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Gainesville educators choose carrot over the stick to change behavior
Futures program seeks to change conduct by rewarding positive acts
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Local school leaders are making a few changes to address behavior problems.

Instead of focusing on negative behavior, Gainesville City Schools is implementing a model to focus on positive behavior.

Known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, the model is a way of encouraging students to behave well by rewarding their positive behaviors rather than focusing too much on the negative ones, according to Leigh Sears, director of student engagement and intervention for Gainesville schools.

Sears said the purpose of PBIS is to prevent behavioral problems before they happen.

“I know it can seem a little ambiguous,” Sears said. “But it’s a positive, preventative approach to manage behavior. So what teachers are doing is creating rules and expectations that they are consistently and fairly applying. Then they teach that they are expecting these things, and then recognize folks for doing them.”

The purpose is not only to manage student behavior, but to improve academic success as a result.

Sears said the incentives can recognize students for attendance and grades, while recognizing trends in behavioral problems. Schools will collect data, such as when and where behavioral problems might recur, who was with the student during the problems and so forth, to identify solutions.

“So many times we focus on the negative,” Sears said. “It’s even more important to focus on the positive and recognize those actions.”

PBIS uses findings from the American Psychological Association’s “Violence and Youth” report to identify intervention strategies to reduce violence, including school-based interventions and education programs to reduce prejudice and hostility.

It also looks at work from the Association for Behavior Analysis international, which finds “research suggests that many commonly used strategies, such as suspension, expulsion and other reactive strategies, are not effective for ameliorating discipline problems and may, in fact, make the situation worse.”

The association backs the movement termed “ schoolwide positive behavior support.”

The school system is implementing PBIS with the help of the Georgia Department of Education and Pioneer Regional Educational Services Agency.

Hall County Schools do not use PBIS, but the district does have a positive-behavior focus, according to director of special education Karla Swafford. Gainesville will join approximately 47 other districts in the state to use the model.

“It’s not required, but it’s something we’ve elected to do,” Gainesville Superintendent Wanda Creel said. “So this is a program that we are choosing to implement in order to provide support, guidance and structure around positive behavior.”

PBIS is also used by the Futures Program, an educational program designed to help local school districts serve students with severe behavioral disabilities.

“This framework for teaching behavior and social skills provides students the opportunity to replace skills through positive reinforcement,” said Stacey Benson, Futures director. “Through our PBIS framework we teach students how to ‘be safe, be respectful and be responsible.’ With our leveled PBIS framework, students are taught to self-monitor their own behavior.”

Futures is a facet of the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support. GNETS fell under scrutiny last month from the U.S. Department of Justice, claiming Georgia provides unequal opportunities to students in GNETS programs while separating them from their regular school programs.

Fewer than six Gainesville students today are served by Futures, which used to be housed at the Academy at Wood’s Mill in Gainesville. It will open a new location Thursday in Habersham.

“We do have a small number of children in Gainesville that are a part of the Futures Program,” Creel said. “And we will be providing transportation for them to Habersham.”

Benson said she and Pioneer RESA, which funds Futures, disagree with the justice department’s findings.

“Without these programs, local school districts would be tasked with attempting to build their own program, even if the district only required the services for two students, and would likely be unable to provide a program with as many supports and services,” Benson said.

Benson said Futures attempts to help students with the most severe behavioral problems avoid residential placements and receive services in the “least restrictive environment.”

Regarding the claim that GNETS programs do not provide “equal opportunities,” Benson said this is untrue for Futures students.

“Futures and the local school districts it serves ensure that students have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities and have a number of students who do so,” Benson said.

The new Futures center in Habersham includes a science, technology, engineer and mathematics lab, sensory rooms, a therapeutic suite for counseling, a specialized playground and outdoor fitness equipment, all of which Benson argues gives students an academically and socially well-rounded learning environment.

The program is also making changes to improve the resources available to students in its school districts, and it will serve students both in the center and through classrooms on school properties.

In all locations, Futures teachers utilize PBIS to teach students to monitor their own behaviors.

“Our PBIS model also includes a token economy system to promote positive behaviors and learning,” Benson said. “The token economy system allows students to purchase various items and privileges with the points they have earned.”

Benson and Sears said PBIS allows teachers to manage behavior in a number of settings, be it the Futures center or Gainesville schools’ classrooms.

“It’s giving students more encouragement and praise than correction,” Sears said. “And making sure we include families, so that we’re communicating a consistent message and looking at the positive first.”

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