Rethinking Behavior to Keep Kids Learning

Five years ago, Seaborn Lee Elementary School in Fulton County faced mounting concerns regarding student attendance, behavior, and discipline. The administration turned to Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a proactive approach to establishing the behavioral supports and social culture needed for all students to achieve social, emotional, and academic success. Ulysses Smallwood, the school’s PBIS internal coach, shares how this framework is creating a positive learning climate and yielding real results.

When I first arrived at Seaborn Lee, students were missing more days of class than there were school days in the year. In 2012-2013, administrators reported nearly 300 behavior incidents that led to students missing instruction and 421 days in which students were suspended or in office time out. Something had to be done. And it wouldn’t be easy.

Established in 1971, Seaborn Lee has long been known as a place parents can confidently send their children. The school is 92 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic, 3 percent white, and 1 percent multiracial, and 85 percent of students receive free-or-reduced lunch.


In recent years, there’s been an influx of challenging behaviors such as disruption, defiance, fighting, and bullying. My initial goal was to establish relationships and offer support to teachers in classroom-management best practices. That first year, incidents decreased by 50 percent and the number of days students received out-of-school suspensions decreased by 60 percent. The data looked great, but there was no way to determine if the results would be sustainable.

Principal Kine’ Geathers recognized the need to implement additional support, which came in the form of an early learning climate prototype. This was developed by the Metropolitan Regional Educational Service Agency (Metro RESA) in partnership with Fulton County Schools thanks to funding from the David, Helen, and Marian Woodward Fund-Atlanta, which awarded $1.6 million over three years to Get Georgia Reading Campaign partners.

We were trained on an aligned school-wide PBIS framework that helped us address creating a positive learning climate and, most importantly, equipped us with social-emotional and developmentally appropriate strategies to address challenging student behavior.

We identified our school-wide PBIS leadership team and designed resources for implementation. Our main goal was properly defining major versus minor behaviors, how they would be handled, who would handle them, and how the data would be tracked.

We created a behavior matrix that complemented our school mascot: a bulldog. Our theme is P.A.W.S. (Be Prepared, Act Respectfully, Work Together, and Stay Safe), and these principles guide teachers and students in behavioral expectations.

Seaborn Lee implemented the PBIS framework during the 2015-2016 school year. Extensive climate analysis was conducted at the end of the previous school year, and the leadership team created all vital documents during summer training.

Buy in has to be carefully planned and constantly revisited, and students and teachers alike receive incentives for exhibiting P.A.W.S behavior. Through a survey, we learned that top requests from teachers included jeans days, extended lunch, supplies, and early release.

In addition to an extensive workshop held for staff members during the pre-planning phase, we host monthly PBIS staff meetings to communicate the latest information and student data.

To build student buy in, the administration kicks off the school year with grade-level town hall meetings that detail expectations including demonstrations of expected behavior. We then meet monthly to address the latest behavioral concerns and provide strategies to correct them.

The greatest indicator of success is the data, which shows a decrease in referrals as teachers handle more of the challenging behaviors on their own utilizing new strategies. PBIS is helping us realize our goal: to keep students in the classroom so they can learn.


Prior to introducing PBIS, teachers would automatically send students to the office, often at the first sign of challenging behavior. Now we are thinking about behavior in a different way and realizing not all challenging behaviors are the same.

We’ve become more aware that certain challenging behaviors are expected with our early learners in Pre-K through second grade, as they are developmentally appropriate. This means teachers need to be equipped with a toolkit of strategies not only to support the child, but also the teacher in managing those behaviors inside the classroom.

Changing this way of thinking takes deliberate effort and patience. While teachers understand the concept of handling challenging behaviors in new ways, there is still much work to do before the framework becomes deeply woven into the fabric of the school’s culture.

There have been challenges with consistent buy in to the framework—mainly because PBIS is a new approach to discipline, one many staff members didn’t experience in their own educational journey. And deeply held beliefs about how children should be disciplined aren’t easy to discard.

The PBIS framework is all about positive reinforcement, which admittedly isn’t always the most natural thing to do when dealing with a student who may be negatively affecting the learning environment.

The mantra teachers learn is that there should be “four deposits for every withdrawal,” meaning a student should receive four encouraging remarks for every negative one. This is a work in progress since it’s such a shift in ideals, but it’s one we’re embracing with open arms.

We are a school not without our challenges. But we are always mindfully examining those challenges so we can determine how to improve them.