Marble Falls Middle School reinforces positive over punishment

Marble Falls Middle School Principal Roger Barr addresses students during an assembly Jan. 8. It was a ‘behavior reset’ so the principal could remind the students about three tenets for which the campus strives: be safe, be responsible, and be respectful. Barr and his staff are making an intentional and overt effort to emphasize positive behavior. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Marble Falls Middle School Principal Roger Barr addresses students during an assembly Jan. 8. It was a ‘behavior reset’ so the principal could remind the students about three tenets for which the campus strives: be safe, be responsible, and be respectful. Barr and his staff are making an intentional and overt effort to emphasize positive behavior. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON

When disciplining students, schools are well-versed in punishment. Pick up a student handbook from any school across the country, and it will outline the consequences for every infraction.

Marble Falls Middle School Principal Roger Barr is trying to change that emphasis on punishment.

“Schools have always had the punishment side. Now, we’re being intentional and overt about the behavior we want to see,” he said.

It’s a shift in thinking for staff, students, and even parents.

Barr hopes this change moves beyond the campus into the community. First, however, he and the other school staff members are changing how they handle behavioral issues at Marble Falls Middle School.

It’s clear to students that the emphasis is on good behavior. As kids walk the halls, they are reminded of this by posters and signs.

It’s not subtle.

“The three things we really focus on are be safe, be responsible, and be respectful,” Barr said. “And we are very intentional and overt about encouraging that.”

He explained that, as the school hands out punishments for those who violate rules, it’s just as important to acknowledge kids who make good decisions

Enter the Golden Horseshoe and the TRUST Card.

A Golden Horseshoe is a small, paper horseshoe. Teachers, staff, and administrators hand them out when they see students doing something positive that’s more than just behaving.

Classes can collectively earn Golden Horseshoes, which go into a Mason jar. When a class fills a jar, they receive an accolade or a reward. The entire campus can also hit a Golden Horseshoe goal. When it does, Barr and the staff celebrate it with the students.

“We’re going to take a break in whatever is going on and celebrate,” Barr said. “They need to see the direct connection from reaching that goal and the positive things they’re doing.”

On a more individual level, each student carries a TRUST Card. The card allows them certain privileges, including leaving class with a teacher’s permission but without a hall pass and using a common gathering area for collaborative work.

With bad behavior, a student can lose the TRUST Card for a class period up to the remainder of the school year. That also means losing the privileges that come with the card.

If a student makes a poor decision in class, the teacher can simply take up the card and say, “See me after class and let’s talk about this.”

“It’s an opportunity for a conversation with that student,” Barr said.

The plan is to let the student earn back the card. Sometimes, all it takes is a little constructive feedback.

Some students, however, struggle behaviorally.

“Seventy-five percent of the kids are great and come in here and do the right things. They make the right choices, and they do what they’re expected to do,” Barr said. “We have twenty percent who could go either way, and the other five percent, they’re the ones who give us the greatest concern.”

During the last round of Marble Falls Education Foundation grants, the middle school landed a grant to help with Emergent Tree Education training to create a unique on-campus mentor program.

The program works with students who struggle the most with behavioral issues.

The initial response from staff and administrators when it comes to kids who pose the biggest behavioral challenges is to continue to mete out punishments with the hope these students learn from them. But Angela Kennedy, MFISD’s director of Social Emotional Learning, pointed out that punishments aren’t always effective, especially if the student in question doesn’t know the best actions to take or decisions to make.

Some students bring a load of issues with them when they walk through the campus doors — many of which they have little to no control over. These outside stressors hang over them in class and can cloud their decision making.

“We can’t assume kids know how to interact socially,” Kennedy said. “We have to assume we have to teach social skills, good behavior then reinforce it and hold the kids accountable.”

“It’s complicated,” Barr said. “Public schools have a lot of work they have to do that people don’t see. One of our jobs is being a (detective) and figure out each kid, what’s impacting their learning, and figuring a way to best reach each one of them.”

Under the Emergent Tree Education mentor program, teachers and staff members become mentors to the students who have the most issues.

“Every day, these students will come in and meet with their mentor,” Barr said.

During that meeting, the mentor and student will go over expectations and set behavioral goals for the day. At the end of the day, the student returns to their mentor, and they go over how things went.

This, Barr explained, provides followup and feedback. If there was something with which the student struggled that day, the mentor can help them figure out how to best approach the problem. On those days the student accomplishes their goals or meets expectations, their mentor then applauds their work.

This type of program is backed up with research and studies that show it works.

Celebrating these successes, Kennedy said, means a lot to the student. They might not often hear supportive words when it comes to their behavior. A few kind words can start these students down a path toward better decisions and behavior.

Both Barr and Kennedy know that no one program is a cure-all for some of the issues schools and the wider community are facing, but they believe these initiatives are a step in the right direction.

“Hopefully, what we’re doing here will be something that carries over outside the campus and into the rest of the community,” Barr added.

daniel@thepicayune.com

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