From Merle Schwartz, CEP director of education and research

Before I came to CEP in August of 2002, I was a school psychologist in Maine, a learning & behavior specialist, and wrote the first graduate course at that time on PBIS for the University of Southern Maine. Before that, I was a special education teacher for many years. I mention this because, at that time, I had the connection on how PBIS could been done well—and how character education was a foundational missing piece in most schools. Understanding character education allowed me to evolve beyond PBIS.

Although the intent of PBIS (remember it is part of IDEA), was to be proactive and prosocial, it  seems to have morphed back into standard behavior modification techniques. When I work with educators on this topic, and the need for the school to move beyond common “rule” to basic core ethical values, they quickly realize that PBIS does not help develop integrity. In many cases, when the reinforcers stop, the prosocial behavior stops as well.

For schools and states struggling for best practice implementation of PBIS, I try to help educators see PBIS and character education not as an “either-or,” but rather, view character education and core values as setting the foundation that then shapes PBIS so that students “do the right thing for the right reason.”

What follows is the original piece I wrote about PBIS that may be found in CEP’s wonderful Eleven Principles Sourcebook, guidebook 7 on intrinsic motivation:

In 1997, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was amended to include positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) as the recommended method for dealing with challenging behavior in children with disabilities. PBIS is an approach that assists students in learning prosocial behavior through, modeling, shaping, cueing, and dialoguing in an environment that is respectful of individual student needs. The PBIS process provides a better understanding of why challenging behavior occurs, i.e., what function the behavior serves, when it happens, what influences it, and what maintains it. In contrast, behavior management systems seek to control student behavior through external inducements that do not teach deficit skills nor develop greater self-awareness in students.

PBIS and character education are natural partners for improving the educational experience of children with significant behavioral and learning challenges.

Both honor the students’ learning needs by developing student autonomy, a sense of belonging, and competence. Throughout the PBIS process, teachers utilize the strategies of reflection, problem solving, restitution, and social skill training, as appropriate and based on the cognitive ability of the student.

In PBIS, extrinsic rewards and consequences are at times necessary to reduce the problem behavior while the student is learning the replacement social skills. For example, a teacher might help a student track their success in keeping their relationships with others nonagressive by having the student record a tally for each designated period of time they are prosocial in meeting their needs. A certain number of tallies may be traded for special time playing a game with a classmate. While the child is “earning” special time, they are also learning prosocial behavior. From a character education perspective, individual plans should be monitored closely so that as students begin to gain control of their emotions and find more appropriate means for communication, reinforcement moves away from extrinsic rewards and towards social rewards, ultimately emphasizing students’ intrinsic satisfaction in being a good citizen of the school and classroom. This is a much easier process in schools that fosters character development within a caring atmosphere.