Making PBIS Happen

So, what exactly does it take to successfully implement PBIS in schools? While there may be several components to successful implementation, the general answer far and wide is consistency. It really takes “everybody, all the time” to move a school forward. Sounds easy enough but, how to get “everybody to do it all the time” is the question. We’re talking about staff buy-in here. And that’s not so easy. Frankly, there are a lot of reasons that teachers don’t “buy in” to PBIS or any other program that’s introduced.

First of all, many teachers already have strong classroom management skills and simply feel that they don’t need any extra help. Their systems work fine for them. In addition, PBIS is a lot of work and many don’t feel that it’s worth the extra effort if they don’t really need it. That seems fair.

Secondly, it’s difficult for teachers to support a practice that they don’t understand. PBIS can be counterintuitive for some. It is definitely not the traditional approach to behavior that many of us grew up with in our homes and classrooms. A classic approach to behavior for many is very reactive. The rules are stated, children are expected to follow them and if they don’t, there is a punishment. Pretty cut and dried. PBIS involves a huge paradigm shift, changing from being reactive to proactive. This is a big jump for a lot of teachers. It’s hard to do if you don’t understand it. Don’t we want teachers to question things that don’t make sense? Isn’t that, in fact, part of the learning process?

Thirdly, you would have to be living under a rock to not be aware of how very, very thin our teachers have been spread. Even with the best intentions, many teachers are just out of steam. It’s taking all of their time and energy just to keep their heads above water in this ever-changing environment of educational reform and high-stakes evaluation. If they are expected to muster up all of their energy, they need to know it’s for something worthwhile that’s going to work. They are in energy conservation mode.

And finally, veteran teachers, throughout the course of their careers, have been down this road before, every few years having been asked to try something new. Many times, the programs themselves may not have delivered all that was expected. Many times lack of effective leadership has caused some programs to fall apart. In the end, teachers have a running list in their heads of all the “new initiatives” that have been buried in the professional development graveyard. It’s easy to understand how teachers develop the “been there, done that” attitude that prevents them from gearing up for yet another “promising” initiative!

As a behavior specialist who works with schools that are trying to implement PBIS, I am always disheartened when teachers who don’t “buy in” are perceived as being negative. I really believe that there are very few teachers who are “just negative.” Everyone has a story, a reason for what they believe, some experience that has shown them otherwise.

So, with all of these obstacles, how can you get staff buy-in? Is it even possible? And without it, can PBIS ever succeed? Are there any solutions?

In terms of classroom management, there are a few different things to consider. First, I will agree that some teachers, all on their own, really do manage their classrooms very well; however, I believe there is also a group of teachers who perceive that they manage their classrooms well, but in essence, they rule by fear. It’s “their way or the highway”, often resulting in student removal from the classroom. Without a true understanding of function of behavior, some teachers unknowingly play right into their students’ hands by delivering a consequence that is exactly what the students want. Either way, the problem as a whole is that from classroom to classroom, there is no consistency in student expectations and teacher consequences. No consistency invites student negotiation. (“We can do it in Mrs. So & So’s room,” said many a student.) I am all for teacher autonomy; nobody wins when teachers become clones of each other, but there absolutely needs to be a balance of teacher autonomy and school-wide consistency. More on that later.

Concerning professional development, how many times have teachers been asked to implement something, not only that they might not understand, but that also might be the opposite of another initiative on which they were trained, or one that completely goes against their own personal beliefs? This is hard. PBIS cannot be successfully implemented without spending a good chunk of time educating the staff on what it is and what it isn’t. They need training on why positive behavior needs to be acknowledged instead of just punishing negative behavior. They need to be given research and introduced to evidence-based practices. They need at least a minimal understanding of the function of behavior so that they can be aware that the consequences they are giving may very well be reinforcing that behavior, causing it to happen again and again. (“Johnny knows he’s going to get sent to the office every time he swears, but yet he keeps doing it! When is he going to figure it out?” said many a teacher.) In general, educators do not have a background in behavior, and it should never be assumed that they do. All teachers, including novice and veteran alike, need to be taught more effective strategies.

In terms of teacher energy level, this is where administration comes in. Some of the new initiatives are mandatory, so there is not a lot of wiggle room there. A wise administrator knows when his/her staff is saturated and needs to be very thoughtful and purposeful about implementing too many new things at once or even implementing just a few without enough time for follow up training.

Lastly, the most important piece that really ties this altogether is school climate in general, with a clear eye focused on staff morale. For PBIS, or any new initiative to work, there already needs to be a shared feeling among staff that they are respected, that they have a voice, and that there is a high level of trust among everyone. Without that, I don’t think the staff will have the energy required to rise to the challenge of changing their mindset and investing their time and energy in “another new program.” Staff members need to trust their administrator that s/he would not introduce a new initiative without having given it serious thought ahead of time. Teachers need to know that if they are asked to do something new, it’s important and not just a passing idea. They need to trust in their administrator’s leadership skills and believe that this person knows how to move them from Point A to Point B and not jump into something that is likely to fall apart over time. This is huge.

Under this big umbrella of school climate, there needs to be a time and a place for all staff members to feel comfortable “dissenting” for a time without feeling scorned. The staff needs to be able to come together through ongoing discussions in a respectful climate to voice their questions and concerns. This is when and where their voices need to be heard. Synergy in action! But, and this is a big BUT, once the staff comes to an agreement that they are going to implement PBIS (or any other program), at that point, everybody needs to buy in, even if they are not capable of giving 100% support at the beginning. There needs to be an understanding that when you are part of a system, you cannot act alone. Faculties should explore all the many places that teacher autonomy is welcome and useful within their school system because who wants a school without it? But in the end, teachers need to come together in support of one another, but most importantly, in support of kids, doing what is best for them. This is when, and only when, PBIS will be successful.

James_Tracy_300pxTracy James
PBIS Behavior Specialist

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