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):

Background

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

Aims

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

Method

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.

Results

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.

Conclusions

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

none

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.

HERE ARE TWENTY POTENTIAL PERILS OF PRAISE
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.

Conclusions

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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.

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Teaching Students How to Succeed Means Teaching Them How to Plan

Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

Sometimes the most obvious things in life are the things we forget to teach students.

I am from Utah, so I grew up in the heyday of the Franklin Quest planners, with every adult carrying a 3″ thick planner and their entire lives planned out to the 30 minutes. No one ever questioned this behavior. It was normal.

Today we keep this information on our phones and we set alarms. This awesome, except it is FAR too easy for us to get lazy with our planning. I personally have moved back to a paper and pencil solution, which is what inspired me to make these planners.


Based on experience and a surprisingly deep google search, here are the skills students need to learn to be successful in the modern economy (info from about 5 websites mashed together):

Adaptive Thinking: In the digital age, the economy is changing at an exponential rate. By the time employees learn the newest software or program, a better version is coming about. Future employers will need to continuously adapt to changing conditions as well as be able to learn new things quickly and efficiently. We need our students to learn how to learn.

Communication Skills: There continues to be an emphasis on the ability to communicate. In the digital age, however, we have access to a wide variety of new ways to communicate from video-conferencing to social media. Future employers need to be able to communicate with people within their team, as well as people outside of the team and organization.

Collaboration Skills: Most classrooms foster a culture of competition and independence rather than one of teamwork and collaboration. Future employers will need to quickly adapt to a culture of collaboration. They will need to collaborate with others within and outside of the organization, often using a number of new technologies.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills: There is a decreased emphasis on employers following directions and an increased emphasis on employers thinking critically and solving problems. In a rapidly changing world, employers need employees who can solve problems, provide ideas and help improve the organization.

Personal Management: This includes the ability for employees to independently plan, organize, create and execute, rather than wait for someone to do this for them.

Inquiry Skills: The large majority of academic assessments ask students for answers. Rarely do we assess students on how well they can ask questions. The ability to ask great questions, however, is a critical skill that is desperately needed in a culture which requires constant innovations.

Technology Skills: Employers will need to be skilled at using technology. In the digital age, technology is everywhere. Schools, however, have been slow to adapt to this change. Rarely are students required or taught to learn technology efficiently. This needs to be emphasized.

Creativity and Innovation: This skill correlates with the ability to ask good questions and the ability to problem solve. Employers will be looking to employees more and more for creative and innovative solutions to issues that exist.

Soft Skills: Schools rarely spend time teaching students soft skills, including skills such as time management skills, organizational skills, the ability to be confident when presenting information to others, or even using an appropriate handshake. Business leaders suggest that these skills seem to be disappearing.

Empathy and Perspective: Although this skill has always been important, it seems to be another one that is slowly disappearing. The ability for our students to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to understand their feelings, and to help solve their problems.

I will focus on Personal Management and, to a lesser extent, Soft Skills as described above as pertaining to time management and organizational skills. More specifically, how appropriate use of a schedule / planner helps us achieve our goals.

How To Achieve the Six Ps

Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. – US Army

At First, I Assumed My Students Knew How To Use Planners

In teaching a class of difficult students in a Small Group Autism classroom consisting mainly of students with standard intelligence and severe behavioral problems, my first goal was to teach them how to succeed if I sent them to a mainstream setting.

When I started planning my class procedures, the first thing I wanted to do was a daily planner. I wanted for each student every morning to copy the plan for the day from the board on to their own planning page. I felt passionate about this because I always felt it was cheating to give a student a picture schedule if they were able to make their own.

Well, it was a monumental failure. Students melted down. Tantrums erupted. Students feigned tremors and illness to get out of this task. Paraeducators were attacked. So I had to scrap it temporarily.


So where did I go wrong?

I forgot to teach the students why they wanted this. Why they needed it. How it would make them more comfortable in class. How it would give them security and control. Basically, I forgot to show them why they should care.

