Kindergarten is where most kids get their first taste of school rules.
Raise your hand.
For one such boy entering Alcott Elementary School in Hastings, Neb., this year, rules were a foreign concept.
“When he didn't get his way, he was throwing fits, he was crawling under tables, screaming, hitting, things like that,” Alcott Principal Lawrence Tunks said. “For him, some of those social skills and those behavioral skills were not in place yet.”
Educators say there's a growing trend of children entering school without basic social skills.
Teachers at three Nebraska public schools, including Alcott, are testing a classroom management tool they hope will help.
It's called the Good Behavior Game. Bellevue's Twin Ridge Elementary and La Vista West Elementary in the Papillion-La Vista district are the other schools trying it.
The Nebraska Department of Education spent $70,000 last year and could spend as much as $156,000 this year and next in federal money to pilot the game for three years.
The game harnesses peer pressure to bring rule-breakers into compliance.
The rules are simple: Behave yourself, and your team will win prizes and privileges.
Principals at the pilot schools say the game works, although common sense suggests that not all parents will like how it's played. For example, well-behaved students can't win and collect prizes unless teammates also behave.
The game “helps students to learn what good behavior is,” said Mary Ann Losh, administrator of equity and instructional strategies for the Nebraska Department of Education.
Played briefly a couple of times a week, the idea is to ingrain in students what good behavior looks like so they adopt those behaviors the rest of the time.
Educators have long spoken of the academic deficit of children in poverty. But with poverty also comes a social skills deficit, they say.
State officials said they launched the pilots because Nebraska school districts asked for ways to help teachers manage classrooms.
The game is played for five to 20 minutes. Students compete in teams. If they obey simple classroom rules, such as being polite and following directions, their team is rewarded with pencils, stickers or other prizes and privileges.
Break the rules too many times, and the team gets nothing.
The game does not waste class time, proponents say, because children work on regular assignments during the game.
The game fits into a larger strategy that educators call positive behavioral interventions and support, which is gaining use in Nebraska schools. About 50 schools are working with the Nebraska Department of Education to implement the strategy. Some Iowa schools also are using the strategy and the game.
In general, the strategy calls for setting clear and consistent behavior expectations, explicitly teaching those rules and reinforcing and rewarding good behavior. In essence, behavioral rules are taught the same as any other subject.
When rules are broken, instead of punishing a child, efforts are made to uncover the cause and change a child's behavior.
Tunks said most students at Alcott are considered at “high risk” for academic failure.
About 79 percent of Alcott students are poor enough to receive federal lunch subsidies, double the percentage of 15 years ago. About a quarter are learning English for the first time.
“A lot of students are coming to school with very little background knowledge compared to, say, some students, maybe, at an upper-middle-class school,” he said.
Their home lives often lack structure, so the structure and expectations of school are “completely foreign,” he said.
“I think what the Good Behavior Game does is, it breaks those expectations down for students and allows them to be more manageable,” Tunks said.
Behavioral expectations are consistent schoolwide, he said.
Tunks said the kindergartner who struggled with school rules can “absolutely” benefit from the game.
Jeanne Poduska is a managing scientist for the American Institutes for Research, which is training Nebraska teachers in the game.
The game teaches children how to pay attention, work well with others and do their assignments, she said.
“Unfortunately, in our education system, we have a perfect storm,” Poduska said. “We have children who are coming into classrooms sometimes not having learned those skills yet. And we have teachers who in their pre-service training have not learned techniques to help those children in their classrooms learn those skills.”
More than three in four adults surveyed by Rasmussen Reports in 2011 said maintaining classroom discipline is harder today than when they were in school.
The New York-based nonprofit Public Agenda surveyed teachers in 2004 and found that 77 percent said their teaching would be a lot more effective if they didn't have to spend so much time dealing with disruptive students.
Teachers said that schools do a good job with serious behavior problems, like drugs and guns, but that they should be doing a lot better with minor rules violations.
When asked about nine specific student behaviors, 69 percent of teachers said the biggest problem for them wasn't bullying, illegal drugs or fighting, but talking out of turn or horsing around — the kind of behaviors targeted by the game.
