We Can Prevent Behavior/Emotional Disorders by Teaching Communication Skills

Ooh Ooh Ooh, They Finally Did It!

I am going to discuss some ideas I had after reading a useful meta-analysis about how to intervene with students referred for intervention or special education for Behavior and/or Emotional Disorders (B/ED).

The article is Practices Reflecting Functional Communication Training for Students With or At-Risk for Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: Systematically Mapping the Literature by Alexandra Hollo and Jonathan Burt and published in the journal Behavioral Disorders. If you cannot get access, please send me an email, and I will send you a copy.

An additional resource is Unidentified Language Deficits in Children With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders: A Meta-Analysis also by Hollo, Wehby, and Oliver.

This manuscript reviewed the use of communication-based interventions for students with B/ED. Hollo and Burt found that there is a lot of disagreement in the field and spotty implementation fidelity, but when functional communication skills are taught to students to get their needs met, challenging behaviors are dramatically reduced. Often these reductions in problem behaviors are great enough that the at-risk student no longer requires intensive interventions or special education (cf., here).

I specifically am avoiding discussing functional communication training in autism. In my experience, when dealing with autistic students, teachers and interventionists rely on ABA-flavored methods too highly and reduce the efficacy of communication training.

This blog post will evaluate the consequences and presentation of SLI in students with B/ED.  Solutions and intervention strategies discussed in the literature will then be unpacked, and a review of functional communication as an evidence-based solution will be undertaken. Finally, future directions and policy solutions will be discussed.

Speech and Language Impairments in Students with Behavioral or Emotional Disorders

Speech and language impairments (SLI) have been demonstrated to result in a wide range of behavioral and educational deficits (here, here). Often, these students can be referred to intervention for dangerous or challenging behaviors as a first step; with these referrals happening before interventions or evaluation for the SLI being considered (here). Further, teacher reports of student communication skills do not correlate with standardized assessment, with teachers assuming higher communication skills than the students possess (here).

Looking at it from the other side, there is a proportionally higher quantity of SLI in students receiving services for B/ED – including those students that legitimately have social and emotional learning deficits and behavioral disorders (here). Although at present the repercussions of this oversight have not been fully evaluated, data suggest that interventions addressing SLI and communication deficits greatly benefit students with B/ED in the K-12 educational setting.

Richman and Wacker stated:

The correlation between speech and language disorders and psychiatric disorders has been noted by numerous research teams and with a variety of methodological techniques (Benasich, Curtis, & Tallal, 1993; Glassberg, Hooper, Mattison, 1999; Griffiths, 1969; Hogan & Quay, 1984; Piancentini, 1987). These cumulative findings provide a rationale for the provision of early intervention services to children with speech and language problems in an attempt to decrease the probability of their developing behavioral difficulties. It also makes intuitive sense to assist young children with language difficulties to learn how to respond appropriately to parental requests and to assist the parents of these children how to deliver requests effectively.

Furthermore, it has been reported since the 1980s that K-12 students with B/ED show impairments for semantics and pragmatics of speech with relatively spared syntax (cf.here). In layman’s terms, students with B/ED struggle with word meanings but are okay with sentence structure. They also struggle with how to use language in social situations; which is called pragmatics–should be no surprise there. Access to a speech-language pathologist to work with the student on semantics and pragmatics has positive effects on students at risk for B/ED (see here, here, and here).

Functional Communication

To best describe Functional Communication Training, I refer to the following paper: Functional Communication Training: A Review and Practical Guide by Tiger, Hanley, and Bruzek.

Functional communication training (FCT) is a differential reinforcement (DR) procedure in which an individual is taught an alternative response that results in the same class of reinforcement identified as maintaining problem behavior. Problem behavior is typically placed on extinction (i.e., reinforcement no longer follows problem behavior). Functional communication training differs from other function-based DR procedures in that the alternative response is a recognizable form of communication (e.g., a vocalization, manual sign).

For those that read this blog, it may be a bit surprising I propose a method touted as being developed by ABA practitioners. I do this because functional communication training is just good teaching. And, frankly, like many other things, functional communication, under different titles, has been used extensively before the development of ABA as a field. What ABA has contributed is a unification and parameterization of methods.

Functional Communication Methods

Based on the manuscripts reviewed and meta-analyzed by Hollo and Burt, there appears to be a relative consensus among practitioners as to the form functional communication training takes when used as to intervene with students with B/ED.