They fought me because it looked arbitrary since they were used to just doing what the teacher said. They did not keep track of the day. They just floated. They were always anxiously awaiting a command. Not a healthy situation for a class full of autistic kids.

No wonder this was a class notorious for being explosive and having poor transitions. They were stuck in a holding pattern, only to be broken by the word of a teacher.


My Second Attempt: This Time I Explicitly Taught Planning Skills

I set out to teach the students why they cared. I showed them my teacher planning book on my desk. I let them see that I had a time written down by each thing I planned to do. I was not arbitrary with when things began and when they ended. I had planned it.

I put the schedule up on the board and showed them that the schedule had times on it as well as what was happening (My whiteboard schedule can be found here on Teachers Pay Teachers). I showed that this matched my planning book. I challenged the kids to confront me if I strayed from the schedule by more than 5 minutes without apologizing first and justifying the delay.

After a week of being explicit with my scheduling, I started to ask the students to read the schedule in the morning. They would read what time the next task was going to happen. They liked this. Helped them organize their day and made school expectations more predictable and therefore more calming.

The next step was initiated by the students. They wanted their schedule like my book. So I made some different laminated schedules they could write on in the morning with EXPO markers. I made a different one from that used at the beginning of the year just to avoiding remembering of the trauma of the first few weeks of school. I would wash the schedules off after school in the sink so they could be used over and over again.

To teach how to use this schedule, I used explicit / direct instruction for each item. I read aloud the time. Had them write it down. Then went to the task. I spelled out everything for them. They were successful. The showed ownership and significant buy-in.

They loved having their schedule and would actually look at their desks to see what they had to do next rather than the class schedule on the board. They took ownership of it. By the end they loved planning out their day. Some even took the initiative to keep track of their classroom points on their planner so they knew how good they needed to be to earn iPad time.

My Planners

My approach now is to explicitly teach how to use a scholastic planner. My first class needed to learn the gateway drug for planners, which was how to write their schedule. Now we move on to planning out our time and keeping track of things across days.

To accomplish this the way I feel is best, I developed a planning tool. There is one for elementary (K-5th grade) students (Teachers Pay Teachers Link), another for Middle School (6th-8th grade) students (Teachers Pay Teachers Link), and High School (9-12th grade) students – or even college students come to think of it (Teachers Pay Teachers Link).

Now, I will be talking about my planners I have available for sale, but the teaching methods I will discuss can be used with any planner. My methods apply to Panda Planners, Moleskine Planners, a K-Mart blue light special, one from May Designs (my last planner before I made my own), or the stripped down planner that many schools give out to all students (examples from a wholesaler here).

Pages available in all planners

All of these previews show two facing pages. This is to demonstrate that I have set up the margins so these planners can be placed in a three-ring binder, disc bound, spiral bound, or any other binding method.


The first page has a year in review section that can be used to orient the student in the school year:

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A Monthly View covering two pages for general info (holidays, school half days, birthdays, etc):

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There are planning pages for projects. In today’s environment of project-based learning (PBL; link), it is critical we teach our students at a young age how to break large projects down into smaller projects and complete each step in turn.

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Finally, there are pages to help students keep track of books they have read. This page can be useful for helping students understand how great of readers they are! Personally, I would have killed for this. I kept my list on a bunch of sheets of notebook paper in a plain easy to lose (and often lost for weeks at a time) binder.

Elementary (K-5 based on Common Core State Standards)

For Elementary Students it is a relatively simple planner. In addition to the calendar, project, and book pages, there is a homework tracker with a due date column and a checkbox for whether assignments were completed, as well as a good habit tracker. Each week fits across two facing pages. Students can keep track of every day they read at least 20 minutes, get at least 10 minutes of exercise, and there’s even room for students to set good habits they want to build:

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Intermediate/Middle School (Grades 6-8 based on CCSS)

For Intermediate/Middle School Students it is a slightly more complicated planner. In addition to the calendar, project, and book pages, there is a homework / study planner, as well as a week at a glance schedule to keep track of their school day. This helps the students to plan for multiple deadlines and other complications of an A-B schedule.

