We set out to create a fair and consistent system that also promotes positive relationships within our school community
Are your school’s expectations and consequences clear and transparent? Can your colleagues, students, and families understand how discipline decisions are made by using common language and definitions? Would several different administrators be able to consistently address behaviors in a similar manner? On a good day, you would answer “no” to only one of these questions, but chances are you are shaking your head on all of them. Our behavior charts initiative provided a fresh approach to addressing student behavior that has helped us, and we hope helps you, provide better answers these important questions. Our initiative is rooted in the best practices outlined in The Successful Middle School: This We Believe (SMS), which tells us that “a safe, just, and inclusive climate provides the foundation for a responsive middle school” and we have added guiding references to SMS throughout this article.
Over years of experience as teachers and administrators in both private and public schools, we discovered we had similar experiences regarding vagueness in addressing student behavior. Responding to behaviors occurring in different areas of school life only made things more complicated. It was very hard to provide consistency when working with students, teachers, and families. At best, this made working with behaviors very difficult and, at worst, it made decisions seem subjective and unfair. Not to mention, it was not very effective at changing behaviors. We knew we had to take a new approach.
Our new concept is behavior charts. We implemented behavior charts to communicate and streamline how we fairly address behaviors in the school (See SMS, p. 46). Addressing behaviors became more clear and transparent for all involved. As much as the charts are used for disciplinary action, the charts are also used proactively as intervention tools to prevent behaviors from happening, repeating, or escalating. Today, the behavior charts are published on the school website. Families have access and are directed to them when needed, and students and staff are introduced to the behavior charts when they become members of our school community.
The behavior charts were initially created for use in high school and have changed over time as new experiences and circumstances shaped its evolution. The current version is a compilation of nearly 20 years of student, teacher, family, and administrative input (See SMS, pgs. 12-13). The charts have now been rewritten for Lebanon Middle School, a grades 5-8 school of approximately five hundred students. It includes our four expectations (the four Rs) around respecting yourself, respecting others, respecting expectations, and respecting property. The charts are easily adaptable and can be tailored to any school.
In this article, we will share how the system was developed and why it works. We will also explore how it can be adapted to meet your school’s specific needs.
The Original Premise
All behaviors do not happen for the same reason nor do they have the same impact. We wanted to create a fair discipline system that used the same process for all behaviors, but the outcomes could be different based on the situation. This would provide the clarity and structure needed for consistency and stability. It would also provide the flexibility and adaptability needed to build understanding and ownership (See SMS, p. 17). We compared it to our existing discipline system and felt there needed to be levels of responses to behaviors based on the student’s intent and impact. Initially, the four levels were defined as purposely, knowingly, recklessly, and negligently. As the charts continued to grow and develop based on the school’s needs, definitions were replaced with Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, and Level 4. Each level is now described by the thinking and impact involved and has become part of our nomenclature when discussing behavior (for example: “I think it’s a Level 3.”).
With this premise in mind, it took time to develop the behavior charts and we involved teachers, students, and families in the process (See SMS, pgs. 12-13). We defined the levels, came up with examples, and identified the actions of teachers, administrators, parents/guardians, and students—and out of this collaborative brainstorm the behavior chart model was born.
Building the Behavior Charts
Clear expectations and a structured day help create predictability and stability. While it is impossible for any set of rules to specifically reference all incidents that might occur, we have implemented a system that identifies the various responses adults (teachers, paraeducators, counselors and administrators) may take to address behaviors in the categories below. Each of the following categories represents a separate chart:
- Academic Dishonesty
- Arrival, Dismissal
- Classroom, Library, Study Hall, Advisory
- COVID Protocols
- Hallway, Break, Recess, Bathroom
- Illegal Substances
- Personal Conflicts
- Physical Conflicts
- Remote Learning
When students do not demonstrate expected behaviors, they need immediate, fair, and consistent responses to re-teach and possibly receive a consequence for their actions. In order to determine the appropriate disciplinary action, the following considerations are factored into the outcome:
- The amount of time the student thought about their choices/actions.
