Alumni Profile

December 2008 37,051 views No Comment

Making Positive Behavior a Way of Life at CPS

Lorena Arévalo (M.A.’06)

It is no secret that Byrne Elementary School is going for the gold these days. Students from kindergarten to 8th grade are collecting “gold bars,” which can be traded for prizes and special privileges. And the bars are stacking up fast.

It’s all part of a schoolwide Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program overseen by Chicago School alumna Lorena Arévalo (M.A.’06), who recently began work as citywide PBIS coach for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). In the few months that she has been on the job, the improvements in behavior—gauged in part by the number of referrals to the principal’s office—have been reduced significantly.


Arévalo, who graduated from The Chicago School’s Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program and learned the ABA-based PBIS program as part of her master’s-level work, has the job of coordinating the 16-school effort. She works with administrators, staff, and teachers to provide school-based training, assist individual schools in sustaining PBIS once it has been implemented, and collect data that is fundamental to the project. As a bilingual Latina, her combination of ABA expertise and language skills in a heavily Spanish-speaking area is particularly welcomed.

Historically, PBIS has a track record of improving school culture by emphasizing behavioral expectations, clear consequences, and positive reinforcement.

“By defining and publicizing rules so that every student knows what is expected, we set the students up to be successful,” Arévalo says. A walk through the building confirms the emphasis on expectations, which are posted—and color coded—in every room and on every corridor wall: “Be Responsible. Be Respectful. Be Safe. Do Your Best.”

To carry out the theme, teachers and staff wear the symbolic red, yellow, blue, and green on “true color days,” which occur at least once a week. The expectations are discussed in class and in assemblies and every day begins with a rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” emanating from the P.A. system.

Higher and more clearly articulated expectations are paying off. The “gold bars”—in reality, nothing more than coupons printed on goldenrod paper—amassed by students pile up in the cubicles of teachers who will distribute them, publicly acknowledging the good work and positive behavior of recipients. Parents, too, appreciate the fact that their children are treated with dignity by being recognized for positive achievements.

Principal Robert Deckinga underscores the difference that the PBIS program and Arévalo’s efforts have made. Not only are the need for punitive measures down, he says, but attendance has increased and the number of parent volunteers has reached a record high.

“Parents serve with administrators, teachers, support staff, and security guards on PBIS committees, and are very engaged in the project,” Arévalo says.

Deckinga agrees, pointing to the across-the-board buy-in PBIS has received from teachers, staff, and parents that has made the project so successful.

“You can only accomplish things if the personnel are willing to put themselves into it,” he says. “What we wanted to do just made sense. We weren’t asking teachers to do more; we just asked them to use a different approach. As a result, more than 80 percent of Area 11 administrators voted to implement PBIS.”

While changes in attitudes and better articulation of expectations may be at the heart of what PBIS is all about, it is the ABA focus on data collection and analysis that ensures its success.

“We’re looking for systemic change, unlike many ABA interventions that focus on individual behavior, Arévalo says. “We’re tracking everything from attendance to office referrals to incidents of students not showing respect for each other. We record data daily and review it weekly. It helps us figure out what kinds of changes to make. We never make decisions on a hunch.”

One way the school uses the data is to examine patterns of minor problem behaviors and to identify students who need additional supports to prevent the behavior from escalating.

“It’s a tremendously rewarding experience,” Arévalo says. “We’re seeing positive changes take place in a very short period of time.”

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