Collaborative and Proactive Solutions

A Teaching Aside!

So I have just finished reading a book that I bought over the course of the school year but never found the time to read until now. It brought up some good ideas that I would like to touch on. Mostly so you all go and read the book.

The book is Lost at School: Why Our Kids with Behavioral Challenges Are Falling Through the Cracks and How We Can Help Them by Ross Greene, Ph.D. (Amazon Link – note, purchasing from this link results in Amazon giving a donation to the National Fragile X Society). This is the same author of The Explosive Child for anyone that has read that one (well worth it in my opinion). Also, give Dr. Greene’s website a visit, it is worth the trip just for the free resources (I am using his comics in this post, for example).

What struck me most was the Collaborative and Proactive Solution model (CPS) that Dr. Greene promotes is surprisingly similar to the method I came to a few years back when teaching autistic students (Previous Post). I will leave the nuts and bolts of how to do the steps associated with the CPS model to a reading of Greene’s book. I am going to focus on the assumptions the model is based on and why I find them both effective and optimistic, as well as why I am implementing them as soon as I have the opportunity.

The CPS model was designed for a general education environment. I, however, think it is better suited for a special education environment, not as a behavioral management tool, but rather as a teaching tool to teach social and adaptive skills to kids that are woefully lacking in that instruction.

Super fast how to do CPS

For this, I will quickly bullet-point how to do what Dr. Greene calls Plan B. Plan A is the teacher imposing their will on the student (this does not work, see below).  Plan B is the way we develop relationships with the student and collaboratively problem solve. Plan B is best done before everything hits the fan.

It can work in emergency situations, but it will have to be repeated when everyone calms down.

  • Teacher and student meet at mutually agreed upon time (read, not during the student’s recess)
    • Teacher asks student what is up (over and over and over again until they get a real answer)
    • Teacher honestly empathizes with student response
    • Teacher expresses their concerns
    • Student empathizes with teacher concerns
    • Student leads discussion for developing a mutually beneficial solution
  • Teacher and student work together to implement plan
  • Lather, Rinse, Repeat

I can attest. This works. Really well. It takes a lot of work. The teacher has to humble themselves. So does the student. But this works.

Why do I like this model?

It does not oversimplify behavior, or solutions

I like this model because it does not focus on the environmental cause of the behavior. As such, CPS does not depend on applying reinforcers or punishers to change the environment and thus change behaviors. It rather depends on seeking out the unsolved problem or difficulty the student is having. Even better, it suggests we do so collaboratively with the child having a hard time.

I will explain this below, but in brief it is better to ask the student what unsolved problems they have that are causing them to behave the way they are than to assume we already know the answer and unilaterally impose our overly simplistic solutions. If we, as adults impose our solutions, the kids will work against us and we will find ourselves engaged in a power struggle.

And, here is a hint to new teachers out there, as a teacher, you will always lose a power struggle against a child. Always! Kids do not fight fair and they have no reason to. They are scared. They are trying to survive something they do not understand. It is a lost cause, so give up on that right now.


Kids will never fight fair, and we do not get to demand that they do so

Furthermore, if you power struggle with a kid you deserve to lose. It is never okay to interpret a child’s behavior as an us vs. them situation. It is also never okay to assume the student is doing something intentionally to either bother or to get revenge on the teacher. There is a deeper reason than that. There always is.

It empowers kids to develop their own solutions

To oversimplify, the CPS model is a method whereby a teacher (or any adult for that matter) works collaboratively with a student or child to come up with a solution to the problem. This is in stark contrast to the majority of systems whereby adults impose their will on students and dictate behavior. This leads to power struggles (see above) and a generally negative vibe in the classroom.


This is not uncommon behavior among relatively high functioning kids in special education classrooms.