The steps undertaken in the majority of the literature surveyed are as follows:

  • The behavior of interest is identified by interviewing stakeholders (e.g., teachers, paraeducators, parents, student) and by direct observation and data collection.
    • At this stage, it is essential to use objective descriptions or the behavior and avoid adjective use as much as possible.
    • Any severity or magnitude measurements need to be provided on a Likert scale rather than in a narrative description.
    • Data collection should be done across environments to ascertain if there are similar or different triggers for behavior in each setting.
  • A functional analysis is undertaken using an interview/observational approach. This means that an observer collects data regarding the antecedent leading to the behavior, the behavior itself, and the consequence that maintains the behavior (this is called the A-B-C method).
    • The observational and interview focus here is important as it is noninvasive to the student and does not require the individual collecting data to have a rapport with the child (cf., link).
    • An experimental functional assessment (like this that I described before) is not recommended for students with potential B/ED because they already demonstrate trust issues with authority, so intentionally triggering behaviors and recording the student responses can escalate into a dangerous situation for both assessor and student very quickly.
  • Taking the data from the A-B-C analysis, the team ascertains the function of the behavior, or what motivates and maintains the behavior.
    • In an educational context, the functions are most often simplified to the following: to gain attention, to escape or avoid a task or situation, or access to a tangible.
    • I disagree with limiting our analysis to these simplified categories, but this simplification can be used within an educational context for teaching communication skills.
  • Using the data from the above two steps, a replacement behavior is chosen, in functional communication, this is always a communication strategy. Importantly, this communication must result in the student meeting the same need as the problem behavior being targeted for intervention.
    • This takes the form, initially, of a script that can be easily remembered and recited by an agitated student
    • If a student struggles to speak when agitated, provide communication cards or hand signals that can be used as the communication. I have had numerous students that wrote: “I need a break” on a card while they were in crisis because they were beyond words. I accepted this as volitional communication and provided reinforcement.
    • If a student needs some kind of adaptive technology or additional supports to achieve communication, provide it as quickly as possible and teach how to use it.
    • A simple button programmed to say, “I need a break” or to request attention is often sufficient (inexpensive option here).
    • PECS or other picture communication systems are also useful for this purpose
  • The communication strategy is explicitly taught using direct or explicit instruction. This includes modeling correct and incorrect behaviors to the student so they understand what is required for them to get their needs met.
    • The explicit instruction method I describe is based on Anita Archer’s work and uses her methods.
    • Basically, the strategy is task analyzed and each nitty gritty point is explicitly taught to the student to mastery. Simply glossing over methods and assuming knowledge does not work. The student has to know what to do and the teacher has to be able to measure this ability.
    • You will often see it stated that students need to model both correct and incorrect procedures. I disagree with this because it facilitates the student being rewarded for inappropriate behavior. I believe the teacher models examples and non-examples and the student models only positive examples across various situations.
  • When teaching the student the replacement behavior or communication skill and afterward, a differential reinforcement strategy is employed in which the student is immediately rewarded for showing the replacement behavior at first and never rewarded for the problem behavior ever.
    • At the early stages, the teacher does need to drop everything and reinforce the communication skill as fast as humanly possible. The more immediate the reinforcement the faster the student will learn communication = reward.
    • So much as possible, the problem behavior is to be ignored, but it can be quickly and dispassionately consequenced if necessary (e.g., physical aggression targeting another student, sexual acting out, self-harm).
  • After the student is showing sufficient performance of the replacement behavior and the problem behavior appears to be approaching extinction, then the team devises a strategy to thin reinforcement. The strategies I recommend are best characterized by Greg Hanley (also see here for data on functional communication performance during reward thinning)
    • The teacher first increases the amount of time between the student using the replacement behavior and a reward. When at first reward was immediate, now the student has to learn to wait a reasonable amount of time (start with 10-15 seconds and increase from there as the student achieves success at any given delay).
    • Once this is tolerated, the teacher then may require an increasing number of replacement behaviors before receiving rewards. When at first the student was rewarded every single time they used communication, now they have to communicate more than once to contact reward (start with every other communication and increase from there as the student achieves success at any given interval).

Functional Communication Efficacy

Using these strategies, there appear to be both positive and negative effects of functional communication in schools. When functional communication training is carried out with high implementation fidelity, there is a net positive effect for both the student with B/ED being targeted for intervention as well as the class as a whole. Disruptions are reduced, and general behavior improves when classroom management includes a functional communication component (link, link, link). The other students learn these communication skills by observation. In the research reviewed, there appears a trend that the application of functional communication can be sufficient to prevent an at-risk student from requiring specialized services and removal from the general education setting (here).

