It was 10 a.m., and Brian Thul's day was running right on schedule. Three boys were jogging in place in the intervention room at Fair Oaks Elementary, with Thul alternating between coaching and counting down the seconds left — 3, 2, 1.
"Quick feet, quick feet!" he called as the boys panted ragged breaths. Jogging was followed by more cardio and then several minutes of twisting into yoga poses.
These 10-minute breaks aren't just attempts to get kids physically fit. The workouts are helping the Brooklyn Park school derail disruptive behaviors without kicking kids out of class — while illustrating how schools are trying to avoid suspensions.
From urban districts like St. Paul to sprawling suburban ones like Osseo, schools are facing intense state and federal pressure to decrease suspensions and keep kids in class. At the same time, teachers and parents want disruptive kids removed from class so the rest of the students can learn.
To address that dilemma, Osseo Area Schools is one of the districts taking a preventive approach. For the past few years, schools there have been introducing Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a discipline toolkit that aims to stop misbehavior before it happens by controlling the unruly tendencies that lead to it.
"When you can't give a child what they need, they will act out," said Thul, a behavior intervention teacher. "I'm glad we have something in place that allows our kids and our teachers time and space."
In the green room with walls the calming color of split-pea soup, staffers say the 10 a.m. daily routine is the best time for the three boys to let off steam so behaviors don't interfere with their core subjects. They are frequent fliers; they'll be back at 11:30 for another break, just before math.
Fair Oaks and other Osseo schools are reporting fewer suspensions and better behavior. National research shows similar results, including a 2010 case study from a North Carolina county that found a 40 to 67 percent decrease in behavioral referrals and out-of-school suspensions. That's in line with research finding that PBIS can cut behavior problems and the number of teaching days lost.
Born in the 1990s, PBIS tactics are now found in every state in the nation and more than 500 schools in Minnesota, including the Minneapolis, St. Paul, Anoka-Hennepin and Bloomington school districts. The approach includes school mottos, rewards for good behavior and exercise programs to prevent incidents that trigger suspensions.
The key to success, both supporters and critics note, is consistency. While tactics can vary, all teachers and students have to buy into the mind-set for these schoolwide strategies to work.
It doesn't always click. Osseo teachers' union President Kelly Wilson said some staff members complain they haven't been trained, or have gotten only vague direction.
Still, Wilson says good things are happening at Fair Oaks and neighboring Park Brook Elementary, two of the schools that have gone all-in. There, school leaders point to lower discipline referrals and excited staffs. "They're not perfect — they'll tell you they're not perfect," Wilson said. "But they're on their way to getting some changes."
PBIS and prevention
The two schools sit in Brooklyn Park, on the east side of the expansive 20,500-student Osseo district, away from more affluent areas like Maple Grove. Historically, Fair Oaks and Park Brook haven't had the district's highest test scores. Most of their kids qualify for free lunches.
Osseo hasn't made headlines like St. Paul has with student assaults on teachers, but it's been a difficult year. Misbehavior has increased over the past few years, Wilson said. Not long ago, a student clutching scissors threatened to stab a teacher and others.
The tone is different at Fair Oaks and Park Brook. Fair Oaks is in its second year of using motor breaks and mediation in its green room. Park Brook has a focus on fitness so intense that kids jog in place while solving math problems. "I've got this saying here that kids learn more by accident in a place where they feel good than they do on purpose in a place where they don't," said Phil Sadler, principal at Fair Oaks.
There's evidence that it's working. Total suspensions in district elementary schools have been falling from the 2012-13 to 2014-15 school years. Park Brook and Fair Oaks are in the top half of the district's 17 elementary schools with the lowest total suspension rates from the 2011-12 to 2014-15 school years. Since implementing PBIS at Fair Oaks, there's been a decline in hitting, kicking and verbal abuse, Sadler said.
Sara Vernig, the district's principal on special assignment, said more schools in the district now use fitness, and about 16 have reflection rooms. Money isn't earmarked for the program; it's part of the staff development process in each building, she said.
Osseo's version of PBIS breaks down into a few main components. They include three to five behavior expectations echoed through schools and ways to acknowledge good behavior, said Kate Emmons, the district student services coordinator. Osseo Middle School, for example, sets the tone with a motto called the Oriole Way — "respectful, responsible, resourceful" — and orange "Oriole Bucks" given as rewards for positive behavior. Since the strategies started a few years ago, out-of-school suspensions have dropped and many behaviors have been eliminated, said Principal Brian Chance.
The students buy in, too; now, it's cool to do well in school, student management specialist Laura Ringen said. The Oriole Way means "always be on time, always get your work done, get good grades," said Osseo Middle School sixth-grader Samuelyn Johnson. If you do, you are recognized. "That's what makes you work harder," she said.
Strength in flexibility
At a March meeting, the St. Paul school board approved $4.5 million to expand school discipline practices after district officials noted an uptick in student-initiated assaults and threats. All schools in the district use PBIS, some with features like Osseo's, including yoga, interactive classroom software and intervention with students.
PBIS supporters say a strength of the program is its flexibility: The use of pieces like behavior expectations and reward systems is based on a school's needs and not mandated by the program.
But that's where its critics see a problem. The different ways it's phased in mean that some schools are less effective than others in the same district, they say.
Aaron Benner, a former St. Paul Public Schools teacher, said PBIS was tried without success when he worked at John A. Johnson and Benjamin E. Mays. The two elementary schools manipulated data and lacked consistency, said Benner, who is now a behavior coach and African-American liaison at Community of Peace Academy, a charter school in St. Paul.
"This was the new thing to do," he said. "People had no idea how to do it consistently."
PBIS is only as effective as the buy-in from teachers and district leaders, said Marika Pfefferkorn of the advocacy group Minnesota Education Equity Partnership, who supports the overall framework.
Park Brook Principal Scott Taylor said his school used to have a districtwide reputation for behavior problems. When Taylor found out he'd be transferred there eight years ago, "I was bound and determined, I'm going to change the story here," he said.
The school started using PBIS strategies about seven years ago. The year before Taylor arrived, there were 55 suspensions. The number was cut in half his first year. Last year's total: one.
The school's focus on fitness for the past four years includes brain breaks in class, which range from kindergartners dancing to fourth-graders running in place. In off hours, the students also run a 5K and cross-country ski.
"It seems like happier children," said Lisa Coulter, an instructional ESP who's been with the school for 12 years and seen the transformation. She hasn't had to restrain a child at recess for six or seven years.
Taylor recalled two students a few years ago: one new student, one returning. He said the new one "started to get a little lippy," then the old student said, "We don't do that here." Taylor didn't have to add much.
"He knows what our culture is here," Taylor said.