Hey Chris....Originally intended this as a comment on the blog, but it was too long:A lot of interesting material to discuss in there. Some thoughts, in no particular order:
I’ve been reading your blog for a few months now, and have been meaning to comment on many of your posts, and to thank you for creating a great forum that points out many of the problems with “rewards” based systems like PBIS. Having worked in many schools that utilize this model, and also having been a part of the early development of PBIS back when it was used primarily in organizations that provide services to people with intellectual disabilities, I have some insight into how and why PBIS has developed into something that it was never intended to be in the first place. Your assertion that it circumvents moral reasoning and fails on many levels is completely and sadly accurate. But if people understood what PBIS was really intended to do and be, it would be different.
PBIS was never intended to be a “system.” When it was first put forth back in the late 80’s, it was intended to help instill a set of *values* that would guide the actions, responses, and priorities of the *adults* and other people providing services-i.e., teachers. It was a simple introduction to the notion that it’s important to focus more on what kids are doing right than on what they’re doing wrong. The whole “5 positives to 1 negative” thing. And most importantly, it was designed to break negative behavioral patterns of the adults who were getting more and more frustrated by the behavior of their students, and reacting in an angry manner that virtually always made things worse.
Unfortunately, over the years, a few things have happened that have shifted the focus of PBIS onto student behavior. First, in every school that I’ve ever worked in (and that number is well into the dozens now), there exists a core group of teachers/staff who simply do NOT want to hear that the behavior of teachers has anything to do with the problems that exist. They are completely and utterly unwilling to listen to the idea that if they were to actively change the way they approach students, they might experience positive results. Instead, they choose to believe that all of the problems come down to the students themselves, their families, and/or lack of administrative support for the old, “tougher” policies that used to govern student behavior. They see this whole “positive behavior support” stuff as utter nonsense, and they refuse to integrate it into their way of doing business. The program is undermined before it even starts.
Secondly, PBIS is its own worst enemy because it selects the wrong metric by which it measures “success.” Specifically, it looks at out-of-classroom referrals as an indicator of whether or not the program is having a positive impact. This is absolutely a ridiculous barometer. Many teachers, who don’t buy into the program, know that they’re being evaluated on the number of students that they send to the office, so they simply “go underground” and refuse to ever send anyone down, even when the behavior merits such an action. This skews the data in a way that makes it impossible to reach meaningful conclusions, and it also leads to an increase in the amount of time lost to behavioral intervention in the classroom because those students are no longer being removed when appropriate. A better metric would be “academic time lost to behavioral intervention,” but that would be another discussion entirely.
PBIS, in and of itself, has the potential to do wonderful things for schools, staff, and most importantly, students. But it has to be implemented in a manner that’s far more sophisticated than what most schools are doing today. And sadly, I believe that most schools lack the capacity to implement it in a truly meaningful way.
Ultimately, is it harmful? Probably not. Most of us that get upset by the way it’s implemented are the parents of kids who don’t need a system like this in the first place. We find ourselves most upset by the inequity of the reward system. How can my daughters, who haven’t been “in trouble” a single time in their entire school careers, have fewer of those stupid reward bracelets than the juvenile delinquent that sits next to them? It’s maddening, and it creates a situation where the parents who are most likely to become active and involved are furious about the program before they even have a chance to understand its intent.
But that doesn’t harm *our* kids. The kids that pay the price are the ones who really need to be integrated into a system that focuses exclusively on teaching what positive behavior looks and feels like-which is what PBIS was intended to be. Unfortunately, we’ve stopped focusing on the more sophisticated aspects of behavior (in large part because we simply don’t know how to teach it), and have instead resorted to the notion that simply “following the rules” is what constitutes good behavior.
It’s sad, because PBIS has so much more potential than that. It’s really the people that are implementing the program that are to blame, not the program itself......
All the best....