Conversely, Hollo and Burt cite a wide range of studies that include elements of functional communication, but not a sufficient number of elements to consider the intervention valid. They describe situations wherein functional communication is used to design an intervention, but the verbal mands used by the students are ignored rather than rewarded. Teachers often feel they do not have the necessary time to dedicate to reinforcing communication. Hollo and Burt further identify a general difficulty within the literature to properly identify functional communication as different than more general differential reinforcement strategies, These discrepancies and lack of implementation fidelity need to be overcome to maximally prevent students with E/BD from being removed from the general education setting (for solutions see here, here, and here).

Conclusions / Path Ahead

Moving forward, it is essential that educators work to standardize methods for the intervention of problem behaviors. Within the research and education community studying students with autism, these definitions and methods have been relatively well established by the field of ABA.

Additionally, it is apparent that there is a need for more comprehensive evaluations including speech and language factors be carried out when a student is referred for special education services for B/ED. The lack of identification of SLI within the B/ED community poses a problem for special educators as the specialized programming required for these students may be misguided as they target behavior, rather than the potential communication disorders underlying the student’s difficulty.

Overall, functional communication is an effective strategy to reduce problem behavior in students with E/BD when implemented with fidelity. When there is a lack of fidelity or the plan does not focus explicitly on communication, this efficacy is eliminated. Further addressing the weakness of semantic and pragmatic components of language in students with E/BD provide an additional value for these students.

My specific proposal:

Some necessary background is that in the United States, based on IDEA (2004), students qualify for special education services under one of 13 categories. If a student has a documented SLI that results in a behavioral or emotional disorder, the primary educational disability is Speech and Language Impairment (SLI), not an emotional disturbance. More simply, if a student has challenging behaviors because they cannot communicate, any rational intervention must target building communication skills, and not target punishing or redirecting behaviors. Any special education for that student must be under an SLI label by law, as that is the disability that is impeding educational progress (OSEP Dear Colleague Letter here).

When a student is referred for interventions for challenging behaviors, the following steps should be carried out (in order as much as possible):

  1. The student will be screened for any potential speech and language impairments by trained staff or the speech and language pathologist assigned to the school
    • If a student has significant speech and language impairments, then a special education classification as SLI would be appropriate. The student also would qualify at that point for targeted speech therapy from a district speech-language pathologist.
    • If a student does not have significant speech and language impairments, it is still important l to improve student communication skills but they would not be given a special education classification as SLI.
  2. In parallel with step 1, a functional communication approach will be adopted as described above in collaboration with a speech and language pathologist.
    • The functional communication training will be implemented for 4 weeks. Data will be collected on problem behavior and communication.
    • This will fulfill the Tier 2 intervention requirements of the RtI/MTSS approach.
  3. If this approach is not sufficient, it will be continued with the addition of more targeted behavioral interventions
    • The functional communication training can be modified between the Tier 2 and Tier 3 steps to better target the behaviors, but it must be implemented with fidelity and data must be collected.
    • Additional interventions targeting the problem behavior and placing it on extinction will be combined with the functional communication training.
    • This will fulfill the Tier 3 requirements of the RtI/MTSS approach.
  4. A criterion for a classification of emotional disturbance will be evidence that functional communication training was insufficient to correct dangerous or challenging behaviors in the school setting.
    • This means the burden is on the district and school teams to demonstrate that SLI was specifically ruled out as a factor underlying any behavioral challenges.
    • This also supports the idea of the least dangerous assumption since teaching communication skills has no net deleterious effects on the student, whereas any gains in communication are beneficial regardless the effect on challenging behavior.

Finally, for anyone wanting to implement this approach, I have a series of data sheets available on Teachers Pay Teachers that may be helpful.

Please let me know your thoughts and experiences with this by commenting below!


PBIS is Broken: How Do We Fix It?

Why Haven’t They Done That Yet

So in an earlier post, I discussed PBIS and how it is ineffective in schools. The jumping off point for this post will be a research report studying PBIS using a Randomized Controlled Trial. Spoiler alert: PBIS does not work. It does not work in adults, and it does not work in children. It is unfair and ineffective for individuals with autism, intellectual disability, or any number of neurocognitive/developmental disorders. Also, PBIS reinforces antisocial and narcissistic behavior and can often punish students with rewards (yes, I agree with Alfie Kohn on that one).