When an adult demands change from a student and unilaterally holds them to it, the student only succeeds in frustrating the teacher. This perpetuates a cycle wherein the student and the teacher escalate each other until bad things happen; often the student being suspended, expelled, or being highly controlled in the classroom. All of these endpoints violate the basic need for safety that all children have.

This cycle will, over time, transform a mildly challenging student into one that needs a behavioral unit in order to function since they have lost the ability to trust in a classroom setting.


At some point, fear and anger take over…Fear will always hide in the background, but Anger…not so much with the hiding.  Anger is an important and highly effective way kids protect themselves in times of perceived danger.

When a student volunteers an honest solution to their own problem and their teacher compassionately supports them, the student can achieve success. The teacher does have to keep up their end of the deal, but in general the student does all of the hard work. All they need is support and a little guidance.


This is how we want our students to feel! Anger and fear are definitely still there, but the student gets to feel joyful about their successes!

Of these two options, which is preferable: A student spiraling out of control in a classroom and taking the teacher with them, or a student taking the reins of their own education and life and taking control?

I can tell you which one I like more as a teacher. It is the same one I prefer as a compassionate person.

It does not assume behavior is intentional

The basic premise of this model is that kids with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges lack important thinking skills. If a child is showing maladaptive behaviors, getting your goat, or generally being disruptive, it is because the student does not know how to be “good”. They have to be taught. Or, as Greene phrases it, When the demands being placed on a kid exceed [their] capacity to respond adaptively is when maladaptive behaviors are going to occur.

Dennis_The_Menace 3-24-10.gif

On that topic, what does “Act my Age” actually mean?

Put another way (and Chapter 2 of the book is dedicated to this description), kids do well if they can. It is not a matter of whether they want to be good. It is whether they have the ability. Greene’s philosophy that kids do well if they can suggest that if a kid could do well, they would do well. Even for a tough kid, being good is always preferable to not being good. It is less stressful, rewards and other desirable thing are more often available, and it is just plain easier.

So, the way we help a student with behavioral problems is to find out what skills they lack and what is getting in the way of the student being successful. In other words, find out why they can’t do something and work with them to develop a solution so they can do that something.

It eliminates adults designing narratives about “hard” students

The assumptions of this model provide a nice prohibition of certain labels we place on students to excuse ourselves as teachers from helping them:

  • They just want attention
  • They just want their own way
  • They are manipulating us
  • They are not motivated
  • They are making bad choices
  • Their parents are incompetent disciplinarians
  • They have a bad attitude
  • They have a mental illness
  • Their brother was the same way
  • They are just autistic

What do these explanations all have in common? They are stories we are imposing upon behavior to describe it. We are trying to make our lives easier, not the student’s. We are adding a narrative to justify our decisions, not to dispassionately describe a student’s behavior. We are tagging kids with a story that fits our narratives, but does not contribute anything helpful to an interaction with the kid. Also, these all are very negatively valenced statements that blame the child for something. When we make these types of statements we are very prone to slide into diagnostic language that stigmatizes the student.


As adults, we are really good at telling kids they are broken. Not something we should particularly be proud of…

These types of statements also serve primarily to justify the course of action we as the adults have already decided upon. If we are inclined to refer a student to the office than we are going to use terms like: difficult, disobedient, disrespectful, willful, etc. We use some of the same terms for referring students for special education, but we often include, they can’t help it, they are just never going to be able to get it, etc. Lots of, they can’t or other disabling terminology. This language makes us as adults feel better, but does nothing to help a child succeed, in fact it serves a better function as an anchor to progress rather than an engine.

It forces teachers to dig into the actual why of a behavior, not the stereotypical, restricted ABA explanations

Here is are options from the book of alternative things we can say instead. Specifically we can list the skills we see lagging in the child (I cherry-picked autism relevant options).

