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Dr. Mindy Garber’s

K-5 School-Wide Discipline Plan

by Jane Califf

A peaceful school atmosphere is more possible when there is a consistent, positive, school-wide discipline plan that teachers, administrators and other staff participate in creating, feel comfortable with, and understand.  Such a plan can be found in Dr. Mindy Garber’s K-5  Hugh K. Cassell Elementary School in Augusta County, Virginia.

A peaceful school atmosphere is more possible when there is a consistent, positive, school-wide discipline plan that teachers, administrators and other staff participate in creating, feel comfortable with, and understand.  Such a plan can be found in Dr. Mindy Garber’s K-5  Hugh K. Cassell Elementary School in Augusta County, Va.


Here is how Dr. Garber describes her school: “We have an enrollment of 500 students, including pre-school.  We have 25 classroom teachers and 3 special education teachers.  Additionally, we have 10 school aides at the school; 41% of our students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.”


Her veteran faculty averages over 20-years experience and had well thought-out classroom management systems.  The problem, according to Dr. Garber, was that many of their management systems focused on negative behavior and consequences, and there were no efforts toward a school-wide discipline plan.  “Adults who worked with many different children - bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians and office staff - had a difficult time keeping up with all of the systems.”


When her school district announced a school-wide positive discipline workshop, she attended and became excited about its focus on positive, not negative behavior.  Based on the ideas she got at this workshop, she formed a school discipline committee composed of a parent, a teacher from each grade, and a special education representative which met monthly for one year.   “We selected our first focus areas to be the cafeteria and hallways…we drafted rules and procedures, i.e., use inside voices at the cafeteria tables, use good manners and say “please” and “thank you.”


They visited other schools that had positive discipline programs and attended more in-service workshops.  Dr. Garber made sure that cafeteria workers, bus drivers and custodians attended a workshop to learn the new approach to discipline in the school.  They can make referrals to teachers and Dr. Garber of students who are disruptive and non-cooperative. 


After two years, she reported that “our office referrals from all sources, including bus drivers, were down over 60%.  Visitors to the school frequently comment on the school climate and the excellent manners and behaviors of our children.  Parents, children and all adults have made many positive comments about the improvement of the school climate.  We embrace this program and believe that the systematic planning that gave each stakeholder a voice in the process was the foundation of our success.” 


What are the key components of their positive discipline plan?


At the beginning of the school year, Dr. Garber gives a power point presentation to each grade level which begins with the three keys to success:  Be safe, Be responsible and Be Respectful.


For each of these, examples are given on how they apply in the cafeteria, playground, restroom, bus and during transitions.  There is a lot of discussion, and teachers reinforce these three keys to success throughout the year.


The teachers are given a laminated poster of these three rules to hang on their classroom wall, and with the help of the children, they can add a few examples for each rule to remind students of their meaning.  Dr. Garber visits each homeroom and talks about her expectations for student behavior and academic work.


The school’s focus is for all personnel to emphasize positive behavior and achievement rather than pointing out and punishing the negative.  Dr. Garber’s teachers settled on a reward system for their classrooms using laminated “Cassell Keys” which is a system of laminated paper keys that are color-coded:  a green one is worth 1 point;  5 points = orange;  10 points = red.  As students collect single green points, they can trade them in for 5- and 10-point keys and eventually for a reward.  Each child has an envelope to keep the “Cassell Keys” in.  Parents helped create these keys for each class.


The keys are handed out one at a time and randomly by the teacher or other school personnel when he/she sees something positive happening - whether individual, a group or the entire class. 


Dr. Garber told her faculty, “A cardinal rule of a positive behavior system is that tokens are given for positive behavior and only traded in for positive rewards.  Once they have been given, they are never taken from a child for negative behavior,  i.e., coming to class unprepared, late for class, disrespect or other inappropriate behaviors… The research strongly suggests that focusing on positive behaviors will be much more effective than giving consequences for the negative.  If three children come unprepared for class, give a key to each of the others who are.  It works!”1


Other positive behaviors rewarded with keys include coming quietly into the room; cooperating well in group work; helping another student; saying “thank you” or “excuse me” or holding the door for someone.  As students see these positive behaviors rewarded, they are encouraged to behave similarly. 


Teachers at each grade level decided on the rewards and how much each was worth.  (During the course of the year, children can suggest rewards to add or to remove.)  Some rewards include:  read to another class, get a new school supply from the closet, wear sunglasses all day, eat lunch with the teacher or principal, put on a puppet show, extra recess, move your desk for one week, choose a game for recess and be the game leader, choose an art activity for the class, a class-wide pizza party.


There are competitions between classes and between grade levels.  For example, a class or grade level that behaves the best in the lunchroom can get points.