1. First, I want to thank Dan for that thoughtful and informative email. Needless to say, I share a lot of his concerns – though not his enthusiasm for the basic PBIS concept. I’m sure there’s a lot of truth to the interaction he describes between teachers who are willing to consider whether their own conduct toward the kids might have an effect on making the situation better or worse, and those who aren’t. On the other hand, as anyone who reads this blog knows, I have some sympathy with people who see “positive behavior support” as utter nonsense, and I suspect that some of those resistant teachers might have some good points – especially about whether PBIS is more “positive” in any meaningful sense.
2. Dan’s point about the spuriousness of “office referrals” as a measure is one I’ve wondered about myself. Any genuinely scientific approach to evidence would be concerned with ruling out plausible alternative explanations for the data. How can any of the empirical studies about PBIS rule out the dynamic that Dan identifies: teachers naturally referring fewer kids for office referrals if they know that’s what the boss wants?
3. When Dan talks about teachers “getting more and more frustrated with the behavior of their students,” I’d like to hear his thoughts about why that’s happened. Have kids fundamentally changed? Or have schools’ expectations of them ratcheted unrealistically upward? Given the increasing pressure the government has put on schools to “show results,” the latter strikes me the likelier explanation.
4. I can’t agree with Dan that PBIS in its originally intended form would be a beneficial program, though I can’t know for sure what everyone’s original vision for the program was. In my view, PBIS is simply too inextricably tied to the use of extrinsic motivation – i.e., obtaining the desired behavior through the use of material rewards – and thus too divorced from actually engaging the students’ minds about their own conduct.
5. I have heard other people make Dan’s point that PBIS is really there to get the teachers to change their behavior toward the kids. I can see how this is a (relatively) enlightened take on the program, but it’s not borne out by what the program actually does, even in its ideal form. If all we cared about was trying to get the teachers to be more positive toward the kids, why all the emphasis on material rewards to the kids? Why wouldn’t verbal praise – in particular, a genuine “thank you” – be enough? Why the weekly prize lotteries, and why focus the kids on accumulating as many rewards as they can? Why wouldn’t we just keep track of how positive the teachers are – why not give them the material rewards and the weekly prizes? In other words, it’s a nice way to put a happy face on the program, but it’s always struck me as more of a public relations talking point than an actual description of the program’s goal.
6. I agree with Dan that PBIS is harmful to kids who have trouble “behaving,” but I can’t agree that it doesn’t do any harm to well-behaved kids. I think it harms all kids because of the authoritarian values that inevitably get taught whenever the school ratchets up its focus on behavior, and because it pays no attention to why the kids behave the way they do, and because of what it models about how to interact with other people, and because of what it teaches about what it means to be “good” (to name just a few reasons!). I think it’s possible to be too “well-behaved” and too mindlessly obedient, and to be well-behaved for bad reasons (such as greed, fear, or excessive deference to authority), and to be too people-pleasing rather than to think for oneself. PBIS encourages and rewards all of those things, and I do worry about the effect it’s having on my kids.
I think we’re too often asked to believe that what schools do well will have a lasting effect on the kids’ lives, but what they do poorly is harmless and won’t make any difference.
7. No discussion of discipline should be allowed to sidestep these two questions: First, are the school’s behavioral rules necessary, realistic, and age-appropriate? Second, what is the school teaching and modeling by the way it approaches discipline? I don’t think that school officials take either of those questions seriously. Dan mentions the staff who refuse to consider that their own conduct can have anything to do with the problems that exist. I think that problem extends to school in general: the assumption is that the problem cannot possibly be with what schools are demanding of kids. If the kids can’t comply with the expectations, the problem is always with the kid, not the expectations. The school’s idea of scrutinizing its own role is limited to examining whether they have made the rules really, really clear -- and the only result is the overemphasis on “expectations” described here.
The school decides that the kids need to eat more quietly, because – well, just because. Then they do whatever they think they can do to make the kids be quiet, regardless of what it teaches.
This post is now officially way too long, but these are great issues to discuss. Again, thanks to Dan for his thought-provoking comments.
For more posts on PBIS, click here.