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6 Traits of a Remarkable PBIS: West Allis-West Milwaukee School District

Jenna Buckle
Jenna Buckle
6 Traits of a Remarkable PBIS: West Allis-West Milwaukee School District



Every day, in every classroom, you'll find educators at West Allis-West Milwaukee School District (WAWM) celebrating positive behavior and developing students' social-emotional learning (SEL) skills, such as emotion regulation and grit.

That's because the district—which supports 8,200 students across 18 schools in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin—has made Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) a core part of each school's culture and community. With a shared belief that behavior and SEL are connected to academic achievement, administrators and teachers across WAWM work hard to support these critical skills and mindsets in students.

Here are the six characteristics that make for a stand-out PBIS at West Allis-West Milwaukee School District.    

1. They break down silos between behavior and academics.

Behavior and academics are not treated in isolation at WAWM; they go hand in hand. To get to the root cause of a student's struggles, it's a best practice for educators to look at student data holistically—or, in the words of Director of Leadership and Learning Deidre Roemer, to look at "a snapshot of our learners."

One way that WAWM has moved towards an integrated, unified Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) is by bringing behavior, academic, attendance, and SEL data into one place so that school and district leaders, teachers, and staff have a quick snapshot of student progress.  

Download this guide to learn how district leaders are solving the 5 biggest challenges of MTSS.  

A mock student profile in Panorama Student Success, used at WAWM for progress monitoring.

"At the district level, we used to have different people analyzing behavior, academic, and attendance data," said Deidre. "We wanted to consolidate all of those platforms to better analyze the data and understand where we needed to add extra layers of support for schools."

At the classroom and school levels, the red, yellow, and green indicators across academics, attendance, behavior, and SEL help educators triangulate student needs, apply targeted interventions, and progress monitor for students. 

2. They approach PBIS with an equity mindset. 

Wisconsin leads the nation in the achievement gap. District and school leaders at WAWM are working hard to close this gap by bringing an equity lens to all of their work—using data to uncover achievement and experience gaps for historically marginalized groups of students. Filters

In WAWM's data platform, district leaders filter on students' demographic, academic, attendance, and behavior data to answer questions like:

  • Are students receiving special education services also experiencing exclusionary discipline?
  • Are females outperforming males?
  • Are attendance gaps prevalent for students who are Hispanic or African American?
  • Are we making the right connections with families in order to increase attendance for specific groups of students?

If the data surfaces a concerning trend at a specific school, district leaders work with that school to hone in on the data point, generate potential solutions, and align resources to address the problem.


3. They deeply integrate social-emotional learning (SEL) instruction and measurement into PBIS. 

Although educators at WAWM had been teaching a broad SEL curriculum for years, exclusionary discipline rates continued to increase—and educators found themselves responding to disruptive behavior after it had already escalated to a higher level.

This sparked the district's shift to a more preventative approach to behavior. WAWM began gathering data on students' "lagging" SEL skills in order to proactively address those needs at the Tier 1 level.     

"Instead of just teaching SEL, we looked at infusing SEL into every part of what we do," said Deidre. "At the end of the day, a classroom where a student feels welcome is a classroom where academic achievement comes on its own." 

"Instead of just teaching SEL, we looked at infusing SEL into every part of what we do. At the end of the day, a classroom where a student feels welcome is a classroom where academic achievement comes on its own."

Deidre Roemer, West Allis-West Milwaukee School District– Deidre Roemer, Director of Leadership & Learning, WAWM

Today, WAWM collects data on students' social-emotional skills and competencies in areas including emotion regulation, social awareness, grit, classroom effort, and growth mindset. Students in grades 3-12 reflect on their own skills by taking the Panorama Social-Emotional Learning Survey.

This data helps district leaders and educators uncover student needs and guide SEL instruction in the classroom. They're also able to compare students' SEL survey results to other critical markers of success, like academics, behavior, and attendance. 

"Let's say a student scores high on grit and classroom effort—but they may report that they feel uncomfortable with their social awareness," said Deidre. "That's not a student who would usually be on our early markers for intervention, but it allows us to see that this student may be needing support."   

WATCH: "Reducing Behavioral Incidents in Schools: What Can SEL Tell Us?

4. They use shared vocabulary and PBIS practices in every classroom.

Consistency is a hallmark of WAWM's approach to PBIS. Staff, teachers, students, and families have a shared understanding of what it means to support positive behavior, with each classroom providing similar strategies and supports for students.

Let's take a look at three PBIS strategies used at Pershing Elementary School, which serves 250 students in West Milwaukee—85 percent of whom receive Free and Reduced Price Lunch (FRPL).

  1. Peace CornerA universal PBIS "Clip System": At Pershing, they find that a Clip System works because of the strong sense of community at the school—and because they keep it positive and focused on proactive strategies to keep students in class. Students move their clips up and down the colored zones to reflect on how their day is going. If a student "clips down," they use the strategies they've been taught to turn around their behavior and return to learning.  
  2. Peace corners: Students all use "Zones of Regulation." When a student notices he or she is outside of the "Green Zone," they can spend time in the peace corner and use strategies to return to learning.
  3. Student-centered SEL coaching: After identifying students who needed extra support in grit, Pershing Elementary held an eight-week coaching cycle on grit to reduce the risk of these students disengaging from school or acting out. Students would read non-fiction texts related to the concept of grit, and teachers would confer with students about the strategies the characters used to overcome tough situations. "After the cycle, we saw an increase of 32 percent to 73 percent of students who were able to show grit during the assigned task," said Brooke Smith, a counselor at Pershing Elementary.    

5. They ask, "What are our students telling us?" to understand the status quo and guide next steps.

West Allis West MilwaukeeWhenever a school-wide issue or trend arises, school and district leaders at WAWM anchor the conversation around the question, "What are our students telling us?"

For example, at one school, the principal noticed an uptick in office referrals related to students losing their temper in class, getting frustrated with peers, or engaging in high-level verbal conflicts.

By looking at students' SEL data, the principal observed that students' emotion regulation scores were significantly lower than the national average. Students were saying that they needed help with emotion regulation. This insight helped school leaders reflect on their behavioral supports from the student perspective, bringing more clarity to what needed to change across the school and in individual classrooms.


6. They prioritize developing teacher and staff capacity around PBIS. 

The professional development opportunities at WAWM span a variety topics related to PBIS. Teachers learn about everything from leveraging PBIS data, to bringing a trauma-informed lens to teaching, to providing emotional support for students inside and outside of the classroom. WAWM even creates time and space for staff to practice self care so that they can be their best selves for students. 

Teachers participate in seminars of their choosing in groups of 20 to 25, giving them a chance to learn, collaborate, and understand what's going on in different schools. This focus on PD ensures that teachers and staff are building the necessary skills and knowledge to implement PBIS with fidelity in every classroom.     

For more PBIS and SEL insights from West Allis-West Milwaukee School District, watch this webinar.

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