Judging from the pre- and post-Budget flurry of press releases, there appears to be general support for the Government’s decision to invest a further $63.6 million over four years into the Positive Behaviour for Learning programme. The funding comes on top of $81.7m already tagged to be spent on PB4L, bumping the total funding up to $145.3m over four years.

Money well spent, according to most.

Paul Drummond, immediate past president of the New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF), said the organisation welcomed the Government’s recognition of the growing number of children with behaviour problems. Lorraine Kerr, president of the New Zealand School Trustees Association, described PB4L as an important initiative and a worthy recipient of additional funding.

Angela Roberts, President of the PPTA, praised the Government for putting resources into projects that work. While critical that the additional funding was achieved by “stripping money from state education”, the PPTA were largely supportive of the initiative, perhaps mainly because of its collaborative nature.

“PB4L has been a transparent partnership between government and the education sector. This is a great example of the Government collaborating with unions, listening to schools, and supporting them,” said Roberts.

However, not all agree. Frances Steinberg, a psychologist who has worked in a variety of settings, including special schools for emotionally disturbed students, believes money could have been better spent supporting and strengthening what schools are already doing in this area.

“We are spending an outrageous amount of money for this, and we haven’t even empirically ensured that what is being delivered is creating a real change, especially for the most severe behaviour problems,” she says.

What is PB4L?

So, what’s all the fuss about? Positive Behaviour for Learning was ultimately designed to address inappropriate behaviour in children and young people. Led by the Ministry of Education, it is a joint initiative between a number of education sector organisations and is delivered by the Ministry in partnership with non-governmental organisations, early childhood sector organisations, and Resource Teachers: Learning and Behaviour (RT:LB).

The programme is actually a collection of programmes for schools, teachers and parents; all are aimed to promote positive behaviour. The rationale behind PB4L is that by improving students’ behaviour and their home and school environments, their engagement and achievement will consequently improve. It hinges on the premise that positive behaviour can be learned and difficult and disruptive behaviour can be unlearned.

It isn’t just something dreamed up by the Ministry. The programme’s entrance into New Zealand schools and communities stemmed from the Taumata Whanonga, a behaviour summit held in March 2009. Around 150 people gathered in Wellington to discuss the challenge of behaviour and set about developing a plan to affect change. It had to be based on evidence, sustainable over the long-term, and able to be delivered consistently across New Zealand. It was also agreed that early intervention was imperative.

And so the seeds of PB4L were planted, and from it sprouted many branches, each programme, service, and initiative designed to feed into the overall goal of creating more positive learning environments.

One such initiative is the School-Wide framework, based on the Positive Behavioural Interventions and Support (PBIS) framework in the United States. Students are taught in very specific terms what behaviours are expected of them and there is a consistent response to these behaviours across the school. It involves a behavioural stocktake of all the incidents, reports, detentions, suspensions, and stand-downs, allowing the school to track its progress over time. According to the Ministry, 628 schools will have access to PB4L School-Wide by 2016. The Ministry provides $10,000 per school per year for the first three years of implementation.

Feeding into this is the Wellbeing@School website, loaded with resources to help schools review and improve their social climate. The site has received some criticism for the emphasis it places on making sure the school’s delivery of the programme is reliable rather than effective.

As part of PB4L, every school has access to the Behaviour Crisis Response Service in the event of extreme behaviour. Specialists from the Ministry can help deal with the situation at hand and support long-term behaviour plans.

The Intensive Behaviour Service, often referred to as a ‘wrap-around’ service, is available for children in Years 3-8 who display more challenging and complex behaviour and involves support from psychologists from the Ministry. Up to 100 students will receive this service within their local schools.

Then there are the Incredible Years programmes aimed at teachers and parents. The teacher programme is for teachers of children aged 3-8 years and is aimed at helping to turn disruptive behaviour around and create a more positive learning environment.

