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The Impact of a Simple Smile

Building a relationship with the students you transport has a positive influence on school bus behavior.

The school day starts the minute the child leaves his or her home and boards the school bus. The bus driver, then, has the ability to influence the child’s day in a positive and welcoming way. The driver influences the student’s behavior on the school bus, and later, in the classroom.

The school bus driver is one of if not the first adult that many children meet in the morning. At the very least, the school bus driver is the first school district representative to interact with student-passengers each day. Some have even reasoned that the school bus driver is the child’s first teacher of the day. The atmosphere they create on their bus will impact the student’s day and even the rest of the school year.

While student behavior on the bus is a topic that is widely discussed throughout this industry, experts have developed their own styles to try and combat these issues. These start with the bus drivers creating a positive relationship with their students.

Amy Tiedens, transportation manager for Intermediate District Service Center 287 in Minnesota, told School Transportation News that it is the driver’s responsibility to build that relationship and stay consistent, no matter what the mood is of the kids.

“It’s a relationship. The driver stays calm, is kind, has a smile on his or her face every day, greets the kids every morning and says goodbye every afternoon,” Tiedens said. “Even if they are in a bad mood, if you can just try to stay consistent for them, you can let them know that they are safe and in a positive environment.”

She said when the kids get used to the new, positive environment and expectations, they will start to replicate that better behavior.

John Odom, director of transportation at Warren County Public Schools in Bowling Green, Kentucky, agreed. “I think that our kids need to know that you care. If our kids know that you don’t give a crap about them, then they are not going to behave anyways,” he explained.

Odom observed that bus drivers have plenty of opportunities to build that relationship with their students. Drivers notice the sport team jerseys they are wearing and can start a conversation about last night’s game, know their students’ names, welcome them on the bus and always have a smile on their face.

Patrick Mulick, a board-certified behavior analyst, told School Transportation News that students will most likely respond to bus drivers, and people in general, who they respect, and feel are there for them, for more than just the sole purpose of telling them what to do.

“The student senses the comforts of a welcoming bus and that welcoming environment. That tone is set by the bus driver,” Mulick said. “Based on the interactions that happen over the school year, that student is going to feel welcomed or not welcomed. And that sets the tone for their behavior and everything they do.”

Tiedens and Odom implemented a framework that was originally created for the classroom that is also reaping big benefits in the school bus. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) are focused on training bus drivers and students on the expectations that are required while riding the school bus. Tiedens and Odom both said they have seen success with this program, including an increase in positive student behavior and a decrease in write-ups.

“The biggest thing is, some people think it’s trying to teach the kids how to behave. It’s more (about) teaching the adults behavior and language, and then, in turn, the kids feed off that energy,” Tiedens said.

Tiedens implemented PBIS in her school district about a year and a half ago and said she has already seen an improvement in her student’s behavior. The first steps are to create a PBIS team, train everyone involved, then set clear expectations and guidelines for the school bus.

PBIS stems from being safe, respectful and responsible, then the expectations come as a build-off of those three words. Tiedens made posters of the expectations and posted them on the district’s school buses:

For Safe: Sit facing forward, fasten seat belts, keep hands, feet, and objects to yourself and keep the aisles clear.
For Respectful: Be kind, use a quiet voice and follow directions.
For Responsible: Be on time, pick a seat quickly, and keep food and drinks in your backpack.

Tiedens added that one of the main procedures her school district follows is not for staff to tell students “no” or “don’t.” Instead, PBIS encourages positive behavior and a positive tone of voice.

“With any kid, but especially with kids with emotional and behavioral disorders, you have to concentrate on the positive and not the negative,” Tiedens said. “When they get on the bus and put their seat belt on, instead of not saying anything, which is the old-fashioned way of doing things, you can say to them, “Hey, great job today getting on the bus and putting your seat belt on.’”

Odom implemented PBIS on his school buses in 2008 and has seen much success since then. He noticed a big difference between implementing the program on the bus and the classroom. On the bus, the drivers have their back to the students, so he reminds bus drivers to reinforce and set clear expectations for the bus ride.

Odom said his district has PBIS coaches that he places on select school buses. The coaches aren’t there to grade the drivers. Instead, they make recommendations and help drivers. Sending PBIS coaches on a bus without disciplinary problems, allows the coaches to gain ideas and knowledge that can be implemented in other buses.

PBIS focuses on acknowledging good behavior and then recognizing it, so the students know what the desired behavior is. Recognizing positive behavior on bus routes can reinforce that behavior.

For example, Tieden’s school district uses success tickets to acknowledge good behavior, while Odom said his district gives out tear sheets with the child’s name on it that can then be placed in a drawing for weekly prizes.

“Now, we have some drivers that do extra. Some drivers will pay for their kids to get ice cream in the cafeteria,” Odom said. “We had a bus that had a few write-ups over a year, and that driver (hosted) a pizza party at a pizza place, which I paid for.”

Some bus drivers, however, are stuck in their ways. As the adult in charge, they think that the children should automatically listen to them. Mulick said teaching bus drivers how to address student behavior is an important step. He added that the transportation staff needs to know the common behaviors that take place on a school bus and the triggers that create those unwanted behaviors.

“We have more and more complex kids getting on the bus every year. For some of our kids, backpacks are not the only baggage they are bringing with them to school every day,” Mulick said. “They have a lot of challenges that they are facing, just in their personal life. Knowing how to support those students through our small interactions, is going to be important, [as is] knowing how to react appropriately when behaviors do come up.”

Mulick added that punishment is not always the most effective way to handle a situation. But if punishment is used, it should not be used in isolation. Staff needs to ensure that they are also reinforcing students on correct behavior. Otherwise, he explained, the punishment may negatively affect the adult-to-student relationship.

The school bus is an extension of the classroom. Transportation officials should collaborate with their school districts, to see what practices they have put in place for correcting behaviors in the classroom.

“In my mind, it is the ultimate portable classroom,” Mulick said. “It is very similar to the set-up of hanging out in the hallway. Instead, they are sitting on a bus. It is the same group of kids that interact with each other every day. So, having the same type of support… [that] we have for kids in the schoolhouse, (is what) we need to have in our school buses.”

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the 2019 May issue of School Transportation News.

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