PBIS: Preventing Better Instruction & Success

I’m going to say what so many are unwilling or afraid to – We don’t have the answer when it comes to student behavior. There isn’t a one-size fits all model for dealing with student behavior.

Now, I’m going to say something most teachers seem to agree upon – PBIS doesn’t work and it shouldn’t be district policy on how to deal with student behavior. It’s based on the flawed behavioral science of B.F. Skinner, whose ideas have been widely rejected, largely in part because his research likens children to animals. Researcher and author Alfie Kohn puts it this way.

“It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of behavior analysts. But alas, its reductionist influences lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS …”

PBIS is a multi-layered approach to dealing with student behavior, focusing on positive reinforcement. Those who explain PBIS is like listening to a drunk friend attempt to discuss Stephen Hawking’s theories on quantum mechanics. At times, it sounds profound, but mostly it’s nonsense. So here’s a link: www.pbis.org.

Despite being around since the 1980s, PBIS hasn’t had significant impact on public education. The research and success is mixed at best, and often, PBIS is detrimental. Even PBIS supporters admit, to experience success, there must be buy in from nearly the entire staff. If something needs that level of buy in to work, it’s not effective and shouldn’t be considered. That level of buy in from teachers and administrators is difficult if not near impossible. Another issue with PBIS is it’s rarely implemented fully, which is another requirement for it to be successful. Full implementation requires additional support and wraparound services most district can’t afford or it places the extra load on already overworked and overstressed teachers. 

In most schools, PBIS ends up being nothing more than a system of rewards for chronically disruptive students, who rarely receive a meaningful consequence when they misbehave, and are routinely kept in the classroom despite the disruptive behavior.

In most schools, PBIS ends up being nothing more than a system of rewards for chronically disruptive students, who rarely receive a meaningful consequence when they misbehave, and are routinely kept in the classroom despite the disruptive behavior. In most cases, the intensive students, or tier 3 according to PBIS, account for 3 to 5 percent of a school’s population. In my school, it’s less than 4 percent. Yet, all of our energy and focus get directed to these kids, to the detriment of the other 95 to 97 percent of students.

Alfie Kohn puts it this way …

“Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism — a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement — and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.”

We know three things are needed when dealing with student behavior: High expectations, positive relationships, and consequences for behavior. Other than that, we haven’t found the magic sauce.

We know three things are needed when dealing with student behavior: High expectations, positive relationships, and consequences for behavior. Other than that, we haven’t found the magic sauce.

PBIS creates a situation when extrinsic motivators encourage desired behavior and overtime, students lose interest in these external motivators, regardless of the type of reinforcement. Incentive-based policies will either reward those who would have behaved well anyway, or create animosity among those who behaves routinely when the student who chronically misbehaves receives a reward for doing something the other student does daily. 

PBIS also assumes behavior is a result of an interaction with an adult, when in reality, chronic misbehavior is normally the result of factors of which school have no control or influence, such as poverty, violence, or abuse. Positive relationships and interactions can tamper a situation, but it doesn’t prevent the undesired behavior. 

Lastly, PBIS is manipulative and not how I raise or would want a school to deal with my children. I want my children to learn there are consequences, because in the real world, they exist. I want my children to be intrinsically motivated and not need an incentive or reward to do what is expected. If you need a reward to do the right thing, life will be your ultimate consequence.