Understanding the Middle Schooler
Experts recommend focusing attention on good behavior rather than bad, creating a positive, highly structured environment on the school bus, forming alliances with parents and administrators and getting inside the heads of these misunderstood youngsters. By Joey Campbell, Assistant Editor
A transportation director once told the story of his first day on the job at a small rural school district. He went to the driver’s lounge and introduced himself to his staff of drivers one by one until he came to a very old man sitting alone in the corner. Surprised that such an elderly-looking man was still driving a school bus, the director asked him his secret. The old man explained, “I smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, drink a quart of vodka and drive the worst middle-school route in the county.” The director looked at the driver in astonishment and asked, “Just how old are you?” The old man replied, “I’m 26.”
This may be just an anecdote told for a few laughs, but there is a point to the story. A rowdy school bus route can sometimes feel like it accelerates the aging process of the driver. And nowhere is this more evident than in middle-school bus routes, where school districts nationwide commonly report the highest number of disciplinary referrals.
Middle-school routes present a unique challenge for a great deal of reasons. Adolescence is a complicated time when kids experiment with their behavior to attract attention. At this age, students are engaged in high rates of many different types of misconduct, including theft, obscene language and gestures, vandalism, threats, pushing, shoving and even more extreme forms of violence. You cannot shoulder responsibility for the complicated behavioral patterns of middle-school riders, but you certainly must ensure that order is maintained in the school bus environment.
It is important to understand their tendencies and realize that middle-school students cannot be handled in the same manner as students from other age categories. Drivers, administrators and parents must collaborate their efforts both to prepare for and to treat problems with middle-school students.
Developing potential solutions for middle-school route misbehavior problems requires an understanding of the problems’ sources. Young adolescent students are in a difficult developmental stage where they are changing mentally and physically at a very rapid pace. Their behavior can be unpredictable at best, but their questioning of authority is almost certain.
Says Trina Cron, former driver trainer and Santa Fe, N.M.-based specialist in behavior management, “Middle-school kids are in a process of pushing away from adults and trying to define themselves independently of adults.” Thus, any adult, including a bus driver, is a target for this push. “It’s a really good idea for drivers to understand that a lot of what they see is simply the nature of the beast,” she says.
Michele Kuhne, a driver for Gloversville (N.Y.) Enlarged School District, has learned this from her experience driving middle-school routes. “These students are at that in-between age when they think they have to test their powers on other students and the bus driver,” she says. Understanding them as individuals is key to knowing which ones need more guidance and reminders from you to follow the rules. It also helps to be patient. If you lose your temper with them, Kuhne says, “They will mark that down as a point in their favor and keep going from there.”
Many times, a negative perception of middle-school students can contribute to problems. For instance, when elementary students misbehave, there is a search for origins of the problem and a potential solution. Yet, when middle-schoolers act out in a similar fashion, they are often held accountable as adults. The truth is that adolescents are maturing rapidly, and although they may physically look like adults, their minds are not fully developed. Cron says this is why you have to be empathetic to their situation. “Who in their right mind would want to be 14 again? It’s a painful time of growing up.”
Students are typically under less adult supervision during the bus ride to and from school than at any other time in the school day. With their attention diverted to the road, bus drivers have a limited capacity for attending to riders. Throw in the fact that most regular-route school buses carry significantly more students than the average classroom, and you have a recipe for misconduct. Still, it is contingent upon the bus driver to maintain optimum safety conditions inside the school bus at all times. This is challenging when it takes only a few misbehaving students to send the school bus out of control. In fact, most operators say that approximately 5 percent of their passengers are responsible for the vast majority of discipline problems on the bus.
Kuhne says it is of utmost importance for the driver to take charge of the bus. “You can take the best-behaved group of students in the district and put them on a route with a driver who is wishy-washy or doesn’t care what they do, and they [the students] will pick up on that and become the most horrendous group imaginable,” she says. Students will be more manageable when a driver is fair, consistent and firm.
There are several things you can do to make sure your drivers are prepared. For example, one of the most common driver problems is caused by the fact that most operations assign routes by seniority. Senior drivers know the most well-mannered groups and choose them first, forcing the new and inexperienced drivers to face the difficulties of potentially raucous middle-school routes.
“It would be much more profitable for all involved if new drivers were given better tools to do their job,” says Mark Obtinario, former school bus driver and current owner of Cowlitz Coach Service in Castle Rock, Wash. Obtinario emphasizes proactive techniques such as behavior management training, supplemental administrative support and a driver-mentor program. “If new drivers could be mentored by senior drivers with proven ability in student management, they would have a better chance to survive.”