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The building good habits section is updated so students can keep track of every day they read at least 30 minutes, get at least 20 minutes of exercise, and there’s even room for students to set their own good habits they want to build.

There is an additional project planner that allows for group project planning to help keep groups organized and on task to complete their projects.

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High School (Grades 9-12 based on CCSS)

In High School, things get more freeform and modular for the needs of the student. The weekly Homework / Study Planner and Daily Schedule are the same as for the Middle School planner, except that the weekly schedule has more hours available for planning.

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Two daily tracker pages are added. Students can plan their classes, tasks, study needs, and celebrations (woohoo, I finished my math homework!). There is also a 30-day Habit Tracker to keep track of whatever good habits the student wants to create.

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Also for the High School planner, there are a bunch of note taking pages. They come in Cornell and the typical note-taking styles, as well as a bullet-journal format. These forms let the student create additional pages for taking notes or anything else they feel they need to organize their life.

I personally would teach the awesomeness that is checklists using these different forms – particularly the Cornell formatted graph pages.

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How to Use These Planners

Basics

  • Although I have separate planners for K-5th grade, Middle School, and High School aged students, you may find your needs different. Take that into consideration. Full previews are available on Teachers Pay Teachers as well as the example facing pages shown above
  • Formatting allows for a week over two two pages
    • You have full freedom to organize pages how you want since odd and even pages designs are provided
    • Using Adobe PDF reader or Apple Preview, you should be able to duplicate pages, move pages around, and adapt the pdf to your needs

Printing and Binding

  • Pages are intended to be printed two-sided
  • Pages are designed so a week covers facing pages
  • Margins have been adjusted to allow for multiple types of binding
    • Hole punch / 3-Ring Binder
    • Spiral bound
    • Wire bound
    • Disc bound
    • Send to a printer and get it bound any other way you like

Important note:  I am willing to make myself available to help tweak anything so the margins are correct in a PDF so each week is on two facing pages, so there is no need to worry about something not working. I am here to help you.

How to Teach Students to Effectively Plan

To teach students how to use planners, I will unpack my methods above and put them into the context of explicit instruction. The key to explicit instruction is that the task is broken down and taught point for point so no element is misunderstood or neglected.

Anita Archer, one of the originators and proponents of this method (videos of her methods can be viewed here), simplifies explicit instruction into three steps: I do, We do, You do. This means the teacher models the material / lesson, there is a guided practice wherein the teacher and class work together to complete the task to mastery, and finally (if and only if mastery has been obtained during guided practice) independent practice wherein the students complete tasks on there own with teacher support to ensure student success.


For teaching how to use a planner, the steps are as follows. I will focus on teaching elementary-aged students how to use the associated planner. The same procedure can be followed for the more complex planners, but it will be a more time-intensive process.

I do

The first step can take a number of forms. I showed my students my planner and explained that my planner was what determined our daily schedule.

More to the point would be to explicitly model a planner identical to the students. To do this, I would use some kind of a projection system to show the planner in front of class and I would talk out loud about why I am writing what I am. Also, I would write in the planner instead of use a computer to type. If the kids have to write, then I write.

So for the K-5th grade elementary planner, I would go through each subject and ask myself out loud if I had any homework assignments. If so, I would write them in the space as well as when they were due to be turned in. I would also state that I had not turned it in, so. would not check off the Done box.

The next day I would go through the previous day’s planner and ask myself out loud if I had turned in anything that was due. If so, I would check it off. If not, I would write it again on today’s planner. I also would go through the section involving habits, marking down if I read 20 minutes and / or got 10 minutes of exercise.

We do (We do, We do, We do, We do … )

After a few days of my showing the students how to use their planners by me directly showing them how I use their planners, we would start filling them out as a class. To do this step, I would start again by projecting my planner, but this time I would have all the students pull theirs out as well. If there are students that need adaptations, I would provide it, be it stickers that can be used instead of writing or a scribe to write for them.

