Sunday / July 21

It’s Not PBIS That’s Not Working

As practitioners in the field, we understand the challenges of creating effective academic and behavior systems in schools. So when we hear an educator say PBIS is not working, we know the problem is usually inconsistency of implementation or other errors contributing to its failure. Through our professional experience of working with schools on implementation of both academic and behavior Response to Intervention (RTI), we can say with confidence that if PBIS/the PBIS Champion Model (See The PBIS Tier One Handbook) is not implemented with fidelity, it will not work. Oftentimes, we find this is connected to the leadership or lack thereof, beliefs about discipline, and/or ineffective school systems (academic/behavior) missing critical key markers of implementation. Edwards Deming once stated, “Every system is perfectly designed to give you the outcomes you are receiving.” If you want to change your outcomes, you need to change the system that is producing these undesirable results. If you think PBIS is not working for your school, it may be an indication that there is a bigger issue needing to be addressed.

Here are the top red flags connected with poor PBIS implementation:

PBIS referred to as a program – If PBIS is referred to as a program, the perception from the teachers and staff will be “this too shall pass.” PBIS needs to be referred to as the behavior side of the school system; behavior Response to Intervention (RTI).

Lack of administrator buy-in – Administrators who do not believe in the fundamental markers necessary to implement a comprehensive behavior system will produce a staff who does not believe in the fundamental markers and will quickly return to the old way of responding to misbehavior; the easier way. Another common buy-in error is when an administrator assumes they are already doing everything with fidelity at their school. This is the toughest red flag to address because it involves egos and difficult conversations. This also requires intervention from the district office or supervisor level making sure the administrator knows implementation is not optional and even the best school systems need to continually assess and improve.

Administrators not understanding all tiers of implementation – Administrators who do not understand the complexity of implementation at each tier (school-wide, targeted/at-risk, and individualized) struggle to build and sustain PBIS at model levels. We commonly see principals send other site representatives to trainings and/or PBIS team meetings while they, themselves, cannot fully articulate the system they are hoping to design and implement.

Teacher and staff misunderstanding of PBIS implementation – If teachers and staff are not properly trained on the markers of implementation, the goals and outcomes of implementation, and the reasons for why it is necessary to implement, they will have a shallow understanding of what PBIS means. A shallow understanding will produce those who refer to PBIS as only tickets, incentives, banners, and no discipline. If a staff only defines PBIS in this way, it is evident they do not understand that PBIS is an RTI behavior framework.

Lack of appropriate communication with staff about alternative discipline – When teachers and staff are not supported adequately with discipline, they will blame PBIS for not punishing students. This is a game changing red flag and indicates that:

  • Collaboration and communication is not taking place with regard to discipline in a timely fashion
  • The expectation and culture of the school has still not shifted to the belief of helping all students learn and behave

Educators are not allowed to give up on students who are struggling academically, so why is it optional to give up on a student who is struggling behaviorally? If the administrator provides adequate and timely support to the teachers and works together to help the student, a shift will occur with the beliefs of the staff. Refer to Don’t Suspend Me: An Alternative Discipline Toolkit as a guide for administrators and teachers to implement alternative discipline effectively.

To reiterate, it is not PBIS that is not working, it is the implementation of PBIS that is not working. So stop wasting time and start tightening up implementation. In our next article, we will provide back-to-school tips for creating behavior systems to start the school year strong.

Written by

Dr. Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan is an Educational Consultant and an adjunct professor in the Educational Leadership Department at Fresno State University. She is also an educational consultant working with several school districts and county offices in California on designing and implementing effective behavior systems in schools and districts that work. She currently trains approximately 300 schools on the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Champion Model System. She is the co-author of The PBIS Tier One Handbook. Follow Jessica on Twitter @jess_hannigan.

Dr. John Hannigan holds a Bachelor’s in Liberal Studies, Master’s in Educational Leadership, and Doctorate in Educational Leadership from California State University, Fresno. He is currently in his seventh year as principal of Ronald W. Reagan Elementary in Sanger Unified School District, where under his leadership has earned California State Distinguished School, California Title I Academic Achievement Award for closing the achievement gap by the California Department of Education; a 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 California Honor Roll school by California Business for Educational Excellence; a 10 out of 10 similar school statewide ranking; 2008, 2010, 2012 winner of the Bonner Award for Character Education; 2013 Silver Level Model School recognition, and 2014 and 2015 Gold Level Model School recognition from Fresno County Office of Education for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. He also serves on Dr. Paul Beare’s, Dean of California State University, Fresno, Kremen School of Education and Human Development, Advisory Council. Dr. Hannigan resides in Fresno, California, with his wife Jessica and daughters Rowan and Riley. Follow John on Twitter @JohnHannigan75.

John and Jessica are the authors of Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit.

Latest comments

  • I totally agree with this article. I have been a school counselor for almost 20 years and I was also a manager in a manufacturing plant for 5 1/2 years. Where I have seen break downs in both of these industries is when the administrator is too passive and wants to please everybody or to authoritarian and it’s their way or the highway and they don’t believe in collaboration. The authoritarian also wants to punish! However, teachers want to believe that a new way can work and they will even give it a try but if admin don’t know how to implement it properly or they don’t understand the philosophy then teachers will rebel and ask for the old ways which is the punitive way as opposed to a restorative way.

    I have heard admin characterize the philosophy of PBIS as “being nice” to the kids! That’s not it! It’s about communication, accountability and restoring the harm. It’s about understanding that all behavior is communication and that the child is not their behavior. They are using the behavior for something. This is the hardest thing for people to understand. If they don’t separate the child from the behavior then they take it personally. When they take it personally objectivity goes out the window!

  • This is by far one of the best synopsis of the value a PBIS-based system has in schools! I will share this with our entire teaching staff!

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