reveal encouraging trends on the reporting and addressing of issues that previously may have been ignored.

To further evaluate the efficacy of our initiatives, all bus drivers were given a brief survey asking their opinions on the value of the tools and strategies with which they were armed. When the drivers were asked if their knowledge of PBIS has improved relationships with students on their buses, 83% of the 74 drivers responding said they agreed or strongly agreed. Of the same 74 drivers, 70% either agreed or strongly agreed that their communication with building principals has improved since PBIS has been implemented. When asked if their ability to address challenging behavior on their bus has increased since PBIS training, 75% agreed that it has, while 78% agreed that the presence of district personnel has made them feel more supported.

Bob Tess is the chief finance and business services officer at Wausau (Wis.) School District.

Bob Tess is the chief finance and business services officer at Wausau (Wis.) School District.

Next Steps

The Transportation Committee will continue to meet several times per school year to improve and advance our efforts, as well as advocate for this initiative in other districts.

Eventually, the full PBIS Transportation Committee began meeting less frequently than its usual once per month. However, subgroups of the committee, led by the district PBIS External Coach, meet more often to work on specific projects. These include development of a district-wide plan to re-teach universal expectations in the area of buses, develop videos to assist in teaching appropriate bus behavior, data analysis, and improving communication.

For more information and resources on the Wausau School District’s PBIS initiatives addressing bus behavior, go here.