NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A program widely used in U.S. elementary schools to promote good behavior really does seem to make a difference, a new study finds.
The program, known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), is already used in more than 16,000 schools across the U.S. And many state education departments have "technical assistance" centers that help schools implement the plan.
"But just because something is widely used doesn't mean it's effective. We have to do the research," said Catherine P. Bradshaw, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, who led the new study.
She and her colleagues have been following 37 Maryland elementary schools that were randomly assigned to start the PBIS program or not. They found that after four years, teachers at schools with the program typically reported more positive behaviors among their students - like sharing and cooperating with each other - versus teachers at the other schools.
They also reported less problem behavior, like kids being disruptive in the classroom or bullying other children.
And kids at PBIS schools were one-third less likely to be sent to the principal's office for disciplinary problems.
"This is promising information," said Bradshaw, who noted that she and her colleagues are "independent evaluators." They had no hand in developing PBIS, and the study was funded by government grants.
The PBIS program has three "tiers." The first tier is the basic program that is implemented school-wide. That means all students learn about what behaviors are expected of them, like "keeping your hands to yourself" when you're in the hallway or speaking up when you see another kid being bullied.
Bradshaw's team looked at the effects of that school-wide approach. The other two tiers involve extra help for kids who already have behavioral problems. Most of the U.S. schools that have started PBIS have focused on the school-wide part of the program.
Over four years, the researchers had teachers fill out a standard "checklist" on classroom behavior for each of their students.
Rather than absolute scores, the researchers used a mathematical formula to rate schools relative to each another.
Overall, kids at the PBIS schools got better behavior ratings versus their peers at other schools. The differences were "modest," Bradshaw said. But, she added, that's to be expected with the school-wide part of the program.
It's possible that efforts focused on "higher risk" students would have greater effects, according to Bradshaw.
As for the logistics of starting PBIS in schools, it doesn't seem too intrusive, Bradshaw said. Schools basically send a "team," consisting of a few teachers and administrators, to a two-day training session with the PBIS developers.
Each school figures out a set of "school-wide expected behaviors," and then kids learn about them through activities. "It's not just posters on the wall," Bradshaw noted.
Individual schools differ, of course, in the kinds of problems teachers and kids face. At some schools, unruly kids in the classroom might be the biggest problem; others may be dealing with violence or drugs.
Bradshaw said she thinks any school could potentially benefit from PBIS. "I don't think you want to only target low-performing schools," she said.
"What we see," she noted, "is that this is not just cutting down on the bad behaviors, but increasing the good ones as well."
SOURCE: bit.ly/TtAsEC Pediatrics, online October 15, 2012.