After this analysis of PBIS, I will provide evidence-based, alternative strategies to help reduce challenging, anti-social, or dangerous behaviors. These will be based on my experience as well as the application of models that I respect (e.g., TCI and MANDT, Collaborative and Proactive Solutions) and explicit refutations of methods derived from models that I view as problematical (e.g., DIR/Floortime/Pivotal Response Training, Applied Behavioral Analysis)

I will cover this article from the following assumption: PBIS rewards the kids and adults that do not need to be rewarded because they already know how to behave correctly for different situations and simultaneously punishes both students that need rewards to learn how to behave correctly as well as the well-behaved students!

The following article will be discussed briefly:

Hassiotis, A., Poppe, M., Strydom, A., Vickerstaff, V., Hall, I., Crabtree, J., . . . Crawford, M. (2018). Clinical outcomes of staff training in positive behaviour support to reduce challenging behaviour in adults with intellectual disability: Cluster randomised controlled trial. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 212(3), 161-168. doi:10.1192/bjp.2017.34

Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT) of PBIS

This is a critical article since it uses the gold-standard method from clinical research to empirically test the efficacy (or inefficacy) of PBIS for adults with intellectual disability. I find this relevant to K-12 education as many practitioners of ABA consider ABA methods valid in adults with Intellectual disabilities (ID) the same as it is in children under 18.

Overall, this article is impactful since it demonstrated that training in PBIS is insufficient to reduce challenging behaviors in adults with ID. The researchers were unable to find any benefit relative to the control group.

Here is the abstract that gives all the relevant information (and is more succinct than I can ever make it):


Staff training in positive behaviour support (PBS) is a widespread treatment approach for challenging behaviour in adults with intellectual disability.


To evaluate whether such training is clinically effective in reducing challenging behaviour during routine care (trial registration: NCT01680276).


We carried out a multicentre, cluster randomised controlled trial involving 23 community intellectual disability services in England, randomly allocated to manual-assisted staff training in PBS (n = 11) or treatment as usual (TAU, n = 12). Data were collected from 246 adult participants.


No treatment effects were found for the primary outcome (challenging behaviour over 12 months, adjusted mean difference = −2.14, 95% CI: −8.79, 4.51) or secondary outcomes.


Staff training in PBS, as applied in this study, did not reduce challenging behaviour. Further research should tackle implementation issues and endeavour to identify other interventions that can reduce challenging behaviour.

Declaration of interest


The researchers did find that the PBIS interventions were rated weak by an independent assessor and they suggested there may have been implementation issues underlying this lack of effect. So more research is needed to know for sure if PBIS is effective or not.

If you are interested in having a copy of the paper and you do not have access, send me an email, and I will get it to you.

My Interpretation of these data

Overall, I interpret the data in the paper as valid because I have never actually seen PBIS administered according to the plan. There is always a scattered application of principles, inconsistency in administration across days, and limited buy-in from the clients/students. PBIS also ignores human nature by demanding everyone maintain a positive mood and hide any frustration with a student’s naughty behavior.

My more in-depth interpretation is a reiteration of my earlier post on PBIS as well as my posts on classroom management. The PBIS method is far too easy to get wrong. It is far too easy to use consequences or the threat of consequences to motivate behavior (e.g.,  threatening a kid that they will not get a reward unless they comply). For individuals with ID, reinforcement has to be 100%  correlated with good behavior and if there is punishment it has to be 100% correlated with the inappropriate behavior. No deviation and no gap between behavior and consequence. Otherwise, the system falls apart.

Importantly, if a system is based on using external rewards/stimuli to motivate behavior, falling apart takes the form of behavioral outbursts and frustration from the student or client.

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It is far too easy for any of us to reward one student for a given behavior and not another student for the exact same behavior; we do it all the time as teachers. This inconsistency and violation of expectation justifiably cause distrust, frustration, and anger.

Unfortunately, this type of asymmetrical reward is a feature, not a bug, of PBIS. PBIS uses asymmetrical reward as a motivational tool, to the detriment of the students that struggle with their comportment. And, take my word on this, no one can identify and rebel against an unfair system as efficiently as a kid or adult with ID, except perhaps an autistic person. They know the system is unfair!

The Problems I Identify with PBiS

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I have been scouring the internet to find research and work that supports my hypotheses about why PBIS tends to be ineffective. I finally found a professional resource that offers a competing program to PBIS. They even will come to schools and train them in the system free of charge! It is the Discipline Without Stress model developed by Dr. Marvin Marshall.