The survey found that problems with student behavior appeared more acute in urban schools and in schools with high concentrations of poverty.
Teachers have often used games to encourage good behavior — remember when your teacher released the quietest row of students to recess first? But Twin Ridge Principal Arlana Whitney said the research behind the Good Behavior Game sets it apart from other techniques.
The version under trial in Nebraska comes from the American Institutes for Research. The game was developed in Kansas in the 1960s, Poduska said.
While the game didn't work for every child, researchers evaluating its use in other states concluded that it significantly reduced aggressive and disruptive behavior in the classroom, largely among boys.
When the same children were interviewed as young adults, researchers found a reduction in drug abuse, antisocial personality disorder and incarceration for violence.
The game uses the power of the group to help children learn how to “self-regulate” and to have their peers “model and moderate” behavior, she said.
The teacher might assign a well-behaved child as a buddy to the misbehaving student, helping him to stay in his seat instead of wandering around looking for a pencil, Poduska said. Or the misbehaving child may be put, as one principal put it, on “a team of one.”
Poduska said the goal of the game is for all teams to win.
“It is very rare that teachers are setting up teams to lose,” she said.
The rising numbers of students from poor homes complicates teaching, particularly when those students lack the experiences or parental supports that teachers relied on in the past, said Reece Peterson, an education professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Poverty is on the rise at La Vista West Elementary. The percentage of students qualifying for school lunch subsidies rose from 34.7 percent in 2002 to 59.4 percent in 2012. Over the same decade, the rate in Nebraska public schools rose from 32.4 percent to 44.2 percent.
Principal Lisa Wood said new teachers can be surprised by the behaviors they see in public schools.
“Probably 50 years ago, when I was in kindergarten, I never would have dreamed of telling a teacher, 'No,' ” she said. “Or I never would have refused to do my work. But today we do see children, not all children, but some kids, where that might occur.”
When La Vista West teachers started the game, not all were sold on it. But after the first year, teachers said the game created a positive learning environment and helped students learn to work independently, Wood said.
Wood still suspends students or takes away privileges when a strong message needs to be sent, she said.
But student referrals to her office for discipline are down, she said, and the number of minor offenses has dropped significantly.
“I think that we just have to take each child where they're at,” she said. “We do that over and over academically, and for some reason, for some folks, it's hard to understand that we have to do that behaviorally as well.”
One quiet classroom as students vie for rewards
Here's an example of how the Good Behavior Game works:
Jennifer Martin, a first-grade teacher at Twin Ridge Elementary School in the Bellevue Public Schools, is testing it in her classroom.
On a recent afternoon, Martin declared: “We are ready to play the Good Behavior Game. We are going to play for 12 minutes. The Good Behavior Game starts now.”
She pushed the timer, and the countdown began.
Rules were posted on the classroom wall:
1. We will work quietly.
2. We will be polite to others.
3. We will get out of our seats with permission.
4. We will follow directions.
Papers rustled, and latches on pencil boxes snapped as the students started an assignment. Nineteen kids at tiny desks snipped at yellow sheets of paper, sorting words.
They worked independently. But as they worked, they also competed on four evenly divided teams to follow the classroom rules.
Martin circled the room observing. Not a peep from the kids. Minutes passed.
Then Martin broke the silence. Someone on Team 1 did not follow directions, she said, a violation of Rule No. 4. She walked to the front of the classroom and drew a black check mark next to Team 1 on the score chart.
More minutes passed, all quiet except snipping sounds and the occasional thunk of a glue stick on the desk.
Then another announcement. A check mark for Team 3. Again, a Rule No. 4 violation.
Minutes later, the timer beeped.
All four teams won by limiting their check marks to four or fewer.
“Great job today. Very proud of you,” Martin said.
First-grader McKenzie Murchison said her team's perfect score felt “awesome.”
Martin passed out shiny, metallic-red pencils to reward students. She stamped their Good Behavior Game folders with smiley faces.