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Gotcha! How recognising positive behaviour cuts violence in Jamaican schools

Positivity, not punishment, undergirds an ambitious new strategy to reduce violence in schools

As the tide turns against corporal punishment worldwide, Jamaica’s schools are cutting rates of violence by focusing on positive behaviour rather than punishment.

Eight in ten children between the ages of two and 14 in Jamaica experience some form of violent discipline. Around six in ten say they have been bullied at some point in their schools. The School-Wide Positive Behavioural Interventions and Support (SWPBIS) framework reduces rates of violence by recognising children for good behaviour and shifting school cultures towards more affirmative modes of education. Coordinated by the Ministry of Education, Youth and Information, the intervention began in 2015, covering 56 pilot schools, all of which have a duty to share their skills with other schools in the local area. 

SWPBIS is a framework that is delivered to the whole school - not only children at risk of harmful behaviour. “It’s about modelling positive behaviour in everyday activities,” explained Rebecca Tortello of UNICEF Jamaica. “The message is delivered through a wide range of activities including whole school assemblies, paintings on the walls, and teachers recognising students who exhibit positive behaviours at the start of lessons.”

To begin the implementation of SWPBIS, a school leadership team is assembled comprising the principal, guidance counsellors, the dean of discipline, a nurse, a parent and a senior teacher. The leadership team then assembles the implementation team from other faculty members, administrators, and even conductors on the local transport system.

The teams, in dialogue with pupils, determine a set of core values unique to the school. Behaviour is measured against these core values, and pupils who embody the school’s ideals are rewarded. 

SWPBIS functions at three levels. The first is school-wide, disseminating information and lessons on positive behaviour to all students. The second is targeted, providing specific support to at-risk children to better understand the challenges they face and provide preliminary support. The third tier deals with children whose behaviour repeatedly falls short of school standards, and can involve referrals to child counsellors or social services where appropriate.

George Sugai, Professor of Special Education at the University of Connecticut, Co-Director of the PBIS Center, and lead consultant on Jamaica’s SWPBIS intervention, developed the four core tenets of the framework around 20 years ago: “The first principle is that every single decision a school makes must be linked to how it benefits students. Student benefit is the ultimate criteria. A second principle is the importance of data. Collecting data is vital to informed decision making, and it is at the heart of the PBIS framework.

“Third is the focus on evidence-based practices based on the needs of the child. And fourth is a focus on systems. We don’t see PBIS as a programme just for children, but a framework that changes the way adults relate to children.”

The framework boasts a range of randomised control trials to date, demonstrating outcomes such as a decline in anti-social behaviour, improvement in self-management among pupils and decreases in bullying as reported by schoolchildren. While data for Jamaica’s work with SWPBIS remains preliminary, current evaluations suggest violence is declining across the majority of intervention schools. 

SWPBIS is but one arm of Jamaica’s strategy to end violence against children, but its evidence-based programming is among the most promising strategies. With a recent call by Prime Minister Andrew Holness to abolish corporal punishment, Jamaica’s commitment to child protection stands stronger than ever.

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