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MASD program focuses students on positives; district one of two in state to receive grant

By Laura Hayes

laurahayes@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 1/3/19

There’s a long piece of white paper rolled across the floor of Jannelle Shuey’s first-grade classroom at Fink Elementary School.

It was a Monday in late October, and Shuey’s …

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MASD program focuses students on positives; district one of two in state to receive grant

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There’s a long piece of white paper rolled across the floor of Jannelle Shuey’s first-grade classroom at Fink Elementary School.

It was a Monday in late October, and Shuey’s first-graders sat along the edges, armed with crayons. She instructed them to close their eyes and think about something they were good at.

She then asked them to draw a picture of them doing that thing at which they excelled. Some of the students drew pictures of them with a soccer ball, and one of the students complimented his neighbor’s drawing skills.

This was one of the lessons of Middletown Area School District’s new Positive Action program — a social-emotional learning program that “promotes an intrinsic interest in learning and encourages cooperation among students,” according to its website.

The program was implemented in kindergarten through eighth grade in October. In Shuey’s classroom, Positive Action is taught 15 minutes every day.

She said the lesson helped the students feel positive by focusing on their valuable skills. Kids can get stuck in the negative and it can be hard for them to get out of it, Shuey said.

“They have a hard time thinking positive about themselves because some of our kids do have a rough background at home and school is their positive place. … It teaches them to be more positive and respectful of their peers,” Shuey said.

Last fall, the Pennsylvania Youth Survey was administered to district sixth-graders, eighth-graders, sophomores and seniors. The results indicated that Middletown students were the most at risk for low commitment toward school, parents’ favorable attitude toward antisocial behavior and students not considering drug use risky.

MASD Superintendent Lori Suski said they chose to implement Positive Action in response to the survey results. Research, she said, shows that people who feel poorly about themselves can turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. Positive Action can help the students see their self-worth to stop them from getting involved in drugs and alcohol.

“So our challenge is, how do we take these positive values and use them to help motivate students so that our achievement goes up, our kids become better people and we see good behavior?” Suski said.

The program is funded by a grant through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. MASD will receive $76,440 for the next two years to implement Positive Action.

One other school district in the state, Karns City, also received the grant. Superintendent Eric Ritzert said his district is implementing Positive Action in two of their elementary schools this year.

Suski said social-emotional curriculum such as Positive Action has become more common in recent years.

“Society is different. This is my 30th year in education. When I started teaching in the late ’80s, it was a different world than it is right now in terms of student behavior. We’re just seeing a very different type of behavior, and I think a lot of it is the societal influences on kids,” she said.

Swearing and disrespect are common on television, and kids aren’t as resilient, she said. Suski said there has been an increase in student disciplinary referrals to the office over the past several years.

In addition to Positive Action, the district implemented the Middletown Area Therapeutic Elementary Support program at Fink this year, which provides counseling support and social skills training to disruptive students who may or may not have undergone a traumatic experience. The district also is working on a Schoolwide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support program as a framework to promote positive behaviors.

Positive Action explained

Teachers started teaching Positive Action lessons on Oct. 15.

According to its website, Positive Action uses the “thoughts-actions-feelings circle,” or thoughts lead to actions, which lead to how one feels about themselves, which in turn influences how one thinks. Students want to learn when their thoughts, actions and feelings are positive and don’t when they are negative.

“The research shows when students feel more positive about themselves, they tend to be kinder to others, which then eliminates the bullying behaviors; eliminates some of the other negative behaviors that are often exhibited toward other students,” Suski said.

According to Suski, the program will be comprised of a number of units including teaching the students how to interact with each other; how to be motivated internally; and a number of skills such as managing thoughts and feelings, not blaming others, avoiding bullying, telling the truth, managing time, and being hygienic.

How the skills are taught differs depending on the grade level, Suski said. For younger students, it could be taught through games or puppets, and for middle school students, the lessons could be taught through radio scripts or role-playing.

While Shuey’s first-graders were improving their self-image, upstairs in Gail Jones’ fourth-grade classroom the students were making positive “self-conceptometer” bookmarks. Every time they did something such as make a new friend, help with chores or say please or thank you, they filled in the thermometer.

“I think it’s going to be good for the kids overall because they’re learning how to be better students, better citizens,” Jones said.

Positive Action’s curriculum can increase student achievement, Suski said. She explained that there are fewer classroom disruptions and students are more focused when they go to school in a safe, conducive environment and do not have issues with their peers.

Both Jones and Shuey teach a Positive Action lesson every day.

“Positive Action is not replacing any curriculum. It is an additional program being implemented during the school day so that all students receive it,” Suski said.

Positive Action is not being taught during a specific period during the day, and how long the lessons are varies between elementary and middle school.

In the elementary schools, the lessons last 15 minutes, and because the classes are self-contained, Suski said the teachers have flexibility to move around their other subjects.

Both Jones and Shuey taught their lessons in the afternoon. Suski said others have the Positive Action lesson first thing in the morning.

At the middle school, Positive Action is being taught during a special 41-minute period first thing in the morning on Wednesdays. Sixth graders receive three lessons during the period, and seventh- and eighth-graders have two lessons. There is no enrichment or intervention period on Wednesdays, Suski said.

Although the program could be extended into the high school, Suski said it would be challenging to implement the program there because of how the day is structured.

She estimated that the materials for the program — such as classroom materials and tools for counselors, families and the community — cost about $46,000. Some of the materials could be reused, although others may need to be repurchased. The rest of the grant funds will go toward training staff.

She said that one of the requirements of the grant is to collect data, such as number and types of office referrals and test scores.

The district sent home a letter in November about the program and asking for parent permission to conduct pre- and post-surveys to measure Positive Action’s delivery.

Recently, the district held a bullying prevention program, and MASD plans to offer more roundtable discussions and other family and parent programs on how to integrate the Positive Action lessons at home and in the community.

While academics are important, Suski said students have to learn how to be good citizens.

Suski said the purpose of all the new programs is to help MASD students be successful.

“We want our students to be well-rounded. We want them to be productive. We want them to be socially responsible — all of these things flow right into the mission and vision of the school district,” Suski said.