The parent programme, for parents of children aged 3-8 years, aims to get parents together so they can learn from each other about how to deal with behavioural issues at home. The programme is delivered by Ministry Special Education staff and by 51 non-government organisations (NGOs), 11 of which are Whānau Ora providers. It is expected to benefit around 30,000 children by next year, while the teacher programme is expected to benefit in excess of 180,000.

There has been some controversy surrounding the funding of the Incredible Years interventions. In addition to the Ministry of Education funding for the programme, there are additional millions budgeted to the Ministry of Health (mental health) to deliver the programme as well. The Ministry of Social Development has also been given millions to deliver the Parenting Toolkit, which is thought by some to be duplicating the efforts put into the Incredible Years programme.

There is a strong focus on Māori students. The ministries of Health and Education are jointly working to identify ways the Incredible Years programmes can be further culturally enhanced. Some schools will have access to Kaupapa Māori behaviour programmes being piloted around the country, including Huakina Mai, a programme that combines school wide and restorative practices with a kaupapa Māori world view approach, and Te Mana Tikitiki, a behaviour intervention programme.

Schools’ experience

Moreover, it all sounds pretty great. Ministry, sector, and community all working nicely together for a change. Huge numbers of students expected to benefit over the years. While this is clearly a long-term, slow-burn project, many schools are reporting success with PB4L already.

Principal of Porirua College, Susanne Jungersen, told the Herald that the PB4L programme had raised achievement at the school by seven per cent. Between 2009 and 2012, stand-down rates at the school have dropped from 61 to 15 and suspensions from 44 students to two.

Four schools in Motueka have also reported positive outcomes after going through the PB4L School-Wide training together. The schools worked together to create the Community Congratulations Card initiative, involving all businesses and organisations that deal with school-aged children. Each business was given letters with information about the initiative and cards to give out to children they saw displaying positive or respectful behaviour around the community.

Rotorua Intermediate (see side story) is another school to sing the praises of PB4L. Stephanie Chand says the programme was consistent with what the school was already doing, but data is proving that a real positive difference is being made.

Chand expresses some reservations about the tier system because the school can only progress to the next tier once they have 80 per cent staff understanding. They cannot effectively use PB4L to address the school’s more significant behavioural issues.

“Because of this, we are unsure of how PB4L can best target our ‘red zone’ students, who are those particularly problematic ones,” says Chand.

Frances Steinberg is sceptical of PB4L for this very reason. She says many schools, like Rotorua Intermediate, were essentially already delivering the principles prior to PB4L, but after an infusion of a large sum of money, are now doing so more consistently. Steinberg believes the implementation of a support person from New Zealand to help tighten what they were already doing would have been a more cost-effective solution.

“What’s more, the real behaviour issues, the ones that are of real concern, are not able to be addressed simply because the school is not consistent enough in how they handle minor issues,” she says.

Interestingly, several cases of students exhibiting severe behavioural problems have emerged in recent weeks – the seven-year-old running amok in a Northland School with a pair of scissors; the 14-year-old student at Tikipunga High School who became aggressive and police assistance was required; the violent 11-year-old student in Paeroa prompting Ministry intervention. Some of these cases have sparked criticism that the system is still not working effectively.

Sarah Maindonald of the New Zealand Association of Counsellors believes that school guidance counsellors need to be available in all primary schools. She says counsellor to student ratios in most schools are inadequate, meaning students don’t always get the emotional support they need to deal with an increasing range of significant emotional trauma.

Hora Hora School principal Pat Newman, also voiced his frustration that programmes designed to provide wrap-around resources, such as social workers and child psychologists to help deal with students with complex behavioural issues, were not doing enough to help schools deal with such students.

“It’s another case of ‘Let’s have meetings, let’s write endless observational notes’, but nothing actually happens,” he told the  .

Steinberg says anecdotal reflections are not considered relevant in evaluating an evidence-based programme.

