Every time he pulls up to a school, bus driver John Ringold says the same thing to his young passengers: “I’m proud of you and I care about you. Please be safe, respectful, responsible and cooperative. Thank you and have a wonderful day. You’re awesome.”

It’s a sharp contrast to his own bus-riding experience. The only minority student at a private Louisiana school 40 miles from his home, Ringold was the frequent target of racial epithets. Other students spat on him. The school bus driver cursed at Ringold and called him worthless, once even stranding him on the side of the road.

As a driver and father of four, Ringold now understands the pressures facing his colleagues. Being the lone adult among up to 80 kids? Not easy. While also safely steering a 40-foot-long, 17-ton vehicle? It takes a remarkable person.

“But yelling, screaming and threatening—it doesn’t work. I can’t tell my bus kids to be quiet and stop yelling until I do it first,” Ringold said.

That’s a professional philosophy Vancouver Public Schools’ bus drivers have developed through a research-based program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. Adopted in the district six years ago and implemented on school buses for the past three years, PBIS is part of a movement to enhance students’ safety and support.

That extends to time spent on buses, too. All bus drivers, from new substitutes to veterans, are trained to use PBIS. “Our bus drivers wanted to be a part of PBIS,” said Bill Link, who directs the transformation of school climates through the use of PBIS and other programs. “Their mentality was that buses are classrooms on wheels,” he said.

Driving change through communication

For any driver, student management is a challenge. Christine Easter, a 10-year VPS veteran and trainer, joined the district with 20 years of experience in day care. Still, said Easter, “I was hungry, when I first started bus driving, for student management ideas, always wanting more, more, more.”

Through clear behavioral expectations and good communication, PBIS offers exactly that. Good behavior is clearly defined and acknowledged through praise and paper “bus bucks” that can be redeemed for prizes or incentives such as lunch with the principal. Easter also adds to each buck that she distributes specific comments about the action that earned it.

What bus drivers are saying

Behavior that runs counter to expectation is an opportunity for learning in a way that is instructive rather than punitive and is appropriate for individuals’ social and emotional needs. For a driver faced with a student standing while the bus is in motion, this could mean asking the student to sit and explaining the safety risks, rather than demanding that he or she sit without providing any context. Or pointing out to students how bullying actions affect others’ self-esteem.

With the expectations comes specific language repeated by staff members in schools and on buses until it becomes philosophy: “Be safe, respectful, responsible and cooperative.” The words also are posted on buses. Easter often refers to them. “Remember the school rules?” she asks. “They’re the same as the bus rules.”

“I love us being on board with the schools, following what the schools are doing. We feel more a part of the same team,” Easter said.

Turning the corner

Although PBIS requires a long-term investment and results aren’t instantaneous, “things start to unfold in a positive way,” Ringold believes.

Esther Faualo, who worked as a bus driver in Hawaii before coming to the district four years ago, agrees. “When you know your kids and you work with them and tell them exactly what they need to do, they behave, be responsible, be safe,” she said.

Students start to look out for one another and address behavior among themselves. Drivers become confidants for children who are experiencing turmoil at home that can affect their performance in the classroom.

“It’s a total failure if a child doesn’t want to go to school because they feel that the adults there don’t protect them. I take that to heart,” Ringold said.

With this lane change toward self-accountability and respect come other benefits: Parent-driver relations have improved with PBIS, as parents learn about the program and ask questions.

In addition, discipline referrals have decreased. “Writing up a kid is the easy thing to do,” Ringold said. The data bears out a commitment to doing things the difficult but right way. Since PBIS was implemented on buses, referrals have dropped 45 percent.

Rather than use referrals as threats, Faualo demands both personal and academic accountability from her students. “I tell them, ‘Let’s work together,’” she said. To parents, her message is similar: “I don’t want to write up your kids. I want you to work with me.”

After all, drivers’ bonds with students and their families run deep. Said Faualo, “We are not just a bus driver. We are like a parent of these kids. We are not here just for the money. We are here to love and support these kids.”

Working together, bus drivers, school staff, students and families are creating safe, respectful, responsible and cooperative environments: in schools, at home and on the road.

Said Ringold, “We’re headed in a great direction.”

First photo above: Bus driver John Ringold and students from Harney Elementary School; second photo: Bus drivers Christine Easter, left, and Esther Faualo

This and other stories originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Inside Vancouver Public Schools.