Now, I would speak out loud the name of the first category and ask the students if there is any assigned homework. By raise of hand or random selection I would have them respond yes or no, and if yes tell me what it is. I would then write it down, verbally speaking it letter by letter so all students can get it written correctly. Same for the due date.

The next day we would go through the procedure described above as well. I would read off the category that there was homework in and I would have students check if they had turned it in or not. We also would fill out the 20 minutes of reading and 10 minutes of exercise portions.

I have to emphasize here and I would emphasize it to the students, this section is not for me  to grade and not for credit, it is for them to keep track of good habits so they can feel pride in their accomplishments.

I am not a proponent of making kids get planners signed as an assignment, I prefer to teach them that I trust them to motivate them to be truthful. 

Basically, we would go over our planner for 5 minutes as a class first thing in the morning at school as part of morning procedure and we would go over it again for 10-15 minutes within the last 30 minutes of the day as a class. Importantly, we will do this as a class as long as is necessary for students to be successful. If that means all year, then great.

You do

Students that do not need my support can move to this You do section and then read a book or draw a picture after they finish. They can use what the class comes up with as a check to their work on the planner.

In this step, I verify with the student that they feel they are able to perform all the tasks associated with filling out the planner on their own. I then remind them if they get stuck, they can look up at the board. I am there to help them and all I ask is they do they best.

How I have seen it done

I have seen these methods used explicitly in a school I worked in a few years ago. All the teachers in the school were tasked with making the school’s planners effective. The teachers banded together and came up with the following plan:

They would set apart a time in the early afternoon to dedicate 15 minutes to planners. The teachers projected the planners on the board using an Elmo (lower grades) or just wrote what to enter in the planner on the white board (for the upper grades). All homework due and assignments completed were written in the planners. Their planners had an hour by hour planner as well, so they wrote down at what time of day they did which academic tasks (including recesses and lunch). Students also write down if they received any disciplinary actions through the school wide PBiS system.

The result was that students started turning in their homework. This was ensured by asking parents to sign or initial the day’s planner page for the student to receive credit for reading for 20 minutes each day, which was worth class cash that could be used at school wide auctions for prizes and opportunities like extra recess. The parents incidentally saw there was necessary homework and ensured the kids did it and turned it in.

Broader Implications of Planners

I think there is a lot we can accomplish by teaching students how to plan. I will provide a few examples below, focusing on how I have used planners to help students achieve success.

Planners as a component of MTSS / PBiS / 504 Plans

The example I gave above for the school wide use of planners was an explicit part of their school wide PBiS system. The principal needed a unifying element to the school and decided that a planner that could be used by everyone and was universally applied could only help. Importantly, she left the implementation steps to the teachers to discuss and agree upon rather than dictating how it should be done. The teachers decided upon the explicit / direct instruction model.


I have also been a part of implementing the use of a daily planner as part of a 504 plan for a student with a severe anxiety disorder. She was not able to handle any insecurity in her day and was driving the teacher into a fury by asking about every single minute of the day what was going to happen next and was there going to be any homework. This girl was very highly accomplished academically, but she was unable to function in school because her anxiety was getting the better of her. She did not have a disability as defined by IDEA (2004), but she did qualify for a 504 plan under the American Disabilities Act.

My plan was simple. I gave her a cheap planner I found at Wal-Mart and showed her how to use it. I asked the teacher to simply scrawl on a piece of paper what the day was going to look like and hand it to this girl for her to do as her morning work. The teacher was resistant because of the annoyance of doing her planning and then copying it for a student. However, I explained 10 minutes of writing was a lot less frustrating than 6.5 hours of questions. As soon as I said this the teacher was on board. She photocopied her planning book each day and gave the page to this girl.

I gave the girl some nice gel pens for her planner and told her she had to keep track of her own day because I had told the teacher not to answer when she asked what was happening next. I wanted her to keep track instead. She agreed and started filling out the planner. I also instructed her to take the planner to the teacher to get a stamp to verify it was completed and correct and to get credit for her morning work.

This was all the girl needed. She was able to sit in class and do her work. She flipped to the day in her planner every 5 minutes or so at first, but after a month or so she would just check her planner when she finished her work so she knew how long she had until the next task would begin.