The student appears to show:

  • Difficulty handling transitions
  • Difficulty doing things in a logical sequence
  • Difficulty persisting in challenging tasks
  • Poor sense of time and time management
  • Difficulty maintaining focus
  • Difficulty considering a range of solutions to a problem
  • Difficulty expressing concerns, needs, or thoughts in words
  • Difficulty managing emotional response to frustration
  • Difficulty deviating from rules or routines
  • Difficulty handling unpredictability, ambiguity, uncertainty, novelty
  • Difficulty shifting from original idea, plan, or solution
  • Difficulty attending to and/or accurately interpreting social cues/poor perception of social nuances
  • Difficulty seeking attention in appropriate ways
  • Sensory-Motor difficulties

What do these all have in common? They are objective descriptions of behaviors. There is no positive or negative valence to these descriptions. They are just labels of behaviors we can address. Lastly, there are no diagnoses present when we dispassionately and objectively describe behavior.


I wonder which of these lenses is more precise…

I like this because I am trained in both behaviorism as well as cognition. In fact, we always joked by the end of my academic scientific career I was a rat/mouse neuropsychologist. In my experience, it is easy to attribute behavior to the environment and change the environment to change behavior, but that solves nothing. In fact, such an analysis barely scratches the surface of behavior.


We always need to keep digging when trying to help kids. If the solution seems easy, it is because it isn’t actually a solution. Don’t be lazy.

Many times, antecedent or environmental manipulation just kicks the problem down the road. The problem or difficulty the student is having has not been solved, just sidestepped. The CPS model and approach demands we engage with the cognition of a child, by which I mean we interact with what the kid is thinking and feeling, not just the behavioral output we see. Explaining behaviors in terms of what difficulties or challenges the student may face, which begs us to ask, “Why are they doing that? What do they need to not have to do that anymore”. These are the correct questions (See an earlier post of mine on this very topic).

It does not suggest difficult students be medicated or given diagnoses

Another reason I like this model is because it can be used either with or without medication. I have earlier stated that I believe medication is best used when it is a means to allowing an individual to access the behavioral support they need to overcome their challenges rather than as a means to alter behavior in itself (Post Here).

Greene goes into potential difficulties that arise when we as adults look at kids, tell a story about how we perceive their behavior (the first list above), and then medicate them. The challenging behaviors remain, so long as the basic skills the child lacks are not taught. The behaviors may just wax and wane a bit with each new intervention.


Labels…better for clothing than for kids I think


I always ask what happens to the diagnostic flavor of the week when the DSM changes…

To express my bias, I do see a value in a valid medical diagnosis to help inform knowledgable professionals on how to help an individual, but we far too often focus on pathologizing behavior and labelling kids rather than helping them in the educational setting (e.g., claiming “They are autistic so they just cannot do appropriate social behavior” when the student has never actually been taught “typical” from “atypical” social interactions). Dr. Greene and I share a very important assumption: Irrespective to diagnosis, we can help kids. We can engage them, and we can help them learn.

This book specifically addresses weaknesses of most classwide discipline systems


Quantity over quality is often the credo of behavioral management systems

A great behavioral aside in the book that struck me involved behavioral management systems in classrooms. Multiple stories are told about teachers that rely on the school-wide PBiS systems and assistant principals use to dole out discipline, referring students for harsh discipline because, “someone has to be tough on them or they will never learn”. This is not a helpful philosophy and long-term only serves to injure the child and irritate the assistant principal.


Has anyone asked the Vice Principal if they would rather not blindly dole out discipline on the teacher’s behalf?

Similar stories are told about ticket systems that are modified response cost paradigms. Students start the week with 10 tickets and lose tickets for misbehavior. The good kids that don’t need a class-wide behavioral system end the week with 10, the kids that need help reliably end up with 1-2 at the most…and we assume their consistent failure to thrive means our system is working (I wrote about this earlier).


