There are five emotional and relational life skills critical to mental health and successful social interaction. Without them, we are destined to struggle personally and socially. We know intuitively that these skills are necessary for a happy and productive life, and there are mountains of research that confirm it. These learned behaviors are:
- Self-awareness 2. Self-management 3. Social awareness 4. Relationship skills 5. Responsible decision making
Collectively these teachable skills comprise what educators call Social-Emotional Learning or SEL. Simply put, SEL is understanding and managing our own emotions, learning how to interact appropriately with others, and making responsible decisions.
It is critical to understand that these are learned skills.
There was a time when students were taught these skills at home. They were then reinforced in school and in our faith communities. They were also modeled by many of the adults in our lives, including sports, entertainment, and political heroes. For many children today, some, or all, of these institutions have failed. Many children are not being taught these critical life skills.
The results are staggering. Suicide is the leading cause of death for 12- to 24-year-olds. School violence, bullying, and self-harm are on the rise. Teachers are finding it increasingly hard to teach children who don’t feel safe or connected. Schools, to survive, are looking for tested and proven ways to teach, model, and reinforce the social and emotional skills required to help students cope and to create a safe and positive learning environment.
One of the popular and effective methods used to accomplish this is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, commonly referred to as PBIS.
What is PBIS?
PBIS is an evidence-based, three-tiered framework that integrates data, teaching practices, and school systems and practices to proactively affect student outcomes in a positive way. Simply put, PBIS is a proactive approach schools use to improve safety and promote positive behavior. PBIS is about prevention, not punishment.
The focus of PBIS is on teaching expectations, preventing problems, and using logical consequences.
PBIS provides a framework for schools to teach positive behavior strategies just like they’d teach any other subject. This framework is broken down into three tiers: school-wide practices and systems, support for students at risk of developing more serious problems, and intensive individualized support for students at high-risk.
Tier 1: Universal, schoolwide system for everyone. All students at the school learn basic behavior expectations, like respect and kindness. School staff recognizes and praise students for good behavior. Often small rewards, like tokens or prizes, are used to recognize students’ positive behavior.
Tier 2: Extra, targeted support for struggling students. Some students have a harder time with behavior expectations. The school gives these individuals evidence-based interventions and instruction. For example, some students may struggle with social interactions. A Tier 2 strategy might be providing social awareness and empathy training to help them learn how to read and react to situations more appropriately.
Tier 3: Intensive support for individual students. The third tier of PBIS is the most intensive. It’s for students who need individualized support and services because of ongoing behavioral concerns.
PBIS is based on the principle that students can only meet behavioral expectations if those expectations are clearly defined and communicated. In a PBIS school, everyone learns what is appropriate behavior in the classroom and throughout the school, and PBIS provides a common language everyone can use to talk about it.
The tiered system recognizes that most students will have the skill set to meet expectations once they understand them. It also provides support and services for those students who need additional help.
There is ample evidence that PBIS promotes better student behavior. Schools using PBIS report fewer disciplinary referrals and suspensions. Many also report better academic performance. Some cite less bullying and self-harm.
The principles that guide PBIS play a significant role in its success:
- Positive behavior is learned.
- Students learn positive behavior when expectations are clearly defined, students have an opportunity to practice the expected behavior, and they receive feedback via positive reinforcement.
- Early intervention by teachers/staff can prevent more serious behavioral problems.
- All students are different, so behavioral support needs to be available in different forms.
- Research and best practices are the basis for how behavior is taught.
- Measuring and tracking student progress is critical for student feedback and making decisions about interventions.
- Staff must be consistent in encouraging positive behavior and discouraging negative behavior.
The PBIS approach to discipline is different from traditional school discipline. In a traditional approach, punishment is used to correct negative behavior. A school using PBIS handles discipline proactively. They see a student’s behavior as a way the student is communicating to the outside world.
A teacher might notice a student craving attention. PBIS looks at this behavior as a communication from the student and gives the teacher tools to address the behavior proactively and positively before the incident escalates. In case of a student acting out for attention, the teacher might remind the student about how they are expected to act and might also allow the student to share their opinion or how they are feeling.
If the student continues negative behavior, the school creates a strategy for that student to help prevent it from happening again. This might include time to cool off, talking with a mentor, or even training for the family. The school then tracks the student’s ongoing behavior and adjusts the strategy as needed.
Pros and Cons of PBIS
The focus of PBIS is positive reinforcement. It does not, however, ignore problem behavior. Discipline is still applied but the focus isn’t punishment. The focus of PBIS is on teaching expectations, preventing problems, and using logical consequences.
Most behavioral experts like PBIS’ focus on prevention, clear behavioral expectations, and positive reinforcement. Most also believe that PBIS changes school discipline for the better.
Some experts worry about the use of rewards, like tokens and prizes, for meeting behavior expectations. The concern is that rewarding students for good behavior might make them focus on the reward, not on the behavior. These students may fixate on external motivation and not achieve internal behavioral change.
Another concern with external rewards, especially with students that are externally motivated, is that the reward will need to get bigger and bigger over time to stay meaningful to the student.
Schoolwide reward systems can also exclude students with behavior challenges. If a student who struggles never gets a reward or gets fewer than others, it can be a demotivator. It can discourage students who are trying their best to behave, but who have unique challenges. Schools need to work out ways to recognize students who still struggle but are improving.
Experts and educators agree that students shouldn’t be bribed to behave. In response to this concern, advocates of PBIS have asked schools, not to overuse rewards. They also point out that token rewards are just one tool schools can use.
When applied with fidelity, PBIS’ focus on clearly setting and communicating behavioral expectations, positively rewarding those behaviors, allowing for logical consequences, and working with individuals with specific needs helps students learn the five critical social-emotional life skills, and helps a school create a safe and connected learning environment.
Compliment PBIS with SEL Interventions
Rachel’s Challenge has worked with many schools that use PBIS. Our programs complement a school’s effort to set expectations and proactively address behavioral issues. Our assemblies provide a shared positive experience for students and staff that helps establish the foundation upon which a successful PBIS program can be built. Contact us today to learn more about bringing Rachel’s Challenge to your school.
The following sources and resources were used to write this article:
- casel.org – SEL
- pbis.org – PBIS
- understand.org – PBIS
- cdc.gov – Student mental health statistics