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Problematizing PBIS: Resource Round-up

For those unfamiliar: PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, is a framework intended to support student behavior in schools. According to the website PBIS.org, which is the US Department of Education PBIS website, PBIS is “a way to support everyone – especially students with disabilities – to create the kinds of schools where all students are successful.” 

PBIS is so ubiquitous in American schools, especially elementary schools, that many educators don’t question its presence. After all, supporting all students’ success sounds like a worthy goal, right? It sounds so worthy that it almost seems neutral. But if you develop a critical lens on education, nothing is ever neutral. For PBIS, this becomes very clear when we look at where the program used in schools today originated – and what those origins say about our view of children.

The roots of PBIS can be traced directly back to behaviorism (Knestrict, 2018). Behaviorism is a school of thought developed by B.F. Skinner in the 1900s. Education researcher Alfie Kohn (2018) described Skinner as “a man who conducted most of his experiments on rodents and pigeons and wrote most of his books about people.”  

In the view of behaviorists, people have no internal motivation or self-determination. To change other people’s behavior, you simply reward what you like and punish what you don’t like. 

Building on this philosophy, PBIS provides “positive supports” for “appropriate” or desired behavior – rewarding what we like, in other words. Based on their (lack of) compliance to behavior expectations, students can be identified for additional interventions meant to change their behavior. But the concepts of “behavior,” “appropriate,” and “inappropriate” are not neutral. They are political, often rooted in ableism, and often centered in whiteness. 

Critical educators need to deconstruct these ideas if we want to create affirming classrooms and work toward social justice. Below, I provide some resources for developing your understanding of the problems with PBIS. Fair warning: many schools have put all their eggs in the PBIS basket (not to mention in some states it’s required by law), and pushing back isn’t easy. But if we care about justice and centering humanity in schools, we need to problematize PBIS. 

Problematizing PBIS resources

  • #vted Reads podcast episode with Thomas Knestrict: this is a great introduction to the roots of PBIS. In the podcast, Jeanie Philips and author Thomas Knestrict discuss his book, Controlling Our Children: Hegemony and Deconstructing the Positive Behavioral Intervention Support Model. Their conversation will introduce you to some of the main philosophical problems with PBIS, and how PBIS can run counter to creating authentic learning environments. Check out Knestrict’s whole book if you want the deeper dive.
  • When SEL is Used as Another Form of Policing: this article focuses on social-emotional learning (SEL), not PBIS specifically, but will help build your understanding of how supposedly well-meaning initiatives around student behavior can end up harming the very students we say we want to support. 
  • Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes: Behaviorism is so enmeshed in American society that it’s sometimes hard to even see it. Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards is a thorough exploration of how behaviorism – and specifically positive behaviorism tactics such as rewards and praise – are embedded in society, despite the fact that it doesn’t work and can be harmful. Kohn’s website also has a variety of short posts on related topics- here’s a good one to start with.
  • Can PBIS Build Justice Rather Than Merely Restore Order? Researcher Joshua Bornstein looks at how PBIS is actually implemented, including the consequences on students who are identified as needing additional support within the PBIS framework. He argues that PBIS moves students from the deficit label of “disorderly” into a different deficit label of “disordered,” pathologizing students and pushing them toward labels of disability based on their noncompliance. 
  • The Pedagogy of Pathologization: Dis/Abled Girls of Color in the School-Prison Nexus: This book by Subini Annamma is a must-read for understanding the problems identified in the Bornstein article above. Annamma is one of the co-founders of the field of Disability Critical Race Studies, or DisCrit: “DisCrit shifts the questions that are asked from “how can we fix students who disobey rules?” to “how can pre-service teacher education and existing behavioral management courses be transformed so that they are not steeped in color-evasion and silent on interlocking systems of oppression?”(Migliarini and Annamaa 2016, p 1512). Seeing PBIS through a DisCrit lens is a powerful way to shift your thinking.
  • Prizes as Curriculum: How My School Gets Students to “Behave”: Teacher Kelly Lagerwerff writes a first-person narrative about what it’s like to teach in a school that relies heavily on a rewards system. An insightful and accessible read.
  • Unsnarling PBIS and Trauma-Informed Education: my colleague Rhiannon Kim and I wrote this article to explore whether PBIS and trauma-informed education can co-exist (spoiler: no). We engage with Annamma’s Pedagogy of Pathologization to argue that PBIS facilitates hyper-punishment, hyper-surveillance, and hyper-labeling. (Paywalled? Here’s a free PDF version.)

Alternatives to PBIS

After people hear me speak about the problems with PBIS, the first follow-up question is “okay, then what’s the alternative?” Sadly, I have no program, five-point plan, or checklist to sell you, because here’s the truth. There is no program or strategy that eliminates the complexities of being a person. The alternative to PBIS is fully embracing the complicated mess that is humanity. The alternative to PBIS is building relationships rooted in the idea that students are full humans who deserve our respect and care, and the right to self-determination. There’s no easy or quick way to create schools that honor that idea, is there? But that’s our work, as justice-focused educators. 

I hope this round-up was helpful, and let me know in the comments if you have other resources on problematizing PBIS to share! 

P.S. If you liked this post, you might like my book! Learn more here.

Photo by Jessica Lucia on Flickr

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