Implementing PBIS and Getting Stuck? Four Big Ideas that Make it Work Better!

PBSIt was recently my pleasure to be asked by an acquaintance from Holland, where PBIS is being implemented with great success, about my perspective on the obstacles that can cause difficulties when a school is trying to implement a school-wide PBIS system.  In my experience, after working with many schools, both as a principal and a consultant, there are four key misunderstandings that often get in the way of implementation.

1. A lack of clarity about the purpose of the program. This issue really came home to me just a couple of years ago, after many years of doing this work, when I had the experience of informally consulting with my daughter’s school when I went for a visit. She is a special education teacher in an elementary school.

There had been extensive staff development on PBIS provided by the local university. All of the components of the program (the rules, the posters, the tokens, etc.) were ready to go. However, the staff was pushing back and asking the question, “Why are we doing this?” Many staff members appeared to think that they were doing all this work to address the misbehavior of kids with serious problems that the principal should really be handling.

They didn’t realize that the punishment-oriented program that existed was creating a negative environment that affected their feelings of satisfaction as well as their students’ success. They lacked the understanding that by implementing PBIS they were going to create a positive culture that would make their job more fun and make them feel more successful. Of course, it would also make the children’s experience more fun and successful. Not to mention…decreased disruption…increased academic engaged time…increased learning! About an hour of talking about “Why?” lead to a significant increase in the number of folks who were actively supportive.

 2. Beliefs about positive reinforcement. There are folks who believe that positive reinforcement is manipulative and damaging. The emotion-laden “good job” and “I like it when you…” types of praise are particularly concerning to them. Interestingly, these types of reinforcement are less effective than more neutral and descriptive feedback. The recent revision of Annemieke Golly and Jeff Sprague’s book Best Behavior discusses the concept of “descriptive noticing,” a more neutral and descriptive form of feedback. Once people understand it, “descriptive noticing” is easy for folks to do, doesn’t feel excessively emotional or manipulative, and is much more effective at increasing desired behavior from the students. For example, here is an emotion laden praise: “Johnny, I love the way you are paying attention.” Descriptive noticing is neutral feedback, such as: “Johnny, I notice that you are looking at the speaker.”

3. “Descriptive noticing” or positive reinforcement is counter-intuitive. I’m not sure if it is cultural or a basic human characteristic, but in my experience, people naturally notice behavior that they don’t want to see, judge it, and reprimand it in an attempt to extinguish the behavior. As strange as it seems, giving lots of attention to undesirable behavior may actually strengthen it and cause it to increase in frequency. I tell people, “You get more of whatever you pay the most attention to.” Positive ReinforcementThe idea that we are trying to increase desirable behavior by spending our attention noticing desired behavior and ignoring minor inappropriate behavior is very challenging for some people to understand and even more difficult to do…it just doesn’t occur as naturally as reprimanding undesirable behavior. For some people it takes sustained modeling and coaching for them to be successful with this basic concept.

4.  Reinforcers. This is less critical but can have a negative impact on the sustainability of the program. Folks have a tendency to identify extravagant and costly physical reinforcers. But as a rule, reinforcers need to be activities. They should be quick and as close to free as possible to implement. You don’t need to party all day…a quick game of seven-up or going out to recess five minutes early every once in a while will work just as well, if not better, than junk from the “prize box” and won’t break the bank. Providing choice makes activity reinforcers even more powerful. PBSEverythingElem4In many years of work, often with extremely challenging children, I’ve only purchased reinforcers for three children. Dump the junk. The most powerful reinforcer we have at my school is a ticket granting the privilege to invite a friend to eat lunch while sitting on the floor of the stage overlooking the cafeteria. It is amazing! Kids will work like crazy for this one.

Do you have experience implementing PBIS in a school? Were there misunderstandings of how the system works? How were these concerns addressed?

Please respond with your questions or comments. I’d be happy to clarify.

2 thoughts on “Implementing PBIS and Getting Stuck? Four Big Ideas that Make it Work Better!”

  1. I need help with PBIS in the cafeteria. Is it PBIS practice to have the students be silent at the beginning and end of lunch daily? Is it PBIS practice to have a “back table” for behavior as minimal as talking during the silent times? Thanks for any info you can provide.

  2. Dear Rachel, This is an excellent question. Sorry it took me so long to reply. The basic answer is no. These practices are not elements of PBIS. They are however very common. Cafeterias are by nature noisy and this drives some people crazy so they have imposed this type of rule or these rules are very long standing and nobody has ever asked if they were working or necessary.I believe that the silent rule is so restrictive, un-natural, and hard to enforce that it creates a negative and punishing environment which is at odds with the basic tenets of positive behavior support and makes adults and kids miserable.

    PBIS has three basic practices. 1. Decide what the positive behaviors are that you want the kids to exhibit in the setting. The behavior must be observable and the adult and/or a student must be able to model the behavior. An example in the cafeteria might be “Talk in an inside voice to the people sitting next to you” 2. Teach the students the rule. Reteach the rule as often as is needed. This is where the modeling comes in. 3. Notice the students for doing it. This can be as simple as the supervisors circulating throughout the cafeteria simply commenting that they “notice that you are using and inside voice to talk with the people sitting next to you”. It might also include an occasional token reinforcer like a certificate for some privilege such as the golden ticket described in the article.

    Regarding the table at the back of the room. While it is sometimes necessary to move children due to disruptive behavior and mild consequences are certainly appropriate, I think putting all of the “bad” kids at one table is setting you up for failure. I prefer to simply move them to another table away from their friends. This usually does the job. That said, I believe that moving kids for talking is an over-reaction. One of the principles of PBIS is to ignore minor inappropriate behavior. It would be much more powerful to spend your energy reinforcing the kids that are exhibiting the desired behavior and only impose consequences for truly disruptive misbehavior.

    The last three hints I’d like to give you are related to the fact that cafeterias are inherently noisy and this drives adults crazy. As an administrator, I never assigned a supervisor to the cafeteria for all of the lunches during the day. This just scrambled their brains and they inevitably became cranky and then used excessive punishment. Second, I usually scheduled myself for the most challenging lunch, which was often 4th and 5th grade. I did this because it was easier and less time consuming for me to supervise that lunch rather than deal with the inevitable behavior referrals after the fact. The last hint is…when observing a cafeteria to determine if it is safe and respectful, cover your ears and look at the physical behavior. Is everyone sitting and keeping their bodies under control or are they roaming all over the place or yelling across the room. You can tell by just looking. When you take the sound away you get a much better idea of what is going on. We adults just can’t deal with noise and if you’ve ever been in a cafeteria with a group of well behaved adults…well you know how loud it can really get.

    I hope this helps. Thanks for the question.


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