Lessons in Managing Student Behavior on the School Bus

Stock photo of student bullying on a school bus.
Stock photo of student bullying on a school bus.

It’s a great responsibility for school bus drivers to navigate the roads on a mission to safely deliver students to their schools and homes. While school districts rely on bus drivers to safely operate vehicles, drivers and monitors are also expected to manage passenger behavior.

The biggest safety challenge for transportation operators may be the students who disobey rules, bully other passengers, or act out with violence. As difficult as it is to attract and retain drivers, managing student behavior may be the deal-breaker that directly causes transportation staff to choose another profession that offers the same amount of pay, or more.

So, what can school districts and bus drivers do to ensure they are effectively managing student behavior and supporting a positive riding experience?

Tactics for Better Behavior

The National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) advises that drivers, supervisors and school administrators each play a role in making sure that appropriate rules are in place and that infractions preserve student (and bus driver) safety. In that spirit, districts have tried many top-down approaches for managing student behavior.

With onboard WiFi connections, for example, students can spend time completing homework on the bus. WiFi coupled with video cameras can help bus operators catch culprits in the act, and address the issue using audio and video recordings as evidence.
Districts also have the ability to notify law enforcement of incidents on the bus in real-time and address them before further endangering drivers and passengers.

Then there are seating charts and lap/shoulder seatbelts, which are designed to secure passengers in one place. Some districts agree that these methods can also dramatically improve behavior because passengers are restrained from moving around the vehicle. Others believe the association between seat restraints and appropriate behavior requires further study.

Such remedies may only be temporary solutions. School Transportation News reached out to several scholars to learn what they discovered after researching issues stemming from organizational or emotional dysfunction.

Inclusion at the Bus Stop

Sawyer Hogenkamp, M.Ed., a certified teacher and researcher in school transportation, aims to inform school personnel on how to best improve school climate, particularly on school buses.

A supportive bus climate is one where students experience positive peer and adult relationships with shared participation in shaping a positive bus environment. When students experience safe and supportive climates, they have increased bonding to school and caring about education, according to Hogenkamp.

“I grew up in rural southwestern Ontario, Canada, and spent 13 years riding the school bus every day,” said Hogenkamp. “That gave me the incentive to research bullying and school climate because I found there was very little about what students and school bus drivers experience on the school bus.”

In 2018, he researched multiple school districts under the same transportation operation in southeastern Ontario for his master’s thesis at Queen’s University. He interviewed bus drivers to understand their perceptions of bullying on their school buses, and how they were addressing it.

He concluded that while provincial and statewide mandates require sharing of information between school bus drivers and district staff, there’s no guarantee that such communication occurs or is effective.

In his study, he found that school bus drivers, as well as student transportation managers, are often left out of sessions for school staff to learn about peer aggression and bullying. And that the processes of filling out incident forms about bullying on the bus were not always circulated to the principal, parents, student, and back to the bus driver again (and signed).

“When a school bus driver takes the time to fill out that paperwork and then gets pushback or no feedback from the school, in particular, it demotivates them from continuing to address bullying in that way again,” he said.

To meet expectations and to foster better communication about incidents, Hogenkamp recommended that school administration be present during bus pick up and drop-offs at each school campus. He explained that scheduling time every day to interact with bus drivers and student riders sends the message that the school bus is still a part of the school—and that drivers are valued and have authority and status as legitimate school staff.

Additionally, he suggested that school staff and transportation staff should be trained together in student behavior management so that all staff are on the same page.

“Certainly, giving bus drivers the training they need to become competent student managers is important. But they need the backing and authority of school districts and school principals to empower that training,” Hogenkamp advised.


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Understanding Minds

By the time a student bully disrupts the bus ride or shows up with a weapon, the opportunity to address the root problem at an early stage often has long passed.

“You can power-play kids and oppress them, but that makes a ticking time bomb,” observed Dr. Adam Saenz, a licensed psychologist, and author who is presenting a keynote address on the subject at the TSD Conference in Frisco, Texas on March 23. “If you are not dealing with the deep-rooted issue than you will not get rid of the behavior. Much of the behavior is fueled by an emotion.”

In his upcoming book, “The EQ Intervention,” Saenz addresses how adults can help shape self-awareness among children through social and emotional learning. Preschool children go through a learning process called social referencing, which is a way of modeling their lives by asking questions and observation.

He said social media has become the new social reference, instead of parents. In other words, what children see on their devices is how they manage their emotions.

Social-emotional learning, which is rooted in emotional intelligence, is something to model, rather than teaching or playing a video.

Saenz pointed to four steps that school personnel can apply for social-emotional learning:

1. Demonstrate appropriate behavior.
2. Understand how the child is thinking and feeling.
3. Determine how to regulate emotions.
4. Be empathetic and encourage them to talk about feelings.

Consistency in the classroom and on the school bus is another way to guide effective learning and predictability of emotions. When families move, however, it’s hard to reach consistency.

“When good things are in place for children, then you have the ability to make good decisions,” he concluded.