What To Do When Your School Mandates PBIS

I periodically receive emails from teachers informing me that their school is implementing PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports). This program gives rewards for expected behaviors—which the teachers do not believe is a good practice. Teachers have been using Discipline Without Stress and are wary of PBIS that focuses on external motivation—especially since the teachers have been so successful with their current system that uses internal motivation to have students want to behave responsibly and put forth effort in their learning. Sophisticated teachers understand that external maniulators change motivation. Once a reward is given to do what is expected, one never knows if the motivation for a future action will be to do the right thing or to get a reward.

PBIS was established by the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. It 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. Educational “leaders” projected that if this external approach works on students with special needs that it should also work with all students. Than, as is so often the case in top-down educational practices, the approach was mandated in many communities and states.

PBIS is based in B.F. Skinner’s positive reinforcement approach, commonly referred to as “behaviorism.”  (Skinner worked on rodents and other species and projected that the same “reinforcement” approach would work on humans. Neuroscientists never use his approach because it completely rejects any kind of internal motivation.) 

An integral part of PBIS is based on using rules. But rules are meant to control, not inspire. If a rule is broken, the natural tendency is to enforce it. Without even realizing it, teachers who depend on rules soon become cops enforcing rules. Teachers generally do not enter the teaching profession to become police, but that is what they become when teaching is based on enforcing rules. (See the short video.) In addition, establishing rules to have teachers reward students is counterproductive to the goals of the system—a critical factor the developers of the approach do not realize. Rewards aim at obedience. But obedience does not create desire. Rules do not foster values of character education such as responsibility, integrity, honesty, empathy, or perseverance.

So what should a teacher do if PBIS is mandated? The first step would be to ask for a waiver from the administration. The case would be presented by asking whether the school’s administration would be willing to allow the teacher to use her/his professional judgment to continue using a non-manipulate and noncoercive (using rewards to control) approach that is very successful.

In all of my studies of PBIS, I have not seen anything that mandates the teacher to do the rewarding. Have a class meeting. Put the problem on the table and let the students determine the criteria to be used for any reward. Then have the students choose on a rotating basis which students will do the rewarding. Students will soon discover that rewarding for appropriate behavior is unfair because no one can reward all students who deserve the reward. In addition, rather than collaborating for learning, students start to  compete with each other for the most rewards.

Then have another class meeting and suggest that those who are mature enough not to be given rewards for doing the right thing are now using adult values. Inform those who feel that they are not mature enough to act responsibly without a reward that their desires will be honored. Peer influence will take over.  PBIS will soon lose its attractiveness. 

Keep in mind a few thoughts: (1) Experience shows that rewards punish those who believe they have deserved the reward but did not receive one. (2) Rewards change motivation. (3) Rewarding young people for appropriate behavior fosters narcissism by having youth ask (without even realizing it), “If I do what you want me to do, what will you give me?” 

PBIS is based on a misguided approach of external agents to promote those characteristics necessary for a democratic society. How effective is the PBIS approach of using an outside agent to foster motivation when no one else is around to give a reward?

  1. I find this negative stance regarding PBIS surprising. Our 800 student rural middle school in a high poverty area has used PBIS for three years now and it actually does foster the very things you say it doesn’t. In our school the approach focuses on being present and prepared, taking responsibility, having integrity, being determined and using good etiquette. In our school fights have been all but eliminated since we began this program. The students are very involved in campus activities. The kids and the campus climate are much happier and our school feels like a good place to be. This is a marked change from our previous campus climate.

  2. The point is missed. Any program can be successful depending upon how it is implemented. The problems with PBIS is that it relies on other people (external manipulation) to foster long-term responsibility. The point is not that PBIS is ineffective; it is that it promotes, “What’s in it for me if I do what you want me to do?” and “What will happen to me if I don’t?” In addition, it promotes competition for rewards, rather than collaboration. Also, if a student does all that is expected and does not receive the reward, that student is punished by rewards. PBIS is a return to Skinners’ behaviorism that completely ignores “internal motivation.” Again, the point is not that PBIS is bad but that it completely ignores the long-range effects of narcism.

  3. I presented RRS to my principal. I sent her materials, an article you wrote, and a link to the website. Although she said she was interested, we are 8 weeks into the year, and still the county insists on PBIS. Any suggestions on getting it started in my school? I have it in my class, and I see it working, but instead of asking what am I doing different, I am accused of being “too nice”.

  4. Have your principal go to DisciplineOnline.com—not to purchase but just to read.
    Most people have no idea how to use authority without coercion. Discipline Without Stress is not “nice” as such. The teacher is ALWAYS in charge—but just does not use coercion.
    Also, the vast majority of teachers do not realize that they are in the motivation and relationship occupation. The proof is that they establish rules, which if not followed, place the teacher in an enforcement mode. Few teachers came into the profession to enforce rules—or in simple terms to become a police officer enforcing rules.