- To what extent this did or was meant to hurt others.
- To what extent this did or could have disrupted the safety of the school.
- The number of times the behavior occurred.
- The developmental age level of the student (5th, 6th, 7th/8th).
Each behavior category is broken down to four different levels based on the above criteria. The consequences get progressively more serious as the behavior becomes more intentional and harmful. Although the levels are defined in the same manner, the consequences are different for 5th, 6th, and 7th/8th grade. A re-teaching, and/or restorative work component is also part of most consequences (See SMS, pgs. 17-18).
Why and How the Behavior Charts Work?
Schools should have a common language around expectations, behavior, and discipline. For example, words like bullying need to be defined and understood so that everyone knows what it is and what it is not. The behavior charts, along with our advisory program, create this nomenclature for students and staff. When an issue arises, the chart becomes a part of the conversation for everyone involved and students can reflect on their own behavior regarding the level of thought and impact. Students can objectively discuss and identify the appropriate behavior level. These charts also empower different administrators to consistently address behaviors by responding in similar ways.
The behavior charts allow the discussion to focus on the behavior in a non-threatening and respectful manner. It is about the behavior, not the individual student. The student’s active involvement in the process enables them to better own their behavior which is more likely to help them change that behavior in the future. We learn together as students and adults and build relationships at the same time (See SMS, pgs. 12-15).
When it comes to investigations for harassment or bullying, the behavior charts are also a tremendous tool. The charts help all involved. The alleged bully/harasser, victim, and/or witnesses can give their clear perspective of the event/issue by identifying the level of the behavior. Students themselves realize when a situation is or is not bullying because they have a tool to help them process the situation, and this reminds them of how, exactly, harassment or bullying is defined. If a consequence is given, parents of the victim are told what level behavior was addressed and they can see the range of consequences being given. This communication maintains confidentiality while giving information that helps families fully process the behavior issue. Families understand what is being done and why, and the focus of these conversations is about the behavior.
These charts are a resource for faculty, but a lifeline for administrators. We distribute printed copies of the four most relevant day-to-day behavior categories that can impact faculty. The rest of the categories are used mostly by administrators. The more the charts are used, the more inherent the levels become and the easier it is to determine how to proceed when a situation arises. We let the faculty know they can use the charts when they are unsure of how to address behaviors or want to use it proactively with a student, small group, or class. It is a valuable resource for staff when they are struggling with challenging student behaviors.
Administrators often use the charts to have productive conversations with faculty to determine the best way of addressing a behavior, whether it be in the lunchroom, hallway, or classroom. The charts take away most subjectivity, make the student’s behavior feel less personal, and help the faculty feel more supported. Having less emotion involved enables more logical and fair outcomes. After all, the ultimate goal is a respectful and inclusive community where we learn from our mistakes.
An Example Behavior Chart
Being Nimble and the Power of Flexibility
One important aspect of the charts is that they are nimble—they have to be. That’s not to say that the behavior charts are changed every day. They do, however, need to be continuously reviewed. When a situation emerges that the chart does not address, it needs to be adapted and changed. For example, we developed two new categories due to Covid-19 which included remote learning behaviors and Covid-19 protocols. Certain parts of a chart can also be removed if they are no longer valid. For instance, the category for leaving school property was removed since that is not a common issue at our middle school. It is good to think of the behavior charts as middle schoolers who are constantly changing.
Some Final Thoughts
It is important you spend the time necessary to build your own nomenclature around the behaviors that are significant to your school. This part of the process should include all members of the school community. You can make this your own behavior system by using your mission, vision and/or core values. Use any pre-existing resource or system you have that is currently part of your discipline process. This will be a work in progress that you will adapt and adjust to meet your school’s most current needs.
You have to start somewhere, so hopefully we’ve given some strategies and tools to begin this important work. Your students, colleagues, and families will appreciate this effort because everyone will have a clear understanding of how behavior is addressed at school. If you need any help, please reach out. We’d love to help!
Bishop, P., & Harrison, L. M. (2021). The successful middle school: this we believe. Association for Middle Level Education.