As a component of MTSS, a planner can be used as a Tier 2 intervention for students that cannot complete their work and turn in only incomplete assignments, if anything. The 20 minute small group instruction can be spent with a teacher, paraprofessional, or volunteer helping the student organize their work into folders and writing in the planner. Simple rewards can be set up for both turning in work as well as filling out the planner. In this case, I would have the teacher mark if something was turned in and the student as well. Every 10 checks for homework turned in or so I would set up a reward.

This is just a slightly more covert version of a daily contract, and that is how I want it. I want the student to internalize success being a result of good planning rather than because the teacher intervened.

How to Use Planners as a Component of an IEP

I have also used a simplified planner as a sort of contract in a Resource class. My students loved to come to my room, but they were scared to hand in their homework to their teacher. They did not want the attention of getting things wrong as they were accustomed. However, they were now getting everything correct on their work. This was my solution to that problem.

For 5 minutes of a 45 minute resource session we filled out our planners and the students got a stamp when they turned in their work. They got some 1:1 time with me during a recess period if they received 5 stamps (5 days of homework being turned in).

I followed the above steps for how to teach a planner precisely, simply limiting it to homework and handing it in. Worked like a charm.


I see picture schedules put into IEPs all the time. Sadly, I rarely see them appropriately administered. I see the student given a list of Velcro strips with icons, but no times or additional information provided. Often, I see the teachers just give a completed schedule to the student and never addressing it in class.

Can you tell me what any of this really means? 

As I said above, I am not a fan of giving a student a picture schedule if they can make their own. So here is how I would do it. I would have icons of clocks at the times things begin and icons for each subject. I would also provide stickers or templates for tracing any homework into a planner. As the class is filling out a planner, the student would put together their own picture schedule. They would also fill in any homework they have using whatever adaptations are necessary for them to be successful.

This way the teacher does not just hand out a schedule. The student has to make the schedule. Not only does this provide anxiety reduction by having a schedule, but also the student now knows when things are going to happen because they set it up themselves.

Applications for Autism

For autism, we can always do the last example I provided above if they need picture schedules. The vignette I provided to start this blog was in a class of autistic students. So I can say from experience,  planners work.

It is my personal opinion that we do not empower autistic students to have control in schools. In fact, we often teach them that they are wrong to want things highly organized and they are wrong to complain when schedules are ignored. This is wrong.

In the real world, schedules have to be followed. Work has to be completed as scheduled. Appointments cannot be missed. And no one will come to our houses to pick us up for meetings if we are busy.

For the autistic student, here is how I propose we use planners.

  • We teach them the importance of having a planner and explicitly inform them that the planner is a way to make the world predictable and stable.
  • We teach them how to fill out the planner with any adaptations they may need to be successful using explicit instruction as described above.
    • We provide incentives for the students filling out the planners a first to shape their behavior because, from experience, at first all kids hate filling out planners.
    • We also provide menial homework so the students can feel the success of checking off completed items
  • When students have their schedules, we can give them timers, watches, etc to empower them to keep track of time and transitions.
    • As a side note, I have found 99% of issues with transitions are not that the student does not want to transition, they only get a 1 minute warning and that is not long enough to change mindset to a new task
    • We give the students rewards or opportunities to engage in fun activities when they use their planners and have successful days
    • When students fail, we reteach and help them. This is a life skill after all and they need to learn how to take the reigns of their own lives and cut any dependence on teachers

The most important part of this plan when working with autism, is that the teachers have to be 100% compliant with their schedules If they are midway through a hard lesson, they need to stop the task to timetable and begin it again the next day. This is the only way we can help these students succeed.

Conclusion

If we want students to gain independence, we must teach them how to write things down. Checklists. Schedules. Planners.

 

If we teach them to plan for themselves, they will make it to job interviews on time. They will complete their projects on time. They will contribute to the economy. It is that simple. All that is required is that we teach them how to do it.


Please feel free to send me your comments, anecdotes, and ideas below!