New behavior policies take hold at Visalia Unified

A new ideology of behavior reform is taking hold in Visalia schools and the district is experiencing minor success.

Beliefs behind Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS) are not new. According to the PBIS informational website, Congress amended the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1997 and included the framework for the structure that would become PBIS. Positive Behavior Support was further reinforced in the 2004 amendment to the law.

Congress wanted to be sure students with disabilities were fairly treated and the legislature strongly encouraged the implementation of PBIS.

“Congress’ reasons for encouraging the use of PBIS are clear and stem from (a) the historic exclusion of individuals with disabilities based on unaddressed behavior and (b) the strong evidence base supporting the use of PBIS,” reads the website.

About five or six years ago, Visalia Unified schools began implementing PBIS practices, but they became largely dependent on an outside consultant. Nearly two years ago, a directive came from the district office to become more independent with their discipline structures.

Social worker Esmeralda Rodriguez works through Positive Support with students at Washington Elementary and Golden Oak North campus. “I do referrals to the community and referrals to homeless shelters if those are needed among our students,” says Rodriguez. She works with parents and students together to provide support.

Her main job is to sit down with kids who get in trouble to help them understand why their actions were bad or required discipline.

“My days are never the same,” says Rodriguez. She works with families in the community as well. “A lot of families have jobs during the day,” says Rodriguez. “It’s difficult to provide adequate support by themselves.” Rodriguez is now working to begin classes for working parents to help them with basic skills.

Rodriguez operates with Visalia Unified School District’s Director of Social Wellness Ben Dhillon, whose job is to coordinate all schools’ behavior tactics and help them implement effective PBIS policies.

“My role is to help provide guidelines and support at our school sites,” says Dhillon. “There’s been changes in legislation and discipline practices in California over the last couple years. One of the big changes is that schools are required to demonstrate interventions prior to considering suspension or expulsion.”

Dhillon also says kids often don’t learn from being expelled or suspended. He believes taking a student away from the learning environment doesn’t inspire an affinity for learning.

“The whole thing boils down to equity for kids and for staff,” says Dhillon.

PBIS works in three tiers. The first tier provides general support to all students by bolstering a positive school environment and states clear positive expectations for schools.

Acronyms are posted around the school usually relating to the site’s mascot. At Washington Elementary, their mascot is the Patriots and the expectations fit the acronym of ‘RISE.’ Students are expected to be Respectful, have Integrity, be Scholarly, and be Empowered.

General support only works for about 80% of students on average. Students who don’t respond to the first tier are elevated to the second tier of targeted support.

“If a student doesn’t respond to intervention, usually the first thing we’re looking at is why. We’re troubleshooting with what happened,” says Dhillon.

If they’re having issues, students will receive counseling and intervention with a social worker or with the school’s psychologist. Some schools have rooms or spaces dedicated to reflection and these practices.

“Reflection is not necessarily a core tenet or requirement to do this kind of work,” says Dhillon. “But what a number of our schools have done is to identify safe spaces that might be the office or the classroom where their behavioral technician or the psychologist share.”

The last tier affects only about 5% of students. Those who don’t respond to general or target support receive individualized support specifically from trained behavior specialists. Students in this tier spend more time with psychologists and supporters in interventions.

On very rare occasions, students don’t fit neatly into this three-tier structure.

“For those kids whose needs are so significant that their needs are not able to be met at the school site, then there are times we may have to look at special programs within our district that will help better meet their needs but that’s a really small percentage of kids,” says Dhillon.

Dhillon espouses the virtues and effectiveness of PBIS. “Where it’s being done and where it’s been done schoolwide and done with fidelity, it is being effective,” says Dhillon.

A struggle with PBIS has been getting all schools on board. The district has had many complaints with their discipline structure and, as the Visalia Times-Delta reported last March, many school board members are forsaking the ideology.

Despite complaints, Dhillon asks for time to get all schools caught up.

“There are thousands of schools and research studies that show that this works,” says Dhillon. “Visalia Unified can’t be the outlier. We know that it works, but the question is how we make sure it works here.”

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