His methods can be summed up by saying we need to reduce the day to day stress experienced by students to help them succeed. Teachers reduce stress by getting rid of rules and replacing them with procedures. This shifts the teacher from an authoritarian role regarding behavior and places them in an instructional position.

This is not unlike methods that I have developed in populations with autism, behavior/emotional disorders, and in socioemotional/behavior unit classes. I will be describing my model and implementation while referring to the Discipline Without Stress and Collaborative and Proactive Solutions models as well as MANDT and TCI principles regarding escalation cycles and approaches helpful for defusing potentially explosive situations.

How to Punish a Student Using Rewards

To start of my issues with PBIS, I will refer to what Alfie Kohn has written about rewards in school. As I see it, using external rewards/stimuli in school to motivate appropriate behavior has three major flaws:

  1. Rewards effectively punish people who believe they have deserved/earned reward but did not receive one
  2. Rewards change the nature of motivation from intrinsic to extrinsic, so students seek out motivation from adults rather than self-motivating
  3. Rewarding young people for appropriate behavior fosters narcissism by causing kids to ask themselves, “If I do what you want me to do, what will you give me?mmb GIF-downsized.gif
  4. Rewards for good behavior cause students to compete against each other for rewards and to be noticed. There is no way the teacher can see all rewardable behavior. The dark side of this flaw is that students start tattling on each other and bullying other students to gain favor and attention to increase rewards (again fostering antisocial and narcissistic behaviors). european grand prix GIF-downsized
  5. Rewarding praise is often used to motivate students. Given we are a very verbally communicative species, this is hazardous.

I know this last one is hard to grasp. We are told that praise is always good. We are told we should be praising 3-5 times a minute. That is not entirely the case. We often use our “praise” and other nice words to accomplish our own ends, not to build up the student. This is not praise, it is manipulation. The kids know this.

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The below list from Dr. Marvin Marshall outlines the issues with so-called toxic praise better than I can.

1. Praise prompts a dependence on others for approval.
2. Praising youth can increase learned helplessness if young people rely on approval in lieu of their own motivation.
3. Praise can generate disappointment for those who don’t receive it when others do. Experts call this “punished by praise.”
4. When teachers tell students they are good because they know a right answer, young people can logically conclude that they are bad when they do not know the right answer. This equating of knowledge with goodness is dangerous.
5. Young people grow to depend on praise—and may even demand it.
6. When praising behavior that adults want to encourage, the message is that poor behavior is the norm. Young people often live up to such expectations.
7. Praising youth often discourages creativity if the young become more concerned about pleasing others or conforming to adults’ expectations than on finding their own solutions to problems.
8. Praise can make some children fearful of not being able to live up to expectations.
9. When adults use praise as a technique for influencing young people to choose some desirable behavior, the youth often perceive their words as insincere.
10. When adults praise students every time they sit up straight, wait in line, listen, or engage in routine behaviors, they often start to experience the praise as silly or irrelevant.
11. Young people who become accustomed to receiving frequent praise come to interpret the absence of praise as a negative evaluation.
12. Praise given to one person, or even to a few, often is translated by the others as a negative evaluation of themselves.
13. Praising some children in front of their peers can be counterproductive if these youngsters experience the attention as embarrassing.
14. Praise given to have children feel better can prompt a loss of faith in themselves and become discouraged.
15. The practice of profusely praising low-performing students for trivial accomplishments can perpetuate their putting forth minimal effort.
16. Praise given to students for minimal performance can actually worsen, not improve their functioning.
17. Students may doubt their own ability or lose confidence if they perceive that their performance does not warrant praise. This leads students to have thoughts such as, “The teacher must really think I’m hopeless if I’m praised for that!” or “How could the teacher think that was good?”
18. When a youngster is experiencing a problem, it is often accompanied by personal dissatisfaction. Praising here either goes “unheard,” has the youngster feel that the adult doesn’t really understand, or provokes an even stronger defense of the person’s low self-evaluation.
19. If the praise does not fit with the child’s self-image, it can invoke resentment as the youngster may perceive it as an attempt at manipulation.
20. When a person feels that the praise is not sincere, but delivered to manipulate behaving in a certain way, it can undermine intrinsic motivation.

from  https://withoutstress.com/perils-praise/

Hopefully, you can understand a bit better now the often easily misunderstood concept that praise and rewards are not always a good thing. And, in fact, praise and rewards can be dangerous when used to control or coerce behavior. They tend to backfire.