I’ll have the Theraputty please…

What struck me was the statement (said over and over throughout the book) along the lines that students that behave well in class, do so because they have the skills to do so. Students that behave poorly in class, behave poorly because they lack the skills to behave well. And the disciplinary systems we as teachers set up using PBiS, Class Dojo, Classroom economy systems, etc. are not sufficient to meet these students’ needs. Many times even explicitly positive systems are manipulative at best until we teach our students much needed social and behavioral skills.


If only they looked at the doodle I was making, it was really good!

Greene states as follows in the book (In Chapter 7-emphasis mine):

But many [students] are placed in special education classrooms because no one in general education has the wherewithal to pinpoint and teach their lagging skills and work toward resolving their unsolved problems. Many special education classrooms rely heavily on consequence-based programs that, as you now know, don’t teach skills or solve problems, and may actually exacerbate the kids’ difficulties.

In many of the settings in which the CPS model has been implemented-general and special education schools, inpatient psychiatric units, and residential and juvenile detention facilities-adults came to the awareness that it was the application of the contingency management program that was setting kids off moat often and causing many serious challenging behavior. They recognized that both adults and kids were far more focused on rewards and punishments than on the problems that needed to be solved. They learned that providing structure and maintaining order in a classroom has a lot more to do with solving problems than rewards and punishments.

The CPS model is optimistic

The final reason I like this model is that it is truly optimistic. It is based on the premise that all students can succeed, we just have to work with them. We have to engage the students in a dialogue, be truly empathetic to their needs and desires, share our own, and work collaboratively to reach a mutually beneficial solution. Students with autism can engage with the CPS model (I have seen it). Students with Tourette’s can engage with this model (again, I have seen it). Students with emotional disturbances can succeed in this model (yet again…). Severely intellectually disabled students can be successful (you guessed it), if only we take the time to get off our high horse and help them.

Is this model realistic for special education?

I believe this model is very realistic for a special education classroom. I think special education needs the CPS model as a vehicle for teaching valuable behavioral, social, and adaptive skills in a manner that will actually help the student learn them.

I have found in my last few years of teaching that the majority of problems I have encountered with students came down to a sensory overload and they just shut down or else came down to the student just not understanding what was going on and how to act accordingly. In my classroom a few years ago, I started having conversations with my more difficult students to help them understand how others were seeing their behaviors. What I learned was that they often knew what they were doing and that others did not like it, but they had a reason for doing it. And more often than not they thought it was a darn good reason. And it very often was a good reason when I took the time to empathize with their point of view.

When these students expressed their reasons, I could easily have interpreted them in terms of ABA definitions, that of behaviors fulfilling needs for escape/avoidance, attention, or sensory seeking. However, as I have written about before (Link), I chose to dig a little bit deeper and see how the students were interpreting their own behaviors. I often found an avoidance behavior was not avoiding the work, but rather they were avoiding being embarrassed by not knowing how to answer the questions and feeling like everyone knows that they are dumb and cannot do the assignment.

Often times, actually, attention seeking fulfilled this same actual need. They were trying to get adult attention so that they could get the adult to do the work for them, and thus avoid embarrassment.


Well, my example was avoiding embarrassment

Now, when I was going all of this, I had no idea what this CPS model was. It just seemed the logical move to take since the students I was working with were having significant problems existing in more traditional classroom management systems. I favored social and emotional development as a method with the end goal of having student engage in self refection and behavioral self-regulation so much as they were capable. As such, we had to have a lot of discussions about incremental progress and how we can work toward our own goals. Since I let the students make their own goals, they were very motivated to achieve them.

So now what

Now, I am going to pursue any training I do with general education and special education teachers differently. I no longer have to teach my own weird ways of doing things built over decades of dealing with my brother and his peers in the autism community. I can approach teachers with an evidence-based method and ask them to use it. Barring that, I can and will use it myself to help the more challenging and difficult students succeed. Perhaps even help them get out of special education and into the general education classroom.

We Need to Re-Evaluate School-Wide PBIS

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.

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.

Graduated Discipline

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.

Broader Implications

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.

Final Thoughts

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.