When the whole school shows improvement in some area, there are special celebrations such as “Pajama Day” when everyone wears pajamas to school or “Movie Day” when each grade level gets to see a good movie in the auditorium.


I asked Dr. Garber if this system leads children to work for keys and not to behave for behavior’s sake, or learn for the pleasure of learning. Her reply was, “On the scale of behavior, altruism is at the top of the ladder.  Children need rewards along the way, and keys have been a positive motivator.  For example, video games are addicting and many children think they are more fun than reading a book.  Realizing this, teachers give points for reading books which then helps children’s academic work.”


Ms. Fonda Morris, an assistant principal in Riverhead Elementary School in Augusta County which uses a similar system, says, “I don’t think they behave well just to receive keys.  There’s no doubt that when they see the teachers with keys in their hand or others receiving keys, they start behaving… As they get older, they don’t ‘need’ as many prompts to behave because they’ve learned what’s appropriate and what’s not.”2


When I first heard of this system of giving keys to reward appropriate behavior, I was rather suspicious since it seemed to play into our materialist culture.  I never worked in a school with a school-wide discipline plan that worked, so I always had to make up my own system to try to gain the cooperation of the students, which usually consisted of having class meetings to determine how to resolve any problems we were facing. 3


However, Dr. Garber and Ms. Morris have achieved peaceful schools by stressing the positive, using material rewards that become less and less over time.  Children are thoroughly taught how this fair system works and they can give input.  There are grade level competitions and school-wide goals that are rewarded with fun activities.  The rewards often have social value, such as reading to another class or choosing a game and being the leader.  Given all these positives, my reservations have fallen away, since I believe that any school that can achieve a cooperative atmosphere through a systematic plan which makes academic learning more possible deserves congratulations. 


(It is important to note that there are competitions at Cassell Elementary School that do not require keys as an incentive.  For example, they had an event called “Snuggle Up and Read.”  Each class was challenged to read 500 books or chapters by a certain date.  Children were to have a personal goal of 10 or more books or chapters which they recorded on their own chart with parent support.  Any class that met the challenge could bring in their favorite stuffed animals and enjoy a story from a special guest reader.  Pre-schoolers through second graders would celebrate on one day, third through fifth graders on another.  This class competition and the draw of being able to bring in a stuffed animal was a great incentive for each class to work as a team to read more and to try to reach the goal.)


Think Time


Another aspect of Dr. Garber’s school-wide discipline plan is a policy called “Think Time.”  It is more effective than the usual “Time Out” where a child who misbehaves sits away from the class until he/she is ready to cooperate.  Think time is not supposed to be a punishment but to help a child get back on track before things get serious. 


Children who show signs of distraction and/or misbehavior are given a “Think Time Pass.”  This means that they go to an area in the classroom that has a chair and a desk where they sit down and think over their behavior.  They are given a form to fill out depending on the grade level.  A child who can’t read will sit there a short time and then simply have a conversation with the teacher who uses the form as a guide.  The teacher and student come to an agreement on what needs to be done to improve behavior.


To seal this school-wide plan, a “Teacher-Parent-Student Contract” is signed by all three parties thus helping to make everyone accountable.


Connecting More Closely with Parents


Another important part of this discipline program is informing parents through a newsletter on how it works and how they can support it.  (News on this and other topics is sent to parents via a phone message system each week and a school website.)


Cassell Elementary School also builds ties with students’ families through Family Nights.  At first attendance was very low until there was an evening with free food that was well-attended.  After that, food has been an important part of each event.  (The money for these events does not come from the Parent Teacher Organization but is part of their school budget.)


Here are a few of them:


A “S’more Stories Under the Stars” that featured a hot dog/finger food dinner inside, roasting marshmallows for s’mores outside over a bonfire and listening to two storytellers.  Families were urged to bring blankets and flashlights as well as gently worn books for their County Book Bank which helps children start their own home library.


A “Wellness Rodeo” that featured a “free BBQ dinner and dancing” and attracted over 270 parents and children.  The gym teacher had taught many line dances to all the children such as the Electric Slide, Virginia Reel and the Hokey Pokey.  The teacher and students demonstrated how to do the dances, and parents were invited to join in.  Almost every parent danced with their children.  There was also a science fair of student exhibits which people were encouraged to visit..


A “free, mystery dinner theater presenting ‘The Case of the Missing…’” in which all attendees received a spaghetti dinner.  A storyteller recounted a mystery tale and families were invited to visit the school’s Fall Book Fair set up in the library where they were asked to support the school by shopping for good books.


An “Elect to Read” evening that included a spaghetti dinner, a display from the Augusta County Library with a representative urging people to apply for a library card on the spot, a Book Swap where you could donate a book you have enjoyed and exchange it for another one, and a table with information on how “you can help your young reader.” 


