This post was prompted by a conversation on social media as well as in an ABA class I am attending about whether it is ethical to tie positive reinforcement of a whole group based on the performance of a single student, and conversely if it is similarly ethical to deprive the class of a reinforcement because of the actions of a single individual.
I will express my bias and opinion right up front. I think it is a silly idea to punish a student because of the actions of another. I think it hurts both students psychologically, increases feelings of insecurity, and may actually result in physical harming of a student with a behavioral disorder. I also think the PBIS frameworks are designed in a way that directly leads to bullying; both from teachers and students. A lot of this opinion comes from teachers mis-handling my brother as well as teaching students with autism and behavioral disorders.
This post is going to be about how we as teachers often do not see the need to differentiate our behavioral strategies the same way we do our academics. I will try to do this by giving clear examples and solutions.
I have published a follow up with more solutions here
Some quick definitions
These definitions are essential to my discussion of reinforcement (reward) and punishment.
- Reward is used to mean either positive or negative reinforcement.
- Positive reinforcement = anything given to a student that increases the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future (e.g., giving candy after answering a question increases lielihood student will answer correctly in the future)
- Negative reinforcement = anything taken away that increases the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future (e.g., taking away a hard math test if the student complains increases chances the student will complain in the future).
- Punishment is used to mean either positive or negative punishment
- Positive punishment = anything given to a student that decreases the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future (e.g., washing mouth out with soap after swearing decreases likelihood of swearing (at least in punisher’s presence) in the future)
- Negative punishment = anything taken away that decreases the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future (e.g., classic taking away recess for talking in class will decrease likelihood of talking in class)
Weakness of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)
Although PBIS has no specific restrictions on the use of consequence-based strategies designed to reduce serious problem behavior, teaching-oriented, positive, and preventive strategies are emphasized for all students, to the greatest extent possible. The emphasis is on the use of the most effective and most positive approach to addressing even the most severe problem behaviors.
Most students will succeed when a positive school culture is promoted, informative corrective feedback is provided, academic success is maximized, and use of prosocial skills is acknowledged.
When student problem behavior is unresponsive to preventive school-wide and classroom-wide procedures, information about the student’s behavior is used to (a) understand why the problem behavior is occurring (function); (b) strengthen more acceptable alternative behaviors (social skills); (c) remove antecedents and consequences that trigger and maintain problem behavior, respectively; and (d) add antecedents and consequences that trigger and maintain acceptable alternative behaviors. (from Here, emphasis mine)
This sounds really good, doesn’t it! On paper it certainly is because it sets school wide expectations that are explicitly taught in the classroom. We also get to use data about disciplinary needs to develop ABA-inspired behavior plans for the school.
However, when we bog ourselves down in some of the details, we see a darker side to it’s implementation: First that of graduated discipline and second the twisting of positive reinforcement into a punishment.
Here is a much lauded example of how graded discipline in PBIS works:
Children who misbehave at [the] School can receive an office discipline referral (ODR) form. This form indicates whether a student has committed a major or minor infraction. “The form will also help teachers be more consistent, not only with enforcing our […] Do’s but also in taking corrective action when children have disobeyed the rules,” according to the school Web site.
Before an ODR is filled out, teachers try to resolve the situation through regular classroom management techniques. If the teacher in unable to do so, he or she completes an ODR. After the third minor offense, an ODR indicates that a major infraction has been committed. At that point, the issue is sent to [the principal’s] office. Parents are notified immediately if there is a major offense. If a student has committed minor offenses, the ODR forms are sent home at the end of every two-week period. A teacher may, however, contact a parent before two weeks pass to discuss the issue. – See more Here (emphasis mine)
Graduated discipline is the use of minor punishments that can accumulate into larger punishments. This is kind of a token system for punishment. If the student accumulates minor infractions then they end up receiving greater punishments. This also serves as a sort of continual warning system (repeated warnings – minor punishers – give that postpone the major punishment). Such warning systems are not supported by evidence and actually serve to confuse students by being neither clear nor consistent enough to change behavior.
One of my main issues with this system is it sets up behavioral momentum for inappropriate behavior – both on the part of the teacher as well as the students. Because maladaptive or disruptive behaviors are not stopped immediately, they are reinforced. The student gets a form to fill out and that form is sent home. If the student refuses to bring it home, the student gets punished anew. More attention. Attention is a gift. To get more attention students engage in more minor infractions. Power struggles ensue. So, teachers watch certain students more than others. These students get more minor infractions…which by default and (often) when the student gets three strikes they get a major punishment; regardless the third infraction. This is actually very similar to California’s controversial three strikes law prior to 2012 when minor offenses resulted in draconian prison sentences previously reserved for major offenses (Link).
This sets up an antagonistic system whereby students view adults as against them, rather than as partners working for student success. The solution is to either escalate the system (either adults of students) so the student is always getting an office referral or else abandon the system entirely for that student because they have found the loophole in the system because they do not find the office referral sufficiently punishing.
