Discipline, PBIS, and Behaviorism

Positive Behavioral  Intervention and Supports (PBIS) is based upon using external approaches to promote responsible behavior and discipline.  A little history is in order.

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) was the famed Harvard University psychologist who became popular with his practice of behaviorism, which is an extension of classical conditioning that is identified with Pavlov’s dog. The dog smells food and salivates. By pairing an artificial stimulus with a natural one—such as ringing a bell when the food appears—the dog associates the two. Ring the bell; the dog salivates. (Pavlov was smart enough not to use a cat; cats, like humans, are too independent.)

Operant conditioning, commonly referred to today as behaviorism is concerned with how an action may be controlled by a stimulus that comes after, rather than before. When a reward follows a behavior, then that behavior is likely to be repeated. 

Skinner preferred the term “reinforcement.” Skinnerians (behaviorists) are apt to argue that virtually everything, even who we are, can be explained in terms of the principal of reinforcement. Behaviorists speak about how “organisms” learn based upon the assumption that humans are animals—different from other animals only in the types of behaviors displayed. It is no wonder that, with this belief, Skinner conducted most of his experiments on rodents and pigeons but wrote about people.

All decisions are based on the ability to make choices—be it pigeons and pecking, rats and mazes, or horses and corrals. The trainer does not teach but rather sets up the conditions for the “organism” to learn by the decisions it makes.

If you believe that humans are like any other organism, then it makes perfect sense to treat humans as you would train a dog or any other organism. This is the fundamental principle upon which PBIS is based. Although it started with special education students who may need tangibles to help them learn, the program is now mandated by many educational systems around the U.S. In the five cities in which I recently presented most of the participants were mandated to implement PBIS. Not one teacher indicated that the approach is fair, workable, practical, or in  students’ long-term best interests.

The approach promotes the idea that if a young person does something that the teacher likes the youngster will be rewarded. Is this the message we want to promote with the future generation? Do we really want responsible behavior and self-discipline to be motivated by an external agent?

Sooner or later PBIS will fall by its own misdirection. For the sake of both teachers and young people, the sooner the better.