Closing the Trust Gap in Schools with Positive Behavior Reinforcement

3 min read
Nov 15, 2017 8:45:04 AM

The trust gap is becoming another hurdle in student achievement. Can bridging the gap be as simple as implementing a positive behavior reinforcement program? A recent study seems to think so.

Of all of the “gaps” teachers help students surmount, including financial insecurities, learning disabilities, or lack of motivation, perhaps the most challenging is the trust gap.

That’s what a recent study from David Yeager, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, indicates. For many teachers, the trust gap could be the hardest obstacle they face. And the most destructive.

In the journal Child Development, Yeager reviews the findings of an eight-year study that surveyed Colorado students from middle school through the end of high school. The survey measured student responses to such statements as “I am treated fairly by my teachers and other adults at my school.”

Not surprisingly for most educators, the data showed that “trust decreased for all students during seventh grade — a time when a student is most likely to first detect unjust policies.”

While it may be tempting to dismiss distrust as normal middle school behavior, the consequences are far too dire to dismiss.

The Trust Gap Hurts Schools

“When students have lost trust, they may be deprived of the benefits of engaging with an institution, such as positive relationships and access to resources and opportunities for advancement,” explains Yeager.

Essentially, when students don’t trust teachers or other authority figures, they’re less likely to reach out and get the help they need, causing them to silently carrying the weight of their emotional, academic, or social problems.

The stress of working things out on their own often leads to behavioral problems.

A lack of trust can display itself as aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior that gets in the way of student academic achievement. Students that exhibited distrust were also found more likely to be cited for behavior infractions the following year, even if they had never been in trouble before and received good grades.

Students’ lack of trust in authority is a school climate issue. And fortunately, school climate can be changed.

School-wide changes to leadership and student behavior policies can help bridge the student “trust gap.”

Using evidence-based non-punitive positive behavior reinforcement frameworks like PBIS and restorative justice, schools can create environments in the classroom where students feel safe and cared for.

Positive behavior programs bridge the trust gap by:

1. Setting high expectations.
Positive behavior programs work by identifying the values and behaviors a school and/or district requires students live up to and applies this standard to all students, no matter their economic or social status. When a behavioral standard is applied evenly across all social classes, even disadvantaged students rise to the challenge and improve their behavior.

2. Clearly communicating expectations and how to reach them.
A positive behavior program must outline the established behavioral goals it has set as the standard so it can clearly communicate expectations to the students, parents, and educators. Only then will students know how to reach them.

3. Consistently applying discipline.
When every classroom upholds the same standards, the same consequences for misbehaviors can be applied. Likewise, every classroom can provide the same rewards for positive behaviors.

4. Using data-driven decisions.
Successful positive behavior reinforcement programs rely on cumulative data gathered on each student’s good and bad behaviors — rather than single-case incidents — to make policy and improvements.

5. Communicating respect, value, etc.
Having clear behavior goals and clear language around those goals must be followed by consistent, ubiquitous communication across the campus.

“Of course, truly ‘wise’ educators…continually send the message that their students are capable, valued, and respected, weaving it into the culture of the classroom,” says Yeager.

Students need to know that their voice, and more importantly, that they as people, matter — everywhere and every day from administrators and teachers.

Building trust between students and educators is easier said than done, without a doubt. But with evidence-based, positive behavior reinforcement programs in place, and the help of tools like SchoolMint Hero, achieving a positive school climate is well within reach.

And it’s a huge leap in the right direction.



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