what is pbis

As more and more data emerge showing the inefficacy of using in-school and out-of-school suspension to address problematic behavior, the use of “positive behavior interventions & support” (PBIS) has become more common. In fact, the Georgia Department of Education has an entire section of their website dedicated to implementation of PBIS.

Implementing a PBIS system is, in my opinion, clearly a better alternative than the “zero-tolerance” OSS discipline policies that are – at best – ineffective and – at worst – racially disproportionate.

However, many schools that are lowering their OSS and ISS incidents are not doing so because PBIS is necessarily working. Many of these schools are simply discouraging teachers from writing referrals – without offering alternate methods of addressing problematic behavior – thereby lowering the reported number of suspensions and referrals.

This decrease in referrals and suspensions translates into higher scores on the CCRPI (College and Career Readiness Performance Index) which measures schools’ efficacy in a number of areas (including graduation rates, test scores, school climate, etc.).

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The CCRPI number is used to rank schools as “Alert,” “Priority,” “Focus,” or “Reward” schools. This number is also considered when websites such as Great Schools or Niche rate schools.

The problem is that, while PBIS is actually effective, many schools claiming to be shifting to this model are not actually doing anything affirmatively different. They are claiming that discipline problems are decreasing and suspensions are down, but this is only because they aren’t actually holding students accountable.

I was talking to a friend the other day who teaches at an elementary school in a well-respected Metro Atlanta school district, and she told me that her school has been deemed a “PBIS Emerging School”. She explained that the teachers at her school have “given up writing referrals” because the administrators “do nothing.”

“They usually pull them out of class, talk to them, and then send them back to class. The kid comes back, continues to do the same behavior, and the cycle repeats,” she said. Because of the lack of consequences and the lack of a true shift in school culture, students think – and do – get away with misbehaving.

In my own experience in DeKalb County, I’ve witnessed the same thing. Students breaking dress code, students skipping class, students cursing at teachers – often without consequences.

Teachers feel frustrated when, after the fourth phone call home, the behavior is still continuing, and the student hasn’t even faced a consequence enforced by the school.

This is not a Positive Behavior Intervention Support system.

But this is what happens when a school district begins articulating an initiative but doesn’t provide sufficient training or information regarding their expectations. (If you look at the GDOE website, you will see that the state has not fully trained all schools on how to implement PBIS. However, many school districts are using language suggesting they have moved to PBIS — even though many of their local schools have not yet received any training.)

Don’t misunderstand me: I really do believe in shifting away from the punitive, ineffective method of over-suspending children and teens from school; however, school leaders and teachers need to be implementing these new PBIS with integrity so that the shift away from ISS and OSS isn’t just a shift to a “no accountability” culture.

In order to do that, the state and the local school districts need to provide in-depth training to school administrators, parents, counselors, and teachers, so that everyone understands the holistic approach being taken to address student behavior. Without a commitment to implementing these support systems with integrity, schools are going to continue to have a difficult time shifting to Positive Behavior Intervention Support systems.

The next time school district administrators or the public see a dramatic decrease in the number of referrals or discipline incidents at a particular school (as reflected in the “Exceeding the Bar” indicators of the CCRPI score), take a closer look to see if this is because a true Positive Behavior Intervention System has been implemented or if this is because the numbers artificially represent the discipline issues within the student body.

To view more information about the GaDOE Positive Behavior Intervention Support Strategic Plan, click here.