Collaboration Needed to Improve Bus Behavior

McCarthy Bus employees attend a training on student behaviors at Old Mill Pond Elementary School

There are many challenges that come with the job of driving a school bus, especially when students misbehave and cause distractions. A school bus company and elementary school in Palmer, Massachusetts, have partnered to create a program that encourages and rewards positive behavior from students on the school bus.

Several months ago, Drew Damien, a terminal manager for McCarthy Bus, noticed an increasing number of students from Old Mill Pond Elementary who were being written up on the bus for behavior issues, and many of the students were repeat offenders.

To discipline the misbehaving student, bus drivers referenced the behavior management policy. On the first instance of bad behavior, the student received a verbal warning. If the behavior continued after a number of reminders, the bus driver wrote up the student for the infraction. This information was shared with the school.

The school then notified the parents and the assistant principal spoke to the student. If the student went on to receive a second write-up, they were suspended from the bus for up to three days. But Damien worried that because many of the students do not have stable living arrangements, the bus suspensions may hinder their ability to get to school. 

“Our community is 50 percent transient, so there are a lot of children who are moving about. I thought ‘are we best serving students by taking them off bus?’ Will they still be able to come to school?” he said.

Damien reached out to the staff at Old Mill Pond to see if they had any ideas on how to improve behavior on the bus. He told STN that he was seeking to manage behavior while ensuring that students still feel respected, adding that no driver wants to be the “driver who screams.”

School staff responded positively and quickly to help develop a bus-specific behavior program. The school already had a campus program in place, which encouraged students to be the “Three Rs”: Responsible, Respectful and Ready. The bus program incorporated these concepts as well. 

staffFrom left: Jackie Haley, school principal; Sue North, assistant principal; Nicole Costello, school guidance counselor; Karyn Savell, guidance counselor; and Drew Damien, Palmer school bus terminal manager.“We started thinking of ideas to help improve bus behavior at the beginning of the school year when we noticed there was a need.  It probably took a month of brainstorming and putting it together,” said Karyn Savell, one of the counselors who helped put the program together. She also said that the program uses the PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports) model to reinforce the good behavior on the bus. 

Each morning and afternoon, bus drivers with students from Old Mill Pond Elementary School graded the behavior on the bus based on how well students followed the three Rs, ranging from a score of one for very bad behavior to a score of four for very good behavior.

Each bus was assigned a number and staff created visual representations of each bus, posting them in a bulletin board in the main lobby. The buses moved along a route on the board, the distance depending on the number of points earned.

Once a bus completed a route on the bulletin board, the riders received a star and a new route began. When a bus earned its third star, the riders received rewards like ice cream certificates or extended recess.

“We were not sure if this new program would definitely work or not, but we were willing to adjust things as needed,” said Savell.

Damien said that bringing the concepts used during the school day into the bus has worked very well for them. “Take whatever is going on in the school that works and move it out into the bus, because one of the things we teach all the time is that the school bus is an extension of the school day,” he said.

Once the program was implemented, Damien observed behavior improving almost immediately. Students responded enthusiastically and began to understand their individual role in improving the ride, as well as the importance of teamwork.

“What you would start to see is older children reminding younger ones to behave, fostering a feeling of a community in every bus,” said Damien.

Damien added that he is thankful for the quick and proactive response from the school staff. Sometimes, Damien noted, contractors can sometimes be seen as “outsiders” by schools.

“But the school system in Palmer has relationship with the contractor,” he said. “The school went so far as to invite school bus driver staff to trainings so that they could see what was going on.”

Savell is also very pleased with the success of the program.

“We are really happy with the outcome of our new program and will adjust things as needed and as they come up in the future,” she said.

Nicole Costello, another counselor who helped develop the bus program, agreed that the strong collaborative relationships have helped make the program a success.

“It is with great collaboration and support of the bus company and administration that makes this work,” she said.