“If the whole thing is supposed to be evidence-based, why wasn’t data collected using behavioural measures compared against either past levels in all schools receiving the programme –which isn’t an ideal research design because there’s a high level of observer bias – or an independent evaluation of behaviour in schools delivering the programme and those who don’t.”

Why look overseas for answers sitting on our doorstep?

Scepticism for PB4L extends beyond these concerns.

Steinberg takes issue with the fact that the PB4L programmes are founded upon overseas evidence and questions the cost-effectiveness of such an approach.

“Instead of sourcing programmes developed in New Zealand, evaluating their relevance, and disseminating them, the decision was made to purchase programmes developed and tested overseas for implementation,” she says.

She cites the example of the strategies used in the Incredible Years Parent Programme, which she describes as “fairly basic ‘Parenting 101’ ideas that were probably utilised by most New Zealand strength-based programmes already in operation”.

“Creating an environment where solutions are forged as a partnership between the school, students, families, community, and relevant agencies has been shown to dramatically increase effectiveness with serious behaviour,” says Steinberg, “But there is no need for expensive offshore wrap-around programmes when there have been several successful and inexpensive
New Zealand models for how to accomplish this.”

Similarly, the emphasis on whether the three-tiered approach of the PBIS framework (the first tier is the 80 to 85 per cent of students who benefit from the programme, a second-tier classroom-wide strategy is taken for those whose behaviour the framework doesn’t address, followed by a third-tier of individualising strategies) could be replicated in New Zealand’s School-Wide Framework has taken precedence over whether it can actually successfully address behaviour. Steinberg points out that the three-tiered set-up is probably what was being done in most schools across New Zealand already and not worth the investment of large sums of money to overseas developers.

While some effort has been made to give the programmes “a New Zealand flavour”, as Angela Roberts describes, Steinberg says that as the resources were not developed in New Zealand, purchasers faced a catch-22 decision of whether to adjust the programmes culturally, and in doing so, invalidates their being evidence-based, or implement them as designed, which makes the programme culturally insensitive.

Steinberg also calls into question the cost-effectiveness of such an approach.

“Because of the expense of purchasing training and licenses for these programmes, the PB4L has been limited in the number of schools that have access to them. Given that all schools are experiencing issues with behaviour, that is not a responsible way to proceed.”

The Incredible Years Programme has shown to have a 66 per cent success rate in addressing severe behaviour problems, which Steinberg says is very low, and questions the sense in putting more money into a programme that is not going to help serious behavioural issues.

“The Behaviour-Crisis Response Service and Intensive Wrap-Around programmes are generally more effective in addressing serious behaviour, but the question must be asked if they are cost effective, since they rely on a high number of professionals dealing with a low number of students” she says.

Steinberg also raises concerns about the sole use of supportive and positive interventions. “While I believe that using praise and positive language is appropriate with many students, there are significant numbers of students with challenging behaviour (and their families) who don’t respond well to this – as a matter of fact, if these students are praised for a behaviour, they often decide never to do that behaviour again because it ‘pleased’ someone.”

She points to research on solution-focussed and strength-based approaches that shows that if a family’s issues are ignored in favour of focussing on their strengths, the family are much more likely to drop out of participation.

“A one-size-fits-all model is never going to work with behaviour. Not only do plans for each student have to be individualised, it is hard to see how the same programme is going to be effective in Tuatapere, Mangere, and Whangarei. Instead of investing in expensive overseas models, we need to look at what is successful in each community, trial whether it is specific to that location or able to be generalised, and then evaluate the changes it creates.”

Exploring different directions

Stuart Middleton is another who is dubious about PB4L. In a recent post in his education blog, EDTalkNZ, Middleton decries the emphasis being placed on behavioural programmes like PB4L.

“We need to seriously ask why student behaviour at the beginning of the 21st Century has become a central issue in educational discussions,” states Middleton. He points to poor physical health, hunger, poor housing, and the “failure trajectory” of many students as possible underlying reasons for behaviour issues.