These evenings have helped build parental interest in Cassell, connected more families with one another, strengthened parent/child relationships, as well as modeled how much fun families can have by spending an evening together without electronic media. 


Mindy Garber’s Creative Solution for a Very Difficult Child


Fifth grader, Brian, was a “runner’ which meant that he often ran out of the classroom whenever he felt like it.  Once he even ran a mile away from school, and the principal had to get in her car and look for him.


Brian was classified as “Severely Emotionally Disturbed” with ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder.  The principal previous to Dr. Garber could not figure out a way to prevent him from running out of the building, so she came up with a plan on where he could run:  to the special education and physical education teachers, the guidance counselor or to her.  He did not have to tell his classroom teacher where he was going.  Still, there were times when he left the school.


(In this county in Virginia, there are no self-contained special education classes at the elementary level for children with serious emotional or behavioral problems.  All children with these disabilities are put in regular classes, usually without an aide due to a tight budget.  The teachers and administrators generally have to find their own ways to solve crises when they occur.)


When this principal left, Dr. Mindy Garber took her place.  She decided this plan was unacceptable.  Her K-5 school had 48 acres, a nature trail a third of a mile long and little bridges over a creek. In addition, hers was a “pod school” where each grade had its own building, and as a result, there were 40 doors in total to the outside world which she did not relish having to monitor.


Dr. Garber found out about Brian after asking the departing principal 2 questions:  “Who are the children with the most challenging behavior?” and “Who are the most challenging parents?


She decided to memorize his face and the faces and names of all 500 students in her new school as well as the 80 staff members before the fall semester began.  She says, “How could I be their principal and not know who they are?”


She told staff members about the “no running out of the building” policy.  “We will not chase children who are runners.  It is more dangerous to chase them.   Just keep them within sight.”  Children who were runners who wanted to leave their classroom now had to tell their teacher and get permission just like all other children.


Dr. Garber visited Brian’s mother when he was not at home and explained to her the plan and that “I am very experienced with runners. Any child who is sent to my office for a serious infraction will be given a ‘learning packet’ with relevant work to do. 4/ If Brian ends up in my office and refuses to do any work, I will keep him after school until the assignment is completed.” His mother was impressed that Dr. Garber had taken the time to visit her and agreed with this new approach. 


A few days after the beginning of school, he ran into her office.


“Hi Brian,” she said.  It shocked him that she knew his name.  “Does your teacher know that you are here?”


“Well, this year we have a new plan.  If you need to go somewhere, you must tell your teacher.

“But last year,” he whined.

“This is another year.  If you run off the property, I will call 911.  I’ll also call the County Discipline Committee, and they will ask me for a recommendation.  I will say that you need to go to another school because you can’t follow this new rule.  Now, I don’t think this will happen to you, but this is a warning.”


(She says she believes in the power of a threat for very difficult cases.  Often the child realizes that she is serious, and her strong warning helps the child be more careful in his/her behavior.)


She also told him that if he is sent to her office for any other reason, he will be given a learning packet with an assignment that he has to complete.  (He was like a caged lion at times and at other times he would curl up in a fetal position; he often refused to do work.)


Not long after, he was sent to her office by his teacher.  Dr. Garber gave him a very minimal assignment, which he refused to do.  (He was a very bright boy who could read but who found writing very difficult.)   By 3 p.m., he had written nothing, so Dr. Garber said, “I’ll call your mom and tell her you have to stay after school and that I will drive you home.”


By 4 p.m. he still had not written anything, but he wanted to go to the bathroom.  She said, “I need you to write one word, and then you may go.”  She left the room, he wrote a word, went to the bathroom and returned.  She told him “You need to finish.  I can stay to 7 or 8 p.m.”


By 5 p.m. he had finished and she took him home.


The next time he was referred to her office, he saw her speak on the Intercom.  Later on, after all the students had gone home, he was still in her office working very slowly on the assignment.  He asked her if he could speak over the Intercom.  She was reluctant to let him at first, but then she said, “Brian, I don’t usually give kids who are punished a reward, but I will let you this time when you finish the assignment.”


When he was done, she showed him how to use the Intercom.  He asked, “Will you go to the cafeteria and listen to me?”  She agreed.


Over the cafeteria Intercom, she heard, “Dr. Garber is the best principal!”


“He was lucky to have a fabulous teacher,” says Dr. Garber.  They both stayed calm as much as possible and worked together closely on helping to bring out the best in him. His teacher had a strong background in science and art and was able to give him many assignments that he could do.  They both also worked with his mom to help her to bond better with her son.