Now on to Reward being Punishment
Let me explain. In PBIS we focus on the behaviors we want to see and we try not to focus on the behaviors we do not want to see. We often use monetary-based token systems as the motivation. So, if we see students quietly walking down the hall, we give them class cash and they benefit. Great. We are all happy. The hallway is quiet and kids are rewarded…so where is the problem?
The problem is that we have students with developmental, neurologic, and psychiatric disabilities at our school. Many of whom are in general education classes (not nearly enough of them in my opinion, but that is for another post). They have IEP goals to work on developing the very skills that PBIS assumes we have already mastered. Well, these students often have to be retaught rules across the school year, and many have behavioral disorders. They have problems controlling their impulses. They are overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. and so on.
What do we do with these students?
Some examples – limiting myself to school hallways
Important note here, these examples involve teachers implementing the PBIS system as it was designed. They are doing what they were told would work and are implementing it with fidelity.
- I have had teachers look at a line of students in the hallway and say to their teacher, “I would have loved to give you [a class] dollar, but Student X was out of line. Too bad.” Then the two teachers would passive aggressively talk about how they were 1 student away from getting a class dollar and just how sad that was because those dollars add up to a class party. Can anyone guess what the response from the group was at Student X? It certainly was not kind. In this case the whole class went into an loud uproar (in the hall no less) and started threatening this student for losing them class cash. Did I mention this student was autistic and overloaded with sensory stimulus and had their fingers jammed in their ears? They were. They were just trying to maintain.
- An autistic student decides to run down the hallway, or else skip because they fell behind. The teacher stops the whole class to lecture this one student publicly on not running. Again, the class is reminded they do not get points or class dollars or rewards for hallway behavior. No one is made to practice, they are just told they lost out on reward.
- I have had a student working on appropriate hallway behavior with me and the rest of the class. The student is being disruptive, but less so compared to the day before and the day before that. We are clearly making some good progress. Pretty much the same scenario as above happens. A teacher walks by and tries to engage me in a passive aggressive reaming of this student for being imperfect in the hallway. This was again done under the guise of, “Oh Student Y, I was almost going to give your class a class dollar but you blew it by being loud”. Did this student cry? You bet they did. Right then and there. Right in front of the mocking eyes of their peers. They had been working their tail off to do better every day and they just got specifically punished for a failure. So, they lost it. They lost control of themself for the rest of the day. They also chucked a few chairs and pencils at adults when we got back into class. Yet another student with autism was sent spiraling down from a great day to a bad day. Took me the rest of the day to calm this student down. And frankly, I was more frustrated at the other teacher than the student at that moment.
- When students are standing on line waiting for the library, they have a tendency to talk. So PBIS approaches this by having students work to receive rewards for quiet mouths. We are waiting at the library and my student is doing okay. But the previous class are being slowpokes and we have to wait. One minute becomes 5. I am getting antsy, so I can only imagine how the students are feeling. My student says out loud, “well, 5000 hours later and we get to finally go in” to express he is tired of waiting. The other students giggled. A teacher in the hall said they were going to give the class leaving the library a class dollar instead of our class because our class was “…not showing me what quiet in the halls looks like.” And yes, this was another autistic student costing their class a reward. The teacher didn’t seek input on the context of why the student had an outburst or even that this student was working on not doing that…and he had just gone 4 very boring minutes of silence. Nope. Just in with the zinger. Self-esteem down the tubes.
The common thread in all of these examples is direct punishment of a group based on the actions of a single student. You may ask yourself, “where is the punishment?” The punishment happened when the opportunity for reward was brought up solely with the intent of it being taken away. Having something taken away in a manner that is intended to make a behavior stop is called negative punishment. So, the student that misbehaved was punished. But it is actually worse. In these three cases, the whole class was punished because of one student. And the student was specifically called out for their disobedience. This is called positive punishment. The unwanted social attention is intended to reduce the behavior. I also selected these cases to demonstrate extenuating circumstances that show the PBIS system, when implemented correctly, thrives on punishment.
Secondarily, in all these cases and virtually every time I see an implementation of PBIS to control behavior, it used positive punishment by a teacher publicly shaming a student. This is just plain not a good idea. Kids with disabilities have a tendency toward low self esteem to begin with, and we decide to pile on? Sounds a bit like bullying to me. And if the other students emulate the adult behavior (as we teach them to by our being models for appropriate behaviors), they continue the bullying long after we as adults have left the room. In extreme circumstances, I have even had chairs thrown at the student that cost the class some kind of prize by their now enraged peers.
Finally, and most importantly, my students have IEPs. They are members of a protected group. Most of them have developmental disabilities or some kind of mental or psychiatric disorder we are helping them cope with. Often times these students are working like a dog to be good. They just do not yet know how. I give them leeway and look at progress. If we do better this week than last week or last month I am happy to reward progress. In fact, I reward progress very liberally. This type of rewarding progress and ignoring rule violations is sadly incompatible with PBIS systems.
The PBIS framework overly simplifies the structure of reward and punishment in the school. They emphasize the positive reinforcement nature of ABA while conveniently glossing over the clear punishments they have in place to control behavior. My disabled students receive the brunt of the negative and positive punishment without contacting reward.