Bill Hoosty, senior training consultant for the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse, N.Y., teaches drivers that the only way to prevent a crisis is to develop a relationship with students. But he is quick to distinguish between a relationship and a friendship. “Middle-school kids don’t need the bus driver as a friend; they need him as an adult authority figure who they can relate to,” he says.
This relationship is based on the attention a driver provides. “The one thing that is in short shrift on any school bus is the driver’s attention because the majority of it must be placed on driving,” says Hoosty. Obviously, then, drivers must use their time interacting with students wisely, making sure to give the right students the right amount of attention. Hoosty, and other specialists such as Cron, believe that drivers should focus their attention on kids who don’t misbehave, rather than the ones who are acting up. “If you only yell at kids when they are not doing right, you increase their chances of not doing right,” says Cron. Focusing attention - even negative attention - on students who misbehave in essence rewards them and encourages their misbehavior. “Any attention is better than no attention at all,” explains Cron.
Similarly, Hoosty offers the following advice, “Catch your riders doing something good and tell them about it, as opposed to waiting for them to do something bad and telling them about that,” he says.
Out-of-control middle-school routes can create a situation in which your operation is exposed to liability and the safety of your passengers is at stake. “The worst situation I’ve ever seen was a bus that got totally out of control and the kids literally tore the seats up and threw them out the window,” says Peter Grandolfo, manager of safety and special programs for Chicago Public Schools. An accident involving injuries or fatalities would be an even worse outcome, but the point is that once order is lost, it can be extremely difficult to wrest back command of the bus. Subsequently, a policy of prevention is a far better defense against misbehaving school bus riders than any response-based course of action.
Dr. Gary Gottfredson, a psychologist specializing in delinquency and school safety and the author of “Reducing Disorderly Behavior in Middle School,” prescribes two prevention-oriented approaches to dealing with problem behavior in middle-school kids. The first, he says, involves structuring the environment so that it tends to regulate behavior. The second approach involves changing something in the kids themselves so that they can control their own behavior.
The first strategy is the most effective. “In the best-behaved environments, everyone knows when to get there and what to do when they get there. Time is managed in such a way that transitions are handled smoothly so that kids know and understand the structure of the environment,” Gottfredson says. It’s especially important that the enforcement of rules is evenhanded, strict and consistent. The other approach utilizes what’s called cognitive behavioral instruction, whereby kids are trained to recognize different types of situations and develop a behavioral repertoire for acting competently in each one. Gottfredson refers to this method as “preventive intervention.”
Stating that at least three quarters of his training is based on prevention, Hoosty also contends that shaping the environment is the true key to success. “The school bus environment is really just the driver. If the driver knows there is something that the students enjoy and it’s in his purview to provide, he should provide it,” he says. Operators will further benefit from having a precise set of guidelines for regulating that environment.
Brian Molloy, director of transportation for East Ramapo Central School District in Spring Valley, N.Y., says that his district has a specific prevention plan for school bus behavior. The plan is a “back to basics policy” that exercises zero tolerance. The plan categorically requires that every student be able to produce a bus pass upon request, every driver knows every student’s name and every driver fills out referrals when necessary.
It’s equally important to ensure that your prevention plan is consistent throughout the school district. Chicago Public Schools, which is serviced by several school bus contractors, uses a manual called the Uniform Discipline Code (UDC). Grandolfo says that the UDC is clear and contains practically every offense imaginable. “To be successful, you need a good, consistent code of conduct that is system-wide so that everyone is on the same page in terms of how to deal with behavior problems.”
Preventing a problem before it arises is always better than reacting to one that has already occurred. Planning for what to do in the event of rowdy school bus behavior should only be a small part of your operation’s policy. “I have districts call me and ask me to teach their drivers some self-defense, take-down techniques. My response to them is, you don’t need me, call your local karate dojo and activate your insurance,” jokes Hoosty. Still, there are several strategies to consider when treating existing problems.
The most popular, and arguably, the most effective intervention technique is the use of video surveillance on school buses. Statistics have shown that video cameras can reduce the instance rate of passenger misconduct in some situations. In addition to possibly deterring student misbehavior, cameras also serve as an excellent tool for evaluating behavior at disciplinary hearings between administrators and parents. Parents traditionally, and quite naturally, have trouble believing that their child did something wrong. Cameras are sure to clear up these uncertainties. Installing cameras is also generally much less expensive than hiring school bus security guards or monitors.
