Behavior Programs | Feature

Tech Gets Tough on Bullies

Classroom behavior doesn’t seem to get much media attention until bullying results in serious injury, a student suicide, or the prosecution of a child as an adult on a murder charge. At that point, forces beyond the school district take over and what is already an educator’s worst nightmare can turn into public outrage.  

Schools are finding that technology can be an important element in making their behavior programs more proactive from an administrative and an instructional perspective. Applications that streamline data collection and analysis and that engage students in positive social interactions can turn the tide in a school’s anti-bullying efforts.

The challenge is matching behavioral objectives with the right technology. To leaders in the Dallas Independent School District (TX), the goal was getting better at identifying effective points of intervention, perhaps even before an actual bullying incident could take place. At the same time, there was the challenge of dealing with a tight budget and the demands on the time of classroom teachers who have more than behavior problems to deal with.  

"You don’t go from being a model student to ending up in a DAEP [disciplinary alternative education program]," says Suzie Fagg, executive director of student services for the Dallas ISD. "This is a progression, and when you’ve got technology, it’s easier to see that progression and intervene before it gets to a point where you’re sending a child off to a DAEP."

Describing her district’s Student Welfare Freedom From Bullying plan as "one of the most comprehensive anti-bullying policies in the country," Fagg says the effort is directed at preventing and reducing acts of bullying before they ever have the chance to get out of hand. Dallas ISD already collected reports on bullying incidents, but the data were disparate, not allowing for the kind of analysis Fagg believes will help schools identify problem areas.

"All of the data, when you take it together and look at trends, that is what your school environment is all about," Fagg says. "If you have a lot of incidents of bullying going on and you know that a lot of it’s happening [for instance] on this stairwell, then you need to begin to address the issue of that stairwell. How can you deploy staff there? How do you educate staff about what they need to be looking for? How do you educate students on what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior?"

Real-Time Data
To implement her anti-bullying policy, Fagg turned to Review360, a hosted software program that helps educators collect relevant data and improve student behavior. The data collection begins with a customized incident-reporting form that matches the process educators were already using at Dallas ISD, but a host of pull-down boxes were added to the online form to ensure consistency of incident description and streamline reporting. The form standardizes the language used to describe behavior, eliminating the need to interpret subjective language--making the data easier to take action on.

"We have an office of student discipline, so they collect discipline reports. But unless you act on those reports, they’re just numbers," Fagg says. "It’s not just discipline referrals. It’s about using the referrals and the data from those referrals to maybe improve on the operation of our schools, as well as the relationships between our students and our staff."

Fagg sees the new technology as a way to intervene at the very outset rather than after the fact. "If it’s a paper referral, you stick it in a folder," she says, "but if we can see [real-time] data on this student and say, ‘This student hasn’t acted out at all, and now all of a sudden we’re seeing these referrals come through,’ then we need to intervene before it’s too late."

"We know what works with kids with behavioral problems," says Stewart Pisecco, a behavioral psychologist and the creator of Review360. "Our biggest challenge isn’t coming up with what works, but rather how to get what works implemented consistently in the schools."

An interactive planning process helps teachers develop classroom management goals and materials to achieve desired outcomes. For example, teachers might use the program to create specific lesson plans, to develop methods for nurturing and reinforcing positive classroom behavior, and to intervene when negative behavior is discovered.

Administrators can track teachers to see who has completed which modules and monitor the progress they are making toward their classroom behavior objectives. Online teacher training walks teachers through various modules, with topics that range from a general overview of bullying to specifics on cyberbullying to classroom management and prevention.

"Combining the content with the data makes it possible to see which areas of the training are being implemented well and achieving the desired result," Pisecco adds, "as well as identifying where implementations aren’t as successful and retraining might be needed."

One reason Review360 was particularly attractive to Dallas ISD was the relatively low cost. Traditional face-to-face teacher training for more than 200 teachers, coupled with regular refresher courses, could have been astronomical. Fagg says the technology also adds something old-style training doesn’t have: flexibility. Teachers have immediate access to the best practices and research when they need it, during the school day or from home.

Modeling Behavior
When looking at anti-bullying initiatives, the targets of bullying and bystanders need to be considered at least as much as the bullies themselves.

"Bullying is not new to teachers, and especially not to special ed teachers. At our schools, we do tend to collect the so-called bullies and their targets and many of the bystanders--that’s who we teach," says Marge Krah, social skills and character education teacher for the Cape May County Special Services School District (NJ). "For special education teachers this is nothing new; it’s just getting the press that it probably so badly needed for a long time."

Krah is one of the nearly 110,000 New Jersey teachers working to implement legislation enacted this year that includes an "anti-bullying bill of rights" and mandates that public schools not only reduce bullying, but provide evidence that efforts are made to help children change behavior in order to prevent the behavior. Ripple Effects, a behavior software program, is one of the tools New Jersey districts are using. The program includes an inventory of hundreds of video clips of real students telling their stories about a host of negative behaviors, of which bullying is one.

Linda Bruene Butler, a clinician administrator with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, was hired as a consultant by the Cape May district to help the schools teach anti-bullying behavior. Bruene Butler, who became a Ripple Effect trainer to assist educators in this process, says she’s utilizing a curriculum she helped coauthor and supporting that effort with the Ripple Effects software.

Adding a new curriculum that teaches students behavior skills to an already jam-packed school schedule is a challenge that Bruene Butler believes administrators and educators want to meet but find difficult to accomplish. That’s where the technology comes in.

Once Ripple Effects is downloaded to a school network, it offers two kinds of behavior instruction: tutorials for teachers about how to teach lessons on behaviors or successfully remediate poor behavior, and tutorials for students that address more than 300 behavior-related topics--for instance, the difference between aggressive and assertive behavior.

With the student component, the interactive programs allow users to create individualized profiles and present material that accommodates all learning styles.

"Our kids already have, by the nature of their classification and getting sent to a school district outside their neighborhood, such significant self-esteem problems and think that they’re handicapped and different," Krah says, noting that this is where the candid videos from real students can prove a great asset. "This software with teenagers or kids that are very relatable to them makes them say, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one that’s dealing with this.’"

After logging on, a student will follow a set of lessons chosen by a teacher or counselor to address a specific behavior problem. The students also can choose the topics themselves. A general overview, videos of real kids describing in their own words their experiences or modeling behaviors, and other activities, such as journaling, teach and reinforce appropriate behavior. All of this is recorded in the system so that a teacher or counselor can go back and see what students did and how they performed. Only the journaling section is confidential, to ensure privacy.

"It’s difficult, especially in this time of high-stakes testing, to get lots and lots of teachers to do the prep and to keep going to do a whole sequence of skills," Bruene Butler says. "We’re looking at a core set of skills--the skills that are absolutely necessary to avoid discipline, the ‘don’t do’s.’ The approach is to make sure that the kids know what to do instead."

She adds, "Hearing kids their age talk to them about bullying and how to identify it, how to identify yourself as a bully or a target or a bystander, is a great way to teach that in a motivating way."

The software can respond to the teachable moment in a way that teachers can’t because they have so many other responsibilities in the classroom. At the end of a tutorial, a student can print a strengths-based behavior assessment with suggestions for how he or she can modify behavior to achieve positive outcomes. In addition to accessing information about the performance of specific students, educators can also compile data into reports that aggregate data for the entire student body.

"What’s great about the tests in Ripple Effects is that students get immediate positive or corrective feedback on anything that they do," Bruene Butler says. "That’s something a teacher would love to be able to do for everybody in the group, but it’s beyond the capacity. It’s a great way that technology can make you more effective and efficient."