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Changing culture one student at a time

Dixon High School's positive discipline initiative rewards success, reduces troubles

DIXON – Dixon High School Assistant Principal Doug Stansford remembers when paddles were an effective form of changing behavior in school. 

Discipline has come a long way since then. 

Today, prizes have become the prime motivator in reducing problems among the high school student body of nearly 800 kids.

Stansford runs the school’s Positive Behavior In Schools (PBIS) program. Emphasizing good acts rather than dwelling on negative actions has reduced the number of disciplinary consequence referrals by more than 60 percent since 2015.

Administrator presences in everyday student settings more often than not meant trouble was brewing, or some feeling of concern. That’s not always the case now.

“In the past there was always a punitive consequence, such as being pulled to the office,” Stansford said. “But now we’re going to the rooms and speaking to the kids in front of the entire class, and give them a pat on the back.”  

School faculty will notice students’ positive actions and inform administrators, who will then visit with the student in class and surprise them with a note of their positive action. 

Stansford said the constant mentioning of positivity has made more kids want to do more positive things throughout the school. 

Accomplishments at school also are rewarded. Showing up to each class on time, maintaining good grades and staying away from trouble has its benefits such as a voucher for a 6-inch Subway sandwich, gas station gift certificates or school-related sundries. 

Announcements of award winners are read over the school’s intercom system, sometimes triggering the thought of “I want to do that” with some students, Stansford said.

“You don’t generate behavior change, or culture change, with high school students by giving them a pencil or a candy bar,” Stansford said. “If you recognize them publicly when you talk about it, and build it up and connect it with something like an opportunity to exempt out of an exam, then they see the value in it.

“Positive reinforcement is great, but you still have to let a student know that there are consequences to behavior. It’s a balance of the positive and the punitive consequences. You can’t just throw out the punitive consequences if a student does something wrong.” 

Instead of feeling a consequence for each tardiness, a big consequence occurs when six of them are incurred – the loss of a final exam exemption. Still, students are notified after each tardy; the first by a teacher, the next ones from a parent after a call home, and those closer to six with a visit to the office to remind them of how many tardies they have. 

Stansford said that the office staff’s individual chats with the students about tardiness is making a big influence.

“They’ll just stop getting tardies,” Stansford said. “We have cut way back on our tardies, and we also cut way back on our discipline.”

The desire to be recognized for positive behavior also has caused the number of out-of-school suspensions to decrease since 2015, from 101 to 23. 

That doesn’t mean there’s less time to interact with students who continue to cause trouble. One-on-one talks from Stansford or Principal Michael Grady are longer in an effort to persuade students that negative actions have serious consequences.

The more a student remains positive, the more rewards given to the whole student body.

If all students exceed a collective positivity threshold, there is an annual celebration rewarding good behavior. Last year’s celebration, determined by student choice, was a trip to the Historic Dixon Theater to see the 2007 movie “Wonder” starring Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson about a young boy with Treacher Collins syndrome who fits in with a student body.

Dixon schools are currently on spring break, and an excellence program will start when students return. Stansford said that it’s a way students can remain focused on school with more outside influences entering students mindsets with warmer weather. Students earn tickets for staying after school for extra help, earning a top assessment grade, or showing specific areas of character, for example.

Up to eight tickets are drawn weekly for prizes, and the students with the most tickets in a 6-week period are eligible for grand prizes.

“It’s fun doing that, but there’s a reason behind that,” Stansford said. “We want kids to stay focused going toward the end of the year – that’s when you start losing focus.”

Stansford brought over the idea of more fun and prizes from Byron High School, where he served as assistant principal before coming to Dixon. He discussed the plan with Grady, who wasn’t sure if it would have long-term effects at first. Now, he’s more than impressed with what has transpired.

“About 5 or 6 years ago, we were concerned about the direction our school was going with culture and climate,” Grady said. “We wanted this to be a place where kids want to come to school. 

“It has been fantastic. We have changed the culture at Dixon High School since we implemented this.”

By the numbers

Dixon High School:

Out of school suspension referrals

2015: 101

2016: 73

2017: 31

2018: 23

Referrals resulting in a discipline consequence

2015: 2,538

2016: 2,362

2017: 1,332

2018: 953

*Numbers provided by Dixon Public Schools

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