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PBIS - How Effective Is It?

August 12, 2019

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PBIS stands for "Positive Behavioral Interactions and Supports." The overarching goal of PBIS as a classroom strategy is to create safer, more positive learning environments for students of all ages and levels.

Most importantly, perhaps, PBIS adds "behavior" as a classroom topic like any other.

Here, everyone is first and foremost a student - administrators, teachers and students alike are learning new skills to improve the school experience for everyone who participates in the process.

But while this all sounds great on paper, especially in this age of headline-making school trauma and terror, how well does PBIS actually work? We turn a spotlight on PBIS itself in this article.

How Does PBIS Work in Schools?

There are three tiers to the PBIS system: primary, secondary and tertiary.

Primary PBIS (tier 1 or minimal).

The primary tier is designed as a preventative measure. Ideally, primary PBIS should be implemented before behavior problems have developed to any serious degree.

Tier 1 is ideally designed to support 100 percent of students in a single institution.

Secondary PBIS (tier 2 or moderate).

The secondary tier identifies core behavior problems and identifies the needs of students who are acting out, then aims to address these needs as a means to eliminate the behavior problems.

Tier 2 is designed to support, at most, 15 percent of a students in a given institution.

Tertiary PBIS (tier 3 or high).

The third tier takes PBIS to the level of each individual student, which means it cannot be implemented on a broad scale within any institution.

Tier 3 is designed to address five percent of the student body at most.

Schools can choose to implement a single tier or combine tiers for a truly comprehensive approach to preventing as well as treating ongoing behavior issues.

Is PBIS Backed by Research Data?

Any process that has been objectively tested using the latest scientific research protocols is said to be "empirically-supported."

As we just learned, PBIS is not one set "one size fits all" system but rather a comprehensive, flexible, multi-tiered approach to positive behavior modification in schools.

This has complicated research efforts to date somewhat, since no two schools or school districts are likely to implement the PBIS approach exactly alike.

Because of this, it isn't enough to take any raw data set at face value and conclude that "PBIS works" because it worked at one school or in one school district.

Rather, it is important to poke around behind the scenes and learn more about the schools being evaluated, how they have implemented PBIS (which tiers) and to what degree they adopted PBIS protocols (are they dabbling or truly intent on promoting behavior change).

Here is a great example: in one nine-year study, schools in a single state delivered sufficient data to indicate PBIS can potentially impact school culture as well as student behavior.

However, to achieve this aim, the study specified the need for moderate to high implementation in the school, ideally along multiple tiers on an ongoing basis.

What About the Controversy Over PBIS Rewards?

While the majority of experts in the educational field support PBIS protocols as a positive addition to any school, concerns remain about the controversial use of "tokens" or "rewards" to motivate student behavior.

"Token rewards" is a term meant to indicate small awards. Most commonly, token rewards are distributed via a point system, not unlike how a child might earn paper tickets at an amusement park for mastering different levels of a popular game.

Students can then accumulate points towards bigger rewards, but can also lose points along the way.

Argument for Token Rewards.

Advocates see the token system as a multi-purpose benefit.

First, students receive immediate positive reinforcement for demonstrating good behavior as well as a bigger incentive to continue to adhere to behavioral guidelines on the school campus.

Second, the token system subtly teaches money management skills as well, as students begin to grasp basic concepts of "saving" and "spending" their points.

Third, some administrators believe the token system also trains teachers not to overlook or actively screen out students who consistently disrupt the classroom, giving these teachers the skills to be inclusive in a positive way.

Argument Against Token Rewards.

Detractors say that token rewards actually do represent a "one size fits all" approach to classroom management and a superficial one at that.

Here, detractors say that important lessons in conflict resolution, attention-seeking and mature communication fall by the wayside in favor of arcade-style payouts.

Some teachers and administrators worry that the emphasis is on the reward itself rather than the other less-tangible benefits of behavior change.

To date, this argument has yet to be resolved. Again, it may fall to each individual school to oversee, track and modify PBIS as needed to ensure implementation does not become lazy or largely ineffective, leaning too heavily on token rewards to the detriment of deeper life lessons.

What is perhaps most important to recognize here is that token rewards have long been a popular addition for the sake of classroom management.

PBIS as a comprehensive approach offers the option to dig much deeper into classroom management and individual student needs with additional tools such as role-playing, mentoring and structured classroom lesson plans focusing on behavioral skills.

Schools that implement PBIS comprehensively have the best chance of using token rewards in their proper place without abusing them to the students' ultimate detriment.

How Does Mentoring in PBIS Work?

One less frequently discussed aspect of the PBIS approach is mentoring. Mentoring is a component that is increasingly emphasized in tier 2 and tier 3 implementations, where the potential student base is much smaller and more carefully controlled.

PBIS mentoring can take a number of approaches both inside and outside of the school or even the classroom itself.

In some cases, students may be referred to the school's in-house PBIS mentorship program, which includes support or encouragement groups and/or one-to-one mentoring sessions.

In other cases, trained adult mentors may also work with the student's family outside of school hours to facilitate a whole-family approach to and support of the child's educational success.

The success of any PBIS mentoring program begins with having useful criteria to identify students who might benefit from mentorship. The school that succeeds with PBIS mentoring will be able to identify at-risk students sufficiently early to accomplish more than just managing behavioral emergencies.

As well, PBIS initiatives that include recognition of students who may benefit from other assistance will have the highest chances of lasting success.

Can PBIS Work for Students with Special Needs?

The fundamental architecture of the PBIS approach includes students with special needs or special mental health concerns.

In the PBIS curriculum, this is called "wraparound" or SW-PBIS.

A wraparound PBIS program is by definition a tier 3 program that includes students with physical, developmental, emotional or mental special needs as well as other special needs.

The goal with a wraparound PBIS implementation is to tailor the environment to meet the student's needs, rather than attempt to force-fit the student into the school's existing offerings.

As well, a wraparound PBIS program includes the student's family and community to build a firm foundation for each student to succeed in their own way.

PBIS does show great potential to be effective at the classroom and individual student level, provided implementation is sufficiently comprehensive and doesn't rely overmuch on rewards.

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