helps kids discipline themselves.
from the Detroit News, by
Linda Theil, December 16, 2002
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HOWELL -- Nick Mardigian, 14, had a lot of trouble staying in
school in the sixth and seventh grades. He was repeatedly
suspended for fighting, swearing and chronic misbehavior.
The anxiety, frustration and stress of almost daily phone
calls from school caused his mother to leave her job as
manager of Yorkshire Apartments in Howell.
"When you have those types of things, it's very stressful --
it affects the whole family," said Janet Mardigian. "Last
year, Nick failed all three semesters except for the last
This year, Nick has improved his grades and his outlook in
eighth grade classes at Highlander Way Middle School thanks to
a structured behavioral plan based on a philosophy called
Positive Behavior Support (PBS).
"I've only gotten two referrals this year and I haven't got
kicked out once. I'm getting A's, B's, one C, and maybe a D in
one class. But compared to last year I'm doing great," Nick
"I want people to know the struggles I've had and the people
to talk to and where to go so they can get out of the hole. I
hope by doing this interview we'll actually help kids to get
out of their problems. And I hope this inspires them, too."
Positive Behavior Support is a research-based approach to
behavior modification that was developed more than a decade
ago to deal with aggressive behavior in severely disabled
students. The theory and philosophy, supported by the U.S.
Department of Education, has been so successful that the
concept is spreading in popularity as a schoolwide approach to
A federal grant administered by the state pays social worker
Ruth Moss-Katsnelson to train educators in the PBS approach.
She is a member of the Positive Behavior Support Network, a
statewide organization formed to promote PBS in schools. The
group held their charter meeting last month at Cleary
University in Genoa Township.
A PBS program works on the notion that clearly delineated
expectations and consequences must be taught and reinforced.
Because Nick had been identified as having a learning
disability, he was entitled to a behavior plan as part of his
federally mandated Individual Education Plan.
"I didn't have a real understanding of what an Individual
Education Plan was," Janet Mardigian said.
Mardigian sought assistance from Deb Calendrino, a
representative of Arc, a nationwide group of advocates for
children with developmental disabilities. By studying the law
she discovered she could request a behavior plan for Nick. The
plan follows PBS principals of defining, teaching and
monitoring expected behavior. Errors in behavior are corrected
immediately so students clearly understand their actions have
consequences. Good behavior is acknowledged as the student
progresses in the program.
Nick's teacher Megan Booth said Nick's behavior plan created a
structured environment where Nick could recognize what was
happening and take control.
"In a behavior plan, we adopt a series of positive steps and
strategies that students and staff can do to help their
education go smoother," Booth said.
Many PBS concepts are in use on a schoolwide basis at
Highlander Way such as a portion of the school discipline code
that includes rewards for good behavior and clearly defined
consequences for infractions.
Assistant Principal Duane DeMeyer comes from a background in
"I brought with me a lot of the special education teaching
techniques on positive reinforcement," DeMeyer said. "One of
the first things I implemented, and not just for special
education students, is a positive-referral format that lets us
catch kids doing good things."
When DeMeyer must act on typical referrals for vandalism,
harassment or tardiness he lets kids know that he's enforcing
the rules. He is quick to deal with trouble and consistent in
"I bring them an opportunity to get their behavior under
control," DeMeyer said. "That's what the behavior plan is for
-- giving them steps to take."
The PBS approach has had some notable success at Highlander
Way. In his first year as assistant principal in 1999, DeMeyer
dealt with 830 discipline referrals. In the next year the
referrals dropped to just over 500 and have stayed at that
level despite a 20-percent increase in enrollment.
Janet Mardigian said DeMeyer's approach has been a significant
factor in Nick's success.
"My son views the assistant principal as someone to look up to
and go to for help instead of someone you go to when you're in
trouble," Mardigian said. "It's a 100-percent turnaround. And
that's what having a positive environment can do."
Nick is quick to credit his improved performance to the
atmosphere at Highlander Way.
"This year I'm doing great because the team wants to help you.
They're respectful; they listen; they care for you," Nick
said. "At first I didn't like my behavior plan, but after they
explained to me how it worked, it helped me a lot. It's
keeping me in good classes; it's keeping me happy. It's giving
me a positive attitude about school. I like it because it
keeps me organized and on-track so I don't get into trouble."
For information about laws dealing with Individual Education
Plans, call Deb Calendrino at (517) 546-1228.
Linda Theil is a Metro Detroit free-lance writer.