PBIS is Coercion

This is an argument usually used for Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), but it applies to PBIS as well. Because PBIS emphasizes the use of tangible rewards and teacher praise to motivate “appropriate” behavior, it often escapes this description.

Coercion: The action or practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats.

– Oxford English Dictionary

I say PBIS is coercive for a couple of reasons. The first is that I hear a lot of the following in schools: “Johnny, if you do not come in from recess I cannot give you a star!”, “If you do not stop misbehaving you will not get any green tickets,” “I will have to erase one of your stars unless you get to work” and so on. These get even more prevalent when teachers use Class Dojo and have easy access to the point system.

These statements are threats, plain and simple. The hazard is not of harm, but of not getting something desirable. In this case, lack of a reward is defined as a negative punishment using ABA’s dictionary. So, teachers that use the PBIS or classwide point system as a method to control behavior rather than as a simple tally of prosocial or expected behaviors are, in fact, using a response cost system.

Secondly, PBIS systems focus on “positive reinforcement systems,” but they always include punitive measures. This can be predetermined fines or loss of points in classwide economy systems, the receipt of a red ticket or red dojo that comes with a loss of privilege, filling out yellow or red think sheets attached to the student’s home note, or trips to the office after these first methods are exhausted. Obviously, these are used more on students still learning how to behave than the rest of their peers in the classroom.

In my experience in PBIS schools, teachers are trained to give class dollars liberally and then are trained to willingly and liberally fine students class dollars for misbehavior (or even charge them to use the restroom). Teachers very quickly learn how to “zap” kids with a fine or a red dojo to get them back in compliance. The focus is on compliance. Not socioemotional well-being, anxiety reduction, teaching prosocial behavior,  or lack of stress. Compliance. Obedience.

The overall focus of PBIS is obedience or compliance with rules leading to a reward. The flip side of that coin is there is a lack of rewards or outright punishment administered for noncompliance. The pressure of complying with this system turns kids into ticking time bombs. Having to focus on compliance with school-wide and classroom rules stresses kids out and causes them to enter a state of anxiety when they come to school. In fact, I have seen this escalate to the point the school building itself was a trigger for panic attacks.

Stress and anxiety hamper learning, and they are just plain not good for kids. Kids with excellent coping skills can handle this, but students that have a more stressful home life, come from lower socioeconomic statuses, are refugees, students still learning English, etc. often misbehave because they cannot handle the stress. Not because they are bad kids. In fact, the very system that purports to help them is the primary cause and trigger for their behavior!

More generally, any program can be successful or not depending on how it is implemented. My primary problem with PBIS is that it relies on adults in authority positions (external motivators or manipulators depending upon the situation) to foster long-term responsibility. The take-home point here is not that PBIS is ineffective; it is that PBIS 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?” thinking.  PBIS, by design, also promotes competition for rewards, rather than the collaborative skills that we should be teaching our students. Additionally, if a student does all that is expected and does not receive the reward, that student feels as if they have been punished by that missing reward. PBIS is a return to ABA-flavored behaviorism that completely ignores and actively neglects “internal motivation.” Again, my point is not that PBIS is a terrible idea per se but that it completely ignores the long-range effects of the narcissism it fosters.

How I would fix/replace PBIS

My approach to fixing or addressing these issues is actually quite simple in theory. This approach is based on working in special education classrooms with challenging students.  I will discuss each of these points in the next sections.

  1. Eliminate School-wide and Classroom Rules. Rules are a dare to kids and really only exist to be challenged, nit-picked, and broken
  2. Teach (over teach) all essential daily procedures for the classroom as well as the school. No process is too small to illustrate
  3. Eliminate classroom economies, class dojo, clip-charts, behavior charts, and response cost charts. These are biased against the students they are supposed to motivate
  4. Reduce teacher administered praise and rewards to the absolute minimum necessary for the grade level. It is okay to give lots of praise in Kindergarten, but it should taper off by second grade
  5. All praise is for behavioral choices and is stated in a way to help build student confidence and intrinsic motivation, not to notify them the teacher is pleased
  6. Whenever possible, students need to be provided with a choice, be it behavioral or academic
  7. Disruptive and maladaptive behaviors are handled through conversations about choices and consequences. Use Collaborative and Proactive Solutions to work toward lasting behavioral change
  8. Provide all students weekly lessons in socioemotional health and well-being that are responsive to the needs of each grade
  9. Student Escalation and Crisis should be managed according to principles included in TCI and MANDT programs

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I know this is a lot and seems counterintuitive, or at least flies in the face of what we are all taught about behavior management in school. I promise I will explain everything below.