He never ran away from the building the entire year and began to do more work.  He had one breakdown during this time and was taken to a psychiatric hospital for a couple of weeks.  “However, overall, Brian realized that he had a great year,” says Dr. Garber. “I think the key to success here is that the teacher and I were consistent in our approach to him, we understood his cognitive stage of development, we did not talk down to him but met him eye to eye.  He felt he was heard, validated and listened to and that we wanted to help him.”


Another Inventive Solution to a Crisis


When Dr. Garber was principal of another school, she had a similar challenge.  Alan was a brilliant 3rd grade student who was classified “emotionally disturbed.”  He came from a bad family situation and was very unhappy.  One day, he curled up in a fetal position on the classroom TV cart.  When he heard his teacher calling for the principal, he climbed onto a cabinet and refused to come down.


Upon arriving in the classroom, Dr. Garber instructed the teacher to take the other children out of the room because she knows that when the audience is gone, a child usually calms down in about 5 minutes. 


After the class left the room, she asked, “Are you ready to come down and go with me?”


“I need you to hold my hand.”  He cooperated.

The teacher was able to bring her class back in as Dr. Garber took Alan to her office.  Once at their destination, he tried to knock over one of her file cabinets.  She ignored him, sat down at her computer and worked until he soon stopped; she was then able to talk with him about his behavior.


 (Ignoring poor behavior is a strategy that has worked before for Dr. Garber.  Once a child was sent to her office and while she was at her computer, he picked up a chair and held it over her head.  She ignored him and he did not drop it.)


The Key to Success in Dr. Garber’s Approach to Emotionally Disturbed Children


Dr. Garber explains why she thinks her approach to emotionally disturbed (ED) children often works.  “If such children are with a person they respect, you can show them a plan for resolving a problem, and then give them a choice.  When they choose, they take ownership of their decision and are more likely to follow it.


“I put ED children with teachers who can handle them and who view helping them to change their behavior as a challenge they embrace.  If a child bonds with his/her teacher and with the principal, half the battle is won.


“I rarely send an acting-out child home except for blatant disrespect or a fight.  An out-of-school suspension is not a real solution because children often say to themselves, “I got to stay home.  This wasn’t bad.”



How Dr. Garber Brings Changes to Her School


“I am very patient and never made any changes on short notice. I will introduce a new plan in March or before the summer vacation to give teachers and other school personnel time to think about it.  In the fall, we will discuss it, teachers and others will give their input and only then will it be implemented.


“When teachers are involved in school planning, they will more readily accept changes.”


Dr. Garber implemented “Power Up Planning” by grade levels which teachers have found very helpful.  They meet every three weeks to discuss how their students are doing in various subjects, helping specific children academically and behaviorally and how to give support to those in the bottom quartile.


Setting aside time for power planning enables teachers to work more collaboratively in solving problems and as a result, solutions are found more quickly to daily issues her teachers face. 


In addition to all of these approaches, Dr. Garber makes it a point to show teachers and staff that they are appreciated, such as by giving them cards on their birthday and by giving everyone in her school a poinsettia for the December holiday season.  Gestures like these are another way she helps to build a positive school environment.



1  Memo to staff on 12/21/09


2 Email correspondence with Mindy Garber and Fonda Morris, assistant principal of Hugh K. Cassell Elementary School, Waynesboro, Va., Feb. 9th 2009.


3 See p. ___ for information on holding class meetings.


4 Each packet describes the type of behavior that a student has violated such as bullying or fighting.  There are two levels of packets called “Behavior Learning Packets” from Advantage Press.  The upper level ones give one or two scenarios of children who have violated a rule.  The student has to answer questions related to the story and apply the lesson to his/her own behavior. 


Very young children at the K-2 levels usually are given no written work. She might give them a packet with pictures depicting various poor behaviors.  They have to circle a picture in answer to the question “What did I do?”  Then they answer “What will I do next time?” by circling a reply from another set of pictures.


Dr. Garber discusses their responses with them, and for each child, she documents on her computer that this was done.  She calls the parent, explaining what happened:  the child’s problem and if he/she was given an assignment in her office, what it was.  “In 95% of the cases, the child’s behavior improves.”


If a child is sent to her office three times, she may ask the parent to come in to discuss a plan to help the child.  She may show the parent the learning packet assignments his/her child was given. 


“We try to be developmentally and educationally appropriate.  We have some children with low cognitive skills who would never be given one. 


“If a young child has been sent to my office several times and is able to write,  we may feel he/she is an  appropriate candidate to be given a paper on which to copy “I will make good choices” five times.  Again, we do not believe that writing sentences is best practice, so we use this with great discretion.  Our goal in having very disruptive children sent to my office is for them to realize the seriousness of their behavior and how it has to change.”

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