Arlin Vance, director of transportation at Broward County Public Schools in Oakland Park, Fla., says that video surveillance has helped, but that it hasn’t been the district’s biggest boon for limiting student misbehavior. “From my experience of watching tapes and talking with drivers, I believe that the installation of both seat belts and air conditioning systems has been the most effective disciplinary measure we have taken up until this point,” says Vance. Although seat belts remain a controversial issue in school transportation, Vance says they keep students in their seats and assist in controlling behavior. Air conditioning can also have positive effects because a hot, stuffy bus “really seems to encourage misbehavior,” says Vance.
Dr. Gottfredson offers an alternate behavior-management strategy, based on a system of rewards and punishments. “[A misbehaving] kid’s behavior is tracked by an adult over a given period of time, in which consequences, rewards and punishments are applied contingently,” he explains. The rewards and punishments are phased out as the behavior starts to improve.
When conditions become so bad that a student actually attacks a driver, it is important that the driver know what he can and cannot do. Hoosty says that drivers have two basic options - to run away or to block the attack in a defensive manner. But drivers can never hit a student back. “I teach drivers some techniques that are by and large reasonable defense measures to take against a student. The idea is to break the hold without hurting the student and then get away,” he says.
Other common intervention techniques include putting students in assigned seats, pulling the bus off the road or taking it back to school and in extreme cases, calling the police. Currently, the standard operating procedure for disciplining bus riders in most school districts is the referral system.
Drivers are the closest to the action and thus are your first line of defense against the problems associated with middle-school bus routes. However, drivers should not be expected to consistently maintain order without some help from other levels of authority. School administrators must take an active role in ensuring safe student transportation by supporting drivers in the disciplinary process.
“Because a driver has no ability to discipline a kid himself, school bus misbehavior is totally the administration’s responsibility,” says Vance. Drivers can only write referrals for unruly students, so they must rely on principals and assistants to handle these matters. Vance underscores the importance of administrators in monitoring students, calling together disciplinary hearings, meeting with parents, students and drivers and ultimately deciding on the best course of action to discourage future behavior problems.
Unfortunately, many drivers feel that they don’t always have the full support of school administrators. Because they deal with students for an average of only 20 to 30 minutes a day, compared with the six hours that teachers and administrators must put up with them, there is a common sentiment among drivers that their considerable responsibility is overlooked by the school district. “Administrators can be unhelpful at times because they have to deal with the same students all day at school for what they deem as more serious misbehavior, and they often fail to see how throwing ‘skittles’ on the bus is a serious safety hazard,” says Gloversville’s Kuhne.
You must have clear-cut procedures in place to allow drivers and administrators to work together fluently. “One of the things that drivers fear most,” says Hoosty, “is calling in an emergency to the school and having no idea what is going to happen.” If a driver is calling in to dispatch and the dispatcher is using his own discretion on what to do, your operation is in trouble, says Hoosty.
This is why you need a solid network of communication set up so that drivers know where to go and who to talk to in the event of a serious problem. Grandolfo says that at Chicago Public Schools, drivers write up problems and report them to the schools. “In those situations in which the school is working cooperatively with the driver, we will have success. But when that cooperation isn’t there, we have a lot of frustrated drivers and a lot of inconsistency,” he says. Besides potential behavior problems, this inconsistency and frustration can lead to lower driver retention rates. Grandolfo says that his district safeguards against this by setting up a link between the driver and the school. “We have a network where the driver can go directly to the monitor, who can then go to the appropriate bus coordinator. The key is dealing with behavior issues as quickly and consistently as possible.”
It’s quite helpful to get parents moving in the same direction as your operation when it comes to regulating middle-school behavior. Without the support of parents, you will find it nearly impossible to control serious problems. To gain their cooperation, you must get them to stress good behavior to their child, while at the same time convincing them that any kid, even their own, is capable of causing a problem on the bus. Remind them that if their child is suspended or expelled from the bus for some reason, they, as parents, will be responsible for getting the student to and from school.
Parents should be presented a copy of the bus rules at the beginning of the year and asked to sign it. This form can come in handy during disciplinary meetings, as evidence that the parent has been warned about school behavior policies. Parents should also know when to expect that their presence is needed for disciplinary meetings with drivers and administrators.
