PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) Is Doomed to Failure

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) was established by the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. The approach is behaviorally based in that it is a classic use of B.F. Skinner’s positive reinforcement of operant conditioning. The program was developed as an alternative to aversive interventions that were used with students with severe disabilities who engaged in extreme forms of self-injury and aggression. The approach rests on the idea that these students need something tangible to change behavior.

PBIS treats the acquisition and use of social-behavioral skills in much the same way we would academic skills. However, academic skills deal with the cognitive domain, whereas behavior has to do with the affective domain—those factors which pertain to feelings and emotions.

A basic rationale of PBIS is that it is necessary to understand the “why” of a behavioral problem in order to “fix’ the behavior. However, it is nearly impossible to articulate with certainty the underlying reasons for behavior. And even more important, although finding the rationale or reason for a behavior may be interesting, it has no effect on changing the behavior.

The ground on which PBIS rests is faulty—and sooner or later the structure will topple.

According to the developers of PBIS, the most impressive gains in reducing challenging behavior have occurred with students who have severe intellectual disabilities. It seems to me that this is another case of both the tail wagging the dog and of tunnel vision. When I was working in the dean of boys’ office in a large urban high school, I dealt solely with behavioral problems. The position could easily give one a policeman’s viewpoint. Are ALL students sent to the office for disciplinary purposes? Hardly! But that was the only type of student I dealt with. In contrast, when I moved to an even larger high school (3,200 students) in a different district as assistant principal of supervision and control, I dealt with the student government leaders, athletes, as well as with students whose behaviors needed attention. I, therefore, had a more realistic perception of the entire student body.

For the advocates of PBIS to impose a system on an entire school—which they are trying to do—in order to help a few seems to me hardly justifiable.

Success with special education students and students of lower intellectual abilities has more to do with motivation to learn and using procedures in a structured environment than giving rewards for desired behavior. 

A major concern is that decision-making is team-based. It is impractical to the point of being impossible to have a team respond to every behavior. Most importantly a “one size fits all” approach is totally unfair. With some students an askance look stops inappropriate behavior; others need to feel the heat before they see the light.

PBIS is based on “empirical support” or evidence of effectiveness. The aphorism is appropriate here. “Those things that count can’t be counted, and those things that can be counted don’t count.” How can one quantify perseverance, honesty, integrity, caring, desire, positive self-talk, and other factors that make for a responsible and successful citizenry?

The future of this approach is destined to be short-lived if for no other reason that it is imposed top-down and, thereby, deprives professionals of their professional judgments.

PBIS is another case of using a misguided approach based on external agents to promote responsible behavior—which is always an internal decision.

  1. I’m so grateful to find an article that expresses exactly how I feel as a teacher working within a PBS school. This model of discipline, and I do mean discipline, was recently thrust upon me and near adult-age students. It doesn’t work for all the various reasons detailed in your article. What is worse is that it obliterates, or at best inhibits, authentic self-assessment and any possible internal adjustment that might follow—the real stuff of lasting value. PBS, in my opinion, is more about making life easier for the educator—not about helping individuals riddled with more difficulty than our 8:00 to 3:30 lives or minds can conceive. Sadly, PBS appears to be another self-serving tool stuffed in the bag of teaching tricks. Sooner or later it, too, will be lost in this abysmal bag. In the meantime, how many children and pipermms suffer by our steadfast insistence to snuff out what’s uncomfortable and disagreeable? Perhaps, it’s our painful commonality that refuses to acknowledge what is required for healing; that which keeps us from real truths and real solutions. By the way, I could not access A Letter Worth Reading. If you have another link, I’d appreciate you passing it along.
    Thanks for listening! Sally

  2. Thanks for responding. More on this topic will appear in the January, 2009, newsletter to be distributed on January 10. Subscribe at http://marvinmarshall.com/

    A Letter Worth Reading can be found at http://marvinmarshall.com/aletterworthreading.html

    Marv Marshall

  3. Thank you for sanity. It seems the team-based approach to PBS (and increasingly many other reforms) are a select set of people with a philosophical ideal that community oneness supersedes individual thought, action, and responsibility. a.k.a. socialism The oneness of the Core Curriculum goes hand in hand with it.

  4. I stumbled on this site this morning as I was researching for an article in our local newspaper about the problems with PBIS. In our state (California), the media has enticed young teachers to go television and praise the new Common Core Standards and implementation. I recently retired after teaching at-risk students, both incarcerated and transitioning back to their traditional schools. Many of these kids came from extremely dysfunctional families plagued by crime, drugs and alcohol abuse. They were placed in our court and community schools and the experience I had was that they thrived being in a classroom that operated on order, structure and discipline. When “administration” decided that they too had to climb on the PBIS bandwagon, my students rebelled. They wanted to be held accountable, not treated like babies. Those few students that were displaying disciplinary problems and had “behavior contracts” learned how to play the system…..do good…earn your reward…and once received, go back and be a classroom disruptor….
    In the past our county office of education has tried BEST, Nurtured Hearts and they have all failed, but don’t worry, some ivory tower professor has a new and improved program, and education will spend the money because it is “researched based.”