Positive thinking: West rolls out behavioral support program

The Cranston Herald ·

Generally speaking, when families of school-aged students think of a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS, program, they often visualize young people receiving tickets, tokens or other rewards for good behavior.

Research and data have shown that such programs can have a marked impact on a school community by fostering kindness, lowering discipline issues and creating a more positive school culture overall.

Rarely, however, is a PBIS program pictured as being implemented in the upper grades, especially at the high school level. Yet Cranston High School West is set to do just that.

Beginning after the recent school vacation week, PBIS Rewards, a program redesigned for the 21st-century high school student, is being rolled out to both staff and students. As an added feature, both staff and students can earn rewards through the program.

According to Andrea Piccirillo, PBIS coordinator for Cranston Public Schools, the pilot program has been in the works since the beginning of the school year, with a hard-working team of staff members putting in many hours behind the scenes. The program is also being piloted in other schools across the district, but Cranston West is the first high school to give it a try.

It is Piccirillo’s hope that if all goes well, the program will expand to the rest of the secondary schools in Cranston next year.

The program has been on the radar for some time, and PBIS as a program is not new to Cranston Public Schools.

“At the beginning of the new school year, Michele Simpson, executive director of pupil personnel services, spoke to administrators about one facet of my new position, the district PBIS coordinator,” Piccirillo said. “Ryan Kavanagh, the dean of students at Park View Middle School, was the initial person in the district to introduce the PBIS Rewards system to me during the first week of September. I did a webinar and fell in love with how much the program could do. After hearing about my new position from Mrs. Simpson, [Cranston West] reached out to me to hear more about this specific program and discuss strategies on how to implement PBIS at the high school level.”

The program is technology-based, with students and staff having the ability to access an online dashboard either through a desktop portal or a phone app. Teachers can interact with students through the program, handing out points and compliments. Staff members can also interact with each other, showing their appreciation or recognition for a job well done. Parents can even view their students’ points earned and compliments given by logging in.

Students can turn in their earned points for rewards at The Nest, which is the school store for students. Staff can turn theirs in at The Perch, which is the school store for staff only. There are also chances to win raffle prizes such as special rewards and gift cards donated by local community partners.

David Schiappa, assistant principal at Cranston West and one of the members of the PBIS team at the school, is particulary passionate about the program. He noted that in his 12 years at Cranston West, it has been a goal of his to implement such a program.

“Because this is technology-based, I thought it would work at the high school level,” he said.

Schiappa has been one of the people on the team at West working tirelessly to get the program up and running. He recently received word that Walmart has provided $1,000 in grant money for the program’s implementation, while state Sen. Frank Lombardi provided $500 in grant money to the pilot schools as well.

Additionally, Schiappa is grateful for the overwhelming support he has received at all levels, from the school administration to central administration.

The team at Cranston West includes Schiappa, Piccirillo and a number of staff members from a variety of positions in the school, as well as two students. The faculty members on the team are school psychologist Alexis Coyne, guidance counselor Lisa Spirito, school psychologist Catherine Conroy, mathematics educator Eric Simpson, CACTC culinary arts educator chef Martha Sylvestre, history educator Robert Manning, physical education and health educator Robert Nannig, special educator Karli Pizzuti and English Language Arts educator and department head Stephanie Kaffenberger. The students are seniors Hannah Flynn and Thomas Barbieri.

Much of the data behind PBIS at any level involves brain research as the basis for its success, but especially so when dealing with the teenage brain.

Researchers have found that the brain is only 80 percent developed in adolescence and does not fully develop until around age 25. Systems and connectivity of the brain in teens works very differently than the adult brain.

The prefrontal cortex – the region for decision-making, logic, planning higher-order thinking, and connecting actions to consequences – is the last area to develop in early adulthood, Piccirillo said. Most actions of teenagers are the result of impulsive risk-taking and emotions located in the amygdala region of the brain.

Piccirillo explained that the intensity of the rewards must be higher for early adolescents to feel rewarded. Teens must feel supported and rewarded more frequently and must be taught over and over again for the pathways in the brain to recognize that positive behaviors and engagement are as rewarding as their risk-taking behaviors, she said.

And for those who are all asking the same question, Piccirillo has an answer.

“Neuroscience has answered the most frequent question I hear about PBIS – why do we have to reward kids for doing what they are supposed to do? It’s because their brains need it,” she said. “PBIS is a different approach to help students increase self-management strategies and promote increased opportunities for students to respond and get positive or corrective feedback.”

That said, the students at Cranston West will utilize a RESPECT Matrix, which identifies for students and staff what the expectations are for behaviors in the classroom, in the hallways and common areas, and during extracurricular activities. The core values include responsibility, engagement, success, performance, environment, character and traditions. Goal behaviors include staying on task, asking meaningful questions and engaging in self-advocacy.

According to recent statistics, more than 3,138 schools across the nation have implemented PBIS and 70 percent or more report a reduction in office referrals in the first year. Cranston West is hoping for similar results and more while promoting safety, respect and responsibility for all students through social-emotional learning and experiences, emphasizing learning and relearning instead of consequences and punishment.

In the coming weeks, the program will be rolled out by grade level to students. Each month, the PBIS team will analyze discipline data, and gain input from staff and students.

Piccirillo cited a quote that speaks to the team’s goal. ”As Randy Sprick once said, ‘The goal of Positive Behavior Supports is not perfect children. Rather, the goal should be creating the perfect environment for enhancing their growth. And that’s just what we’re doing.”