There has been discussion in our community recently regarding student discipline in the Visalia Unified School District. This discussion focuses on the progress and shortcomings of our effort to create a more student-centered discipline system.

This is an appropriate conversation, for although we are making progress, we have not yet completed this work. As superintendent of Visalia Unified, I would like to provide some in-house perspective on this discussion.

When I was a shop teacher, one of the things that I was expected to do was establish an advisory committee with local representatives from businesses working in engineering and architecture. This committee was intended to provide my program with insight on the needs of local industry so that the classes I offered would prepare students for work in those fields. From the advisory, I received two types of feedback. On occasion, I was told that familiarity and skill with a particular process or form of technology was expected of new employees. But I was always told by potential employers that the most useful skills I could help develop in my students were a willingness to learn and the ability to work with other people. It always struck me that the need to develop students both academically and socially was something we should do, but didn’t do as well as we might.

Nearly 20 years later, the same request comes to us, but from a broader perspective: Recent changes in legislation, the state school accountability system and local communities have combined to tell school districts that they want students who are prepared for adult life not just academically, but also socially. And in Visalia Unified, we agree with that request and have been working to bring that preparation to our students.

In Visalia Unified, we have a long-held belief that a well-rounded student has the capacity for critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity and civic mindedness. All of these qualities are developed through social-emotional learning. Social-emotional learning means teaching students how to manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, display empathy for others, have positive relationships and make responsible decisions. For years, we just expected that social-emotional learning would simply happen as we went about our work on academic subjects, and that was true for our most successful students. But social-emotional learning is not “nice to have” learning – it is essential learning in the 21st century. So we must teach these skills intentionally to all of our students to help them become successful and productive adults. And part of this teaching is reflected in the student discipline system that we use.

Our system for student discipline is grounded in Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. It would be dishonest to say that we have not had challenges in our shift to a new student discipline system. But it must be noted that where our implementation of PBIS has occurred thoughtfully and consistently, we have had great success.

PBIS is not a program. Instead, it is a framework that combines behavioral philosophy and process to shape school climate. Because it is a framework, it requires that a school come together as a team to identify areas of need, establish expectations, and set structures in place to prevent misbehavior and respond when misbehavior occurs. It takes a great deal of work on the front end of the process, but the payoff at the end can be huge: strong relationships among students and teachers that support a great culture and increased academic and social-emotional achievement. 

We are making progress. Process data and reports from schools show that we are experiencing success in implementing our new student discipline system. But it is clear also that communication, common expectations and commitment to the system are areas where we must improve. This mirrors research from implementation across the U.S., which identifies common shortfalls that sound familiar to us:

Teacher and staff misunderstanding of implementation. Staff must be trained on the why, what and how of the system. An incomplete understanding creates the sense that the system is just tickets, incentives, banners and no discipline.

Administrators not understanding all tiers of implementation. The structures are complex and must be established at the school, and the principal and co-administrators must be personally invested and involved.

Lack of communication with staff about alternative discipline. Staff who are not provided adequate support will come to blame the system for not punishing students.

All of this points to something that we know to be true: Change is hard. And it is particularly hard now because we are in the middle of a cycle of change: The fun rollout process is done, and the full results of our labor have not yet arrived. But we have success stories

in our organization that offer good examples and much hope. What is clear is that we must continue on the path of implementing our new student discipline system. Our system is based on an approach and philosophy that has been successful in many schools across the nation, and the challenges we face have been faced and overcome in those schools. I believe that everyone in our organization wants to provide the best opportunity for our students to be successful adults. This requires that we persist through the middle part of change and continue to work to bring our new system to life.

I have confidence in the skill and commitment of our principals, teachers and support staff, and I know that we can and will complete this important effort.