Eliminate School-wide and Classroom Rules. Rules are a dare to kids and really only exist to be challenged, nit-picked, and broken

To respond to the obvious question: Yes, I am serious, and I have thought this through.

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I have spent a lot of time having to explain to teachers why they needed to have clearly posted rules and expectations on their walls as part of my job, all the time knowing it was at best a silly idea. Students often see those five rules put on the wall at the front of the class as challenges or outright dares to be disobedient. The smart, well-behaved students will search out technicalities within the rules. The average student will just break the rules when the teacher is not there (i.e., when there is a substitute), and the “naughty” ones, well, they will actively break the rules because that is what they do.

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The main problem with rules is not just that they exist to be broken, but that since they are rules, the teacher cannot let any disobedience go unconsequenced if they are to remain in control of the classroom. That is classroom management 101. I see teachers go free and loose with their classroom rules for a while, but when the time comes that they need to enforce one of the rules they end up with a revolt and the teacher has to scream down their class. Alternately, I see teachers that implement their classroom rules every day with fidelity, and the students are not happy to be there–and neither is the teacher. It is an antagonistic relationship at best.

So…to repeat it. Do not post rules in your classroom or in the school hallways. Just don’t.

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Teach (over teach) all essential daily procedures for the classroom as well as the school. No process is too small to illustrate

This is the solution for getting rid of rules. I, much like the model from Dr. Marvin Marshall, believe in over teaching classroom procedures. By over teach, I mean go over these classroom procedures until the students can do what is expected without having to think about it.

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When the students know all the procedures associated with the school and classroom, they are more comfortable. They know where to go, how to talk, to whom (and when) they should speak, etc. This gets rid of a lot of the anxiety associated with the school, particularly in the lower grades when talking to adults can be terrifying.

Additionally, when a student neglects to or forgets to, follow the procedure, this places the teacher in the role of, well, a teacher. This is different than when the teacher has to enforce a rule. In that situation, they are an authority figure and an agent of punishment. For both intentional and unintentional errors in performing procedures, there is always practice and getting better at it.

Teachers should teach. Let’s give them permission and encouragement to teach, rather than punish, “naughty” kids.

Eliminate classroom economies, class dojo, clip-charts, behavior charts, and response cost charts

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Yes. I mean this. For kindergarten and first grade, there is a certain amount of praise and reward that is necessary to develop self-motivation. However, as we move into higher and higher grades, the students no longer actually need this external input to guide them.

I will refer to an earlier blog post of mine that explains why I believe that reward charts, and especially publicly displayed clip charts that use a color scale need to be gotten rid of (and preferably destroyed by fire). They do much more harm than good. And they are terribly biased against kids that have a hard time behaving in class.

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Reduce teacher administered praise and rewards to the absolute minimum necessary for the grade level

When kids are very young, they do need the input from others to understand what expected and unexpected behaviors are. Once they know a particular response is appropriate, they do not need that input. So why do we still give it? Are we really that happy that Johnny is sitting in his pockets? Or is it a façade we put on to manipulate the child’s behavior?

When a child needs feedback, give it. But to reward and praise simply because we are supposed to, is a problem. If we provide unnecessary feedback to students, we run the risk of making them less independent than they would be otherwise. If a student knows a behavior is expected, they are capable of self-reinforcing their behavior because they know they were doing a good job. If we do not let them figure this out for themselves and persist with external reinforcement, this intrinsic reinforcement will never happen.

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Finally, when someone learns feedback will occur contingent upon a specific behavior, they expect it. When it does not come, students become frustrated since their expectation has been violated. This is what Alfie Kohn means when he uses the terms, “Punished by Rewards” and “Punished by Praise.”

Here is an example of this from Dr. Marvin Marshall

First, there is nothing in PBIS that mandates the teacher must give the rewards. Have the students perform the task. When the responsibility is handled by students, they soon realize how unfair it is to reward some students who do what the teacher desires but not reward others who behave the same way. It is impossible to find every student who deserves to be rewarded.

I learned this many years ago when my brother consulted with me. He told me that his daughter, Susan, had done everything the teacher required but did not get a reward when others did. Susan felt punished. She was, as Alfie Kohn titled his book, “Punished by Rewards.”