Particularly with middle-school students, parents can be just as stymied as school bus drivers. “From the time when they are born until adolescence, parents are their kids’ managers. Then by middle-school age, parents have to stop being managers and start being consultants,” says Cron. “This is a really hard shift for a parent.”
Given this shift, parents should try to get kids at this age engaged in something that interests them. Says Cron, “If you don’t give them an outlet for their developing brain power, which then provides an outlet for all the hormonal stuff going on, they will think of something themselves, and you are not going to like what it is.” Having conversations with them, allowing them to ask questions and providing them with time to engage in creative activities are all good outlets. Ultimately, parents and drivers should collaborate to come up with the most logical ways of dealing with their middle-school students.
Benefits Of Training
Training sessions dedicated to the rigors of transporting adolescents provide drivers with a significant amount of preparation. If a driver knows exactly what to do in a given situation, your liability, as an employer, is reduced substantially.
Your driver-training meetings should consist of a good deal of behavior management instruction, with emphasis on the differences between varying age groups. For example, some districts have courses specifically aimed at middle-school bus riders and the traditional problems involved with them. In these, drivers learn some of the conventional traits of adolescent students such as rapid changes in physical appearance, questioning of authority, lack of self-esteem or erratic behavior. If possible, training sessions should also utilize workshops conducted by teachers, administrators, guidance counselors or other figures who have extensive experience interacting with children.
“In initial training and refresher courses, we talk about behavior management on the bus, state regulations and gang-related issues,” says Grandolfo. “But is it enough? Absolutely not.” His statements echo the feelings of many operators who see behavior problems as a worsening dilemma in the school transportation industry. Training can benefit from more role-playing, videos and hands-on exercises, but your job in preparing drivers is never done. You should continually re-evaluate your training program in order to identify areas needing attention and gear training toward those areas.
Who Are You Dealing With?
The National Middle School Association lists the following generalizations as guideposts for adults to consider when determining how to treat young adolescents.
Early adolescence is a distinctive developmental stage of life. The general public has limited understanding of these 10- to 15-year-olds. The accelerated physical and personal development that occurs during this period is the greatest in the human life cycle and is marked by great variance in both the timing and rate of growth. These are the years during which each individual forms his/her adult personality, basic values, and attitudes and those things that determine one’s behavior. They reach physical maturity at an earlier age than their grandparents and they acquire apparent sophistication earlier than in previous generations.
They seek autonomy and independence.
They are by nature explorers, curious and adventuresome.
They have intellectual capacities seldom tapped by traditional schooling.
They learn best through interaction and activity rather than by listening.
They seek interaction with adults and opportunities to engage in activities that have inherent value.
Their physical and social development become priorities.
They are sensitive, vulnerable, and emotional.
They are open to influence by the significant others in their lives.
A significant portion of today's teenage population is alienated from society.
12 Steps To Preventing Middle-School Bad Behavior
1. Know your students as unique individuals so you can anticipate their behavior. Understand students and even remember what it was like to be an adolescent: the excitement, the fears, the uncertainty, the need to belong, and the need to get attention. Anticipate possible problem times when students will be more excited, distracted or “rowdy,” such as the last day before a vacation, special holiday or event.
2. Anticipate emergencies. Plan ahead for emergency situations and determine how you will manage student behavior during them. Which students will need more reassurance or structure or direction during an emergency? Which students can you count on for assistance?
3. Monitoring behavior on a bus is using common sense. If two children are not getting along, separate them. If a student is having a bad day, he may need some additional attention.
4. Confronting students in front of their peers is never a good idea. This is a form of punishment and will tend to have negative results. Always allow students to save face by approaching them on a one-on-one basis. Talk with them when the other students are not around. Remain calm, dignified and offer them choices.
5. Any time a student is violating an important safety rule, give the student a direct command.
6. Give students specific directions when you need to do so and let them know the consequences if they choose not to follow the direction.
7. Avoid personality conflicts. Some students’ personalities or communication styles may conflict with your own. Some may have annoying behaviors. Again, remember to separate the student from the behavior and treat these students as you treat all others.
8. Treat all students in a casual, friendly way without over-acting or over-reacting in either a positive or a negative manner. Maintain a professional distance between yourself and students.
9. Use a normal, calm tone of voice.
10. If a student wants to argue when you are asking him to behave differently, simply restate your request calmly. If the student asks you why, explain your safety reason, but do so only once. You will never win an argument with a student.
11. Keep your hands to yourself.
12. Use only acceptable restraint measures.