Using PBIS and Restorative Practices to Transform Our Schools and Support ALL Students

Posted by Linda Watkins on

In recent years, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the overrepresentation of students with disabilities and racial minorities being disproportionately represented in office discipline referrals.  Some have even identified this as a ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’ and have called for federal action to address this national problem.  When I started in my current position as Director of Exceptional Learners at MSD of Decatur Township in 2011, the district was out of compliance for disproportionality with suspensions and expulsions. As we examined our discipline data, our conclusion was that our rate of classroom removals was higher than what we wanted, and we also hypothesized that the significant number of classroom removals had a direct impact on student achievement since those lost instructional minutes were time we could not get back.  We knew it was time for a change in our approach to behavior.

We began our journey bringing schools through Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) training with the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning, which is part of the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University – Bloomington.  We chose to start with Culturally Responsive PBIS intentionally due to our disproportionality concerns based on ethnicity.  We also purchased a School-Wide Information System (SWIS) for every campus to begin entering discipline data consistently and having a quick and easy way to pull the data out for decision-making purposes in the school.  The cultures of the campuses walking through this rich process began to transform as they determined their school-wide expectations and collaborative plans to explicitly teach the behaviors they expected to see from all students. 

As with any important systemic change initiative, it was not without its challenges. Some of these roadblocks included staff turnover, building leadership changes, competing district initiatives, and substitute teacher shortages.  We have continued to persevere, however, and we continue to bring campuses on each year, although they are at various stages in the process.  The commitment remains that MSD of Decatur Township is a PBIS district, and we believe in the framework and the support it provides to our teachers, students, and community. I am often asked how we have managed to sustain the framework with all of the changes the district has experienced over the last five (5) years, and from my vantage point, it is simple: we have focused on the fact that PBIS is a framework and a way of doing business. It is not a program that comes and goes as the seasons change. It is a philosophy and a completely different approach to behavior with supports built in for ALL kids. Because of this, we are seeing the cultures and attitudes shift at our campuses, and the administrators, teachers, and support staff buy-in wholeheartedly. 

What’s even more amazing is the desire to continue taking this shift to the next level. PBIS does not stop all behaviors, but it certainly has helped us categorize behaviors and consider new options when dealing with behaviors we still see. We noticed over the last two years that although we had decreased the number of classroom removals, we were still using them the majority of the time with office discipline referrals. Several administrators and staff members decided to start utilizing Restorative Practices, specifically Restorative Circles, to address situations where meeting and discussing the issue and giving both parties a voice was an effective strategy.  We’ve been able to facilitate numerous circles, sometimes with both families involved and represented in the process. Sometimes the circles are to address conflict between students, other times it is for conflict between a student and a teacher. Regardless, it has proven to be an amazing tool in our toolkit and much more effective to truly help students understand the impact of their behaviors. We believe in using Restorative Practices, and feel it is promoting change not only with our students, but with the community as a whole since we are able to involve the families as well. 

The PBIS journey in MSD of Decatur Township is far from over, but the progress and culture shift we are making is tremendous.  We are teaching our students the behaviors we want to see from them, teaching them how to resolve conflict in a restorative manner, and guiding them to become good citizens now and when they leave us.  I am proud to report that we were 100% compliant this year and did not have any areas of disproportionality noted by the Indiana Department of Education.  Through all of the changes in education, our beliefs hold firm that we are doing good work, and this is our new way of doing business in Decatur Township. 


Watkins-head shot.jpg Linda Watkins is in her fifth year as Director of Exceptional Learners at MSD of Decatur Township.  She oversees Special Education, Section 504, English Learners, High Ability, and PBIS for the district.  Prior to this position, Linda taught special education at the elementary level and was a special education coordinator.   

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