He suggests that instead of Positive Behaviour for Learning, there should be a Positive Learning for Behaviour programme, in which there would be an “unrelenting push” to ensure all children receive a quality early childhood experience
which focuses on developing acceptable behaviours that allow for adequate functioning
in a school.

“If we are to have positive behaviour for learning we probably can only achieve such a state through learning. Good behaviour in schools is a consequence of learning not a pre-requisite for it.”

Middleton questions whether it is time to seriously simplify the curriculum, narrowing it down to skills and habits that constitute a useful basis for educational progress. He also suggests there needs to be more teacher assistance, citing the successful Finnish approach of having multiple teachers in a classroom.

“It is certainly my view that teacher competence is not as big an issue as competent teachers doing the wrong thing,” he says.

Steinberg also believes the answer lies in empowering teachers. If every teacher was skilled to do functional analysis of behaviour and design individualised plans, the number of students who would be helped would increase dramatically, she says.

“I teach hundreds of New Zealand teachers a year how to go through such a process, and after a single day of training, they’re quite capable of dissecting issues and implementing appropriate strategies that will work even with the most difficult level of behaviour. The teachers become empowered rather than feeling like onlookers waiting for experts to address issues.”

These are important considerations for the future. Certainly, there is room and flexibility for amending the PB4L programmes; the Ministry has emphasised the programmes will continue to be closely monitored, evaluated and tweaked over time.

It may indeed have been costly to overlook successful home-grown models and look to overseas programmes and undoubtedly more focus needs to be taken in addressing the root cause of behavioural issues. For now, PB4L appears to be hitting the mark with many schools and getting results. While that can only be a good thing, it seems we also need to keep our eyes wide open as we plunge forward in this direction, monitor progress, and carefully evaluate whether valuable resources are being invested in the right areas.

Case study: PB4L in action

STEPHANIE CHAND shares Rotorua Intermediate’s experiences with PB4L.

At Rotorua Intermediate School, we are in our second year of the Positive Behaviour for Learning programme. During our first year, we consulted with staff and students often for their input and ideas. Our long standing school values respect for self, respect for others, and responsibility for your actions were retained as these values are known and understood by our students and our community as a whole. This meant PB4L was easy to implement because the changes we made were not major changes.

One of the big advantages our school has experienced by being part of the PB4L programme is consistency within our school. This has improved markedly through the teaching and reinforcement of routines and procedures such as uniform, playground areas, and transitioning around the school. This school-wide expectation of our students has meant that they are given the same messages and as a result are much more consistent in their behaviour. A new rewards system has also been embraced by our students. Students are rewarded much more often for showing the 3Rs (respect for self, respect for others, responsibility for your actions) and also for their academic achievements through 3Rs certificates, bands, and badges.

Data confirms that PB4L is making a difference in our school. In our first PB4L year, we purchased a school-wide information system. This system is able to provide a huge range of information about what is happening in our school, meaning our approach to behaviour can be precise and proactive. Clearer, consistent guidelines seem to be influencing behaviour, meaning that students are experiencing much less disruption to their learning time. The general feeling within our school is a really good one. Students are happy, positive, and are recurrently displaying the 3Rs.

One frustrating aspect of the PB4L system is how it works in tiers or levels. In order to get from tier one (where we are currently) to tier two, we need to have 80 per cent consistency of understanding throughout our staff over a two year period. This is measured by an independent person surveying a sample of staff at twice yearly intervals. As a result, part of the PB4L programme is a mystery until we get to tier two. Because of this, we are unsure of how PB4L can best target our ‘red zone’ students, who are those particularly problematic ones.

Overall, we have found that being a PB4L school is very beneficial. The beauty of the PB4L system is that we can continue to raise questions, focus attention where it is needed and evolve our programme so that it is constantly improving. We take pride in providing the best possible learning environment for our students – after all, that’s why we’re here.


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