Does this still sound like a good idea?
So what should we do instead
“If a child does not know how to read, we teach.
If a child does not know how to swim, we teach.
If a child does not know how to multiply, we teach.
If a child does not know how to drive, we teach.
If a child does not know how to behave, we…
Why can’t we finish the last sentence as automatically as we do the others?”
– John Herner
- In the cases of individual students being disruptive, the teacher should engage in a reteach. Plain and simple. Pull the student aside at an appropriate time and retrain them on the desired behavior. Or, even better, engage the whole class in reteach because it is never just one kid.
- In cases of running down the hallway discipline should be individual, and as private as possible. I see far too often the whole class is chastised for one student running, skipping, etc. The class has to stop walking and a lecture ensues. A better option is to have the offending student head back to a predetermined spot and “practice” or else just have them do to the end of the line and the teacher moves next to them to help them behave appropriately.
- Another solution is to turn every moment into a teaching moment. I have watched two different 6th grade teachers control difficult kids in the hallway. They do so with a clear statement of their expectations, clear instructions, and support along the way. Often it ism “We in [my] class know how to act. We do not disrupt anyone in the hallways and we never cause trouble. Ok. Now, we will walk silently to the water fountain. Go.” and they walk right to the side of any students that have difficulty with the expectations to help them fulfill them. Both of these teachers have students that know how to behave and do it. Without any incentive. The students act the way that is expected because that is how they act. Thy have internalized the lessons. And the students that have a hard time, both of these teachers help them to do it right. They never yell, shame, or demean the student in front of others. The students that need the help get it. Specifically and respectfully.
- Most of all We. Never. Publicly. Shame. Students. I will repeat: We. Never. Publicly. Shame. Students. We do not shame classes. We do not shame individuals. We do not shame groups. We do not passive aggressively talk about the students’ bad behavior in front of them hoping to change said behavior. We are never sarcastic. We are never childish. If we have something to say we pull the student aside and calmly, respectfully communicate our message like unto a very small adult. In short, we do not destroy student’s self esteem to control them so they conform to our expectations.
We also have issues when it comes to quarterly or trimesterly PBIS celebrations. Students with behavioral disorders, socio-emotional problems, autistic students, and just plain other kids that need intense support are discriminated against on the basis of their disability. It is that simple. We write an IEP stating that a student is working on not yelling in the hallways. We work on it. The student goes from having (fake data because frequency has never been this low in my students) 10 yells per day to 2-3. We celebrate. A lot. They are rewarded liberally. But when the school celebrates their PBIS behavior, this student is left out. Because they broke the rules. They did not earn their reward. Everyone else gets to go. But they don’t. Even though they worked their hardest. Effort is not rewarded, only perfection.
More apropos are students with autism, oppositional defiance disorder, or students with reactive attachment disorder (clumped together for this example based on a few kids I have worked with) that had IEP goals to reduce classroom noncompliance. They went from constant noncompliance to almost 75% compliance. However, they still got in trouble when they were noncompliant 25% of the time. So…when we have a celebration. You guess it. They get to sit in class and do work while everyone else gets to play as a reward. This despite the fact that they had to work infinitely harder than their peers at compliance to make their gains. Effort is not rewarded, only perfection.
What do these students learn from this? Put simply they learn that teachers do not like them and they are broken because they can’t. They learn that they are failures. They learn that the deck is stacked against them. They learn there is no point to trying. This is a one-way ticket to learned helplessness.
Alternatives for school wide PBIS systems?
The alternative actually exists. We modify the PBIS systems so they cannot be used anymore as one-size-fits-most systems of discipline. As part of these school wide systems, we already have meetings monthly to go over data on a class by class basis. This is a prime opportunity to refocus school wide energy on certain students to help them achieve success.
For a lot of students, we can make the system more fair by changing it to a more explicit system. I have seen systems work for autistic students (and non-autistic kids) wherein the PBIS system is replaced by social skills lessons paired with an explicit contract and check-in/check-out system designed to teach the individual student how to act in school. They have lots of opportunities for positives on their contract and they are rewarded daily for it. And if they are compliant on their contract, then we do not deprive them of any school wide activities. In fact, we incentivise their successes moreso than their peers. This serves the function of improving behavior within the school as well as healping these student schieve success, rather than punishing any lack of ability.
This is not easy, however, the whole school needs to be on the same page. From experience, it only takes a single calloused teacher or paraeducator 30-45 seconds to destroy a student’s progress over a week or even a month. Their words often cut to the core of these students and can shatter their confidence. So we must communicate the needs of any challenging kids to all teachers so they do not randomly stop classes to chew out students for imperfections.
At schools, specific, school-wide systems need to be in place to protect students with IEPs, students with disabilities, or students on behavior contracts from being given positive or negative punishment. Their IEP trumps all PBIS or school-wide contracts, full stop. However, far too often it is said that these students are accountable for all school rules and are not exempt. This is true for major infractions, but if students are breaking rules for any reason associated with their disability, then punishing them is discriminatory. And that is the problem. We must stop the cycle. Now.
I have published a follow up with more solutions here