Second, once the students are put in charge and other students start to complain, simply ask the class if they want to continue the practice. Ask if they are mature enough to realize that doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do is enough satisfaction (Level D on the Hierarchy of Social Development) or if they still need to be externally motivated (Level C of the Hierarchy of Social Development).

Empowering students by giving them the choice prompts them to reflect on whether they need some external manipulation for doing what is expected.

Notice how the three practices of DISCIPLINE WITHOUT STRESS are employed: (1) You are positive, (2) You have given the students a choice, and (3) You have prompted them to reflect. In addition, you will have taught the difference between external and internal motivation. This understanding, and being able to articulate the difference between the two types of motivation, helps young people understand their own motivation.
Learning requires motivation, and understanding one’s motivation is empowering.

All praise is for behavior and is stated in a way to help build student confidence, not to notify them the teacher is pleased

This is actually a simple concept we all get wrong. When we give positive feedback, we need to word it as, “Johnny, you just did a great job persevering during math” rather than as “Johnny, I appreciate you worked hard during math.” We usually forget when we praise, it is not about us! It is about the student and their self-esteem.

To put it succinctly, praise by explaining how great the behavior was. DO NOT say, “I noticed that…” “I am happy that…” “I like that…” basically just never use the word, “I” while giving praise. Praise should be feedback, not manipulation.

We need to help students understand that they should feel a sense of pride and happiness for their accomplishment. Not that the student should worry about whether their behavior pleases me or makes me happy.

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Whenever possible, students need to be provided with a choice, be it behavioral or academic

I love this sketch because it shows just how persistent a person can be if given even the myth of choice. Just keep track of how long the customer is engaged, even in the face of complete disappointment.

As weird as it sounds, students love being given choices, even when between two unpalatable options. Offer them multiple options or choices for how to handle problems. Let them do one worksheet before another. Let them change seats between two options you are okay with. It builds confidence. Kids like choices. Just do not push them too far or start giving unpalatable choices or the kids will shut down and fight receiving choices.

Don’t do what they in the clip below. Giving kids an infinite number of unpalatable choices results in tantrums and belligerence.

Disruptive and maladaptive behaviors are handled through conversations about choices and consequences. Use Collaborative and Proactive Solutions to work toward lasting behavioral change

My post on Collaborative and Proactive Solutions explained in detail why I think this model should be used. Dr. Ross Greene focuses on general education classrooms, but from experience, I know that it works like a charm with autistic kids and in special education settings.

Basically, students often do not yet understand how to be good. They lack the skills. So we need to teach them. If they made a poor choice, we help them to understand this and guide them in a very Socratic way toward their own solution that sounds reasonable to both the teacher and the student.

Provide all students weekly lessons in socioemotional health and well-being that are responsive to the needs of each grade

I am a huge believer in explicitly teaching students coping skills. I have worked in multiple Title 1 schools that had large ELL (English Language Learner) and refugee populations. Many of these kids came from challenging life circumstances and lacked the necessary socioemotional regulation to function day to day. I also have worked in schools in affluent areas that have students that live in seemingly idyllic circumstances. However, life is hard, or they are coddled, and thus they also lack the requisite skills to navigate life and school stresses.

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In all cases, these students benefit from being taught lessons from social and emotional learning curriculum. I have worked in school teams that used SMART Kids/CHAMPS, Boys Town, Superheroes Social Skills, and Social Thinking. I think all of these programs are great when modified for the group by a skilled teacher or counselor trained in addressing the social and emotional needs of students.

This can only help the kids. It also can give the teacher a break from teaching academics to talk about feelings and share experiences with the kids, thus building trust and strengthening the relationship.

Student Escalation and Crisis should be managed according to principles included in TCI and MANDT programs

Despite all the above, some kids are going to explode. It is inevitable and should not be feared. If we know how to safely help a child de-escalate (or even help them get over their escalation and meltdowns by providing a safe space), handling these situations can become just another part of the day.

These methods have been developed in populations with autism and behavior/emotional disorders as well as in socioemotional/behavior unit classes.  I use MANDT and TCI principles regarding escalation cycles to defuse potentially explosive situations.

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To describe how to address these situations, I refer you to a blog post I wrote on how not to make these difficult situations worse.


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My take-home point is this. We do not need to use a carrot and stick mentality to keep kids in line at school. We need to treat them with respect and help them grow as young people. They will then not only develop their personality but also learn how to navigate school and other social situations without depending on external feedback every step of the way.

This should be our goal. Not a quiet classroom.