Prioritizing Relationships from Day One at Upper Darby School District

We are fortunate to enjoy a guest blog post by Christopher Pugliese ( who is the Director of Pupil Services at the Upper Darby School District.


I am so fortunate to serve the Upper Darby School District – a school community where there is a culture of building strong relationships. In addition to having the pleasure of leading the Center for Supportive Relationship’s (The Center) SUPR Teacher Program, I recently had the opportunity to talk with approximately 70 new staff members about the importance of building strong relationships with students.

On the first of a three-day orientation program, the agenda looked like this:

  1. Opening Address from the Acting Superintendent
  2. Safety procedures and protocols
  3. Relational skills and positive reinforcement

What a message the District sent to its new staff members on their first day about the significance of relationships! Superintendent, Safety, Relationships.

In the thirty minutes we had together, I emphasized the fact that our District values relationships as much or more than anything else, as evidenced by the fact that our Board of School Directors has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a major professional development initiative which focuses on coaching teachers in the area of relational skills. In addition, I was able to review two concepts with the new staff: the “relational bank account” and the basics of positive reinforcement.

I really enjoyed having the discussion on the relational bank account. The Center teaches us that everything we say and do either strengthens or weakens a relationship – everything. Those words and actions either add to the account (a “deposit”) balance or take from it (a “withdrawal”). I used this as an opportunity to refer to the PBIS concept of expecting 4 positive comments for every 1 negative – the goal is to always have a large balance in the account, also known as a strong relationship. Here I made the connection to my own parenting style. I explained that my dinner table conversation with my kids focuses on the idea that everything we say or do either helps or hurts someone else – everything. My kids pause and then try to trip me up along the way. They’ll say, “Oh, yeah, Dad? What about Potato Chips? Does it help or hurt someone when we say Potato Chips?” I’ll respond, “Well, I think you are trying to be funny when you say that, and it is always a help when we are trying to make someone laugh. Also, you know how much I love potato chips, so I think you are trying to make me feel good by talking about something I like. That’s another help. So, saying Potato Chips helps.” As they walk out of the kitchen somewhat defeated and frustrated, I hear them mumble to each other, “Dad’s a weirdo.” I yell to them, “That’s a withdrawal!” The new staff laughed.

I then gave the new staff a few minutes to review some training material from the Center (written verbal exchanges between people) in order to determine whether the exchanges represented a “deposit” or a “withdrawal” – this always leads to active engagement and a good conversation. Usually, the focus of the discussion is on the importance of understanding the context and knowing the specifics of the person or student involved. Similar to the potato chip example, the circumstances are always important when determining whether words or actions serve as a “deposit” or a “withdrawal.”

The final piece of my thirty-minute session was a review of the three basic principles of positive reinforcement, as taught by the Center. They are as follows:

  1. Tailoring the type of reinforcement to meet individual student preferences (it is vital to know what motivates each student in order to effectively reinforce).
  2. Matching the intensity of reinforcement to the level of student performance.
  3. Timing the reinforcement so that it immediately follows the desirable behavior (just like great comedy, timing is critical when it comes to positive reinforcement. In order to have the most meaning and significance, positive reinforcement should be delivered immediately following the desirable behavior. Therefore, we must praise, compliment and thank our students as soon as they say or do something positive).

This was an extremely rewarding session for me – it afforded me the opportunity to convey the messages that:

  1. Relationships are vital in our School District.
  2. We can work on strengthening relationships deliberately by using the concept of the relational bank account and by applying the principles of positive reinforcement.

I am very thankful to the District for recognizing the importance of relationships and allowing me to deliver this session to the new staff on their first official day with the District. I am confident that this focus on relationships will allow us to create a District-wide environment of respect and rapport as we strengthen our culture for learning.

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