Though it’s full of tweens and teens, River Bluff Middle School is a “drama-free zone.”

At least that’s the goal of administrators working with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) to teach the students respectful, safe and responsible behaviors.

But, they’re having some fun, too, as they come together from three elementary schools to learn the “River Bluff Crew Way.”

PBIS, the framework adopted in the Stoughton Area School District in 2012, focuses on rewarding positive behaviors rather than punishing negative ones.

For principal Trish Gates, who’s been at River Bluff since 2008, the task isn’t just to deal with hundreds of middle schoolers, but getting them all to quickly assimilate into a new situation in a new building.

“The kids come in all from the elementary schools and are becoming the River Bluff Crew,” she told the Hub last week. “Part of that is taking those rules you had in elementary school and (now) getting you set and ready for middle school, and how middle school is a little bit different.”

At River Bluff, the focus is on the C.R.E.W., which stands for: “Choose to be, Respectful of all, Engaged in safety and Willing to take responsibility.”

Gates said those standards are introduced right away in the year, at PBIS Crew Kick Off Day, where students play educational games to learn rules about the hallways, cafeteria and classrooms, as well as things like using phones and personal devices. Students also find out their behavior is included in the “academic character” part of their report cards.

“You set expectations and then you teach those exceptions and you reinforce those expectations,” Gates said.

Many times, those expectations are made clear in signs that colorfully adorn the school, such as “Trash the Trash” or “Drama-Free Zone,” reminding students of positive behaviors.

“I don’t know if we ever fully achieve a drama-free zone, but we it’s something we try,” Gates said. “If there’s some difficulty in the lunchroom, you can say, ‘Hey, this is a drama-free zone.’ You don’t have to necessarily get into it with kids about who said what where.”

Ticket time

The whole idea of PBIS is to help turn students’ good behaviors into good habits; something done through teaching and reteaching when needed, Gates explained.

Staff reinforce the message with verbal praise, often sending positive referrals home to parents and guardians, and pointing out students who make notable achievements.

The currency of good behavior mainly comes in the form of “Crew Tickets,” given when staff see positive behaviors, to then be turned in for a variety of goodies or opportunities. Gates said some of the favorites are healthy snacks like juice boxes or granola bars, or getting a pass to move to the front of the lunch line.

“Anything with food,” she said with a laugh. “Kids get hungry as they grow.”

There are also monthly drawings and school-wide celebrations like the “Breakfast of Champions” held at the end of each quarter. For the events, students who go “above and beyond in being a good leader and doing the right thing” are nominated by staff. More than a dozen students are generally honored, with parents invited to hear staff members talk about their achievements.

Sometimes, entire classes get to go on field trips as rewards. Last month, students got to choose between ice skating, open gym, a movie at Stoughton Cinema, a Murder Mystery/Scavenger Hunt at the library and yoga.

This month, the “Red Block” of classrooms has focused on the academic character grades with “March to a Better You,” as students earn Crew tickets for being respectful, engaged and responsible. The goal is earning at least 1,400 tickets, which can be turned in for a chance to win great prizes (or funny Zonks) in the school’s “Lets Make a Deal” activity next month to kick off the fourth quarter of the school year.

“These are rewards and we recognize when we help support a positive climate, it’s good for everybody,” Gates said.

And while the events are — quite literally — fun and games, she said they’ve also served the larger purpose of encouraging kids to follow directions and be good citizens. Tickets have even been used as positive rewards to help stem occasional issues that arise like tardiness or leaving trash in the lunchroom — one more tool to help get students behaving well and focused on their learning.

Building relationships

Gates said as PBIS has evolved in recent years, she’s found it important to set the tone early and build positive communication between staff and students “so that you implement small corrections instead of big ones.”

“It’s proactive, instead of waiting for it to just build up until it has consequences that are really detrimental to a child’s learning,” she said. “We get a lot of academic time back when we really focus on how do we help kids know and understand how to be engaged in school, what does that look like? And being safe and responsible, respectful.”

And it seems to be working. Data from the first semester showed 94 percent of sixth- and seventh-grade students and 81 percent of eighth-graders had no referrals to the office, higher than the previous two years.

And to reward kids for a job well done, Gates is glad to take one for the team by enduring everything from getting pies thrown at her and being duct-taped to a more fun exercise — leading staff in a spirited game of “Spiderball” against students.

“It’s all just a way of having a fun time with the kids and recognizing that really what PBIS is built around is not only having clear expectations and standards for behavior, but also about really having positive relationships with kids,” she said. “We want school to be a place where we’re leaning and engaged, but it also needs to be a time that’s just fun; when we bond with the kids and share laughs.”

Gates said middle school is also a time “in some ways more important than ever” to connect with students who often have a lot going on in their lives, as they transition from children to adults.

“(It’s) making sure that kids feel good and supported during sometimes hard and challenging times in their lives,” she said.” It’s hard in dealing with friendship issues and drama and technology and growth spurts and moodiness.

“You build those relationships, because when you have to work with a student on a particular problem, they know you’re there to help support them.”

Contact Scott De Laruelle at