Simple Solutions to Behavior Problems in School

January 13, 2014



Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS or PBS) is a loose philosophy with an even looser set of practices upon which most public school behavior expectations are currently based.

The basic theory is that if you support (praise, acknowledge, reward) the good behavior of a given student more than you reprimand their negative behavior, that the student will naturally perform more positively because good behavior has an immediate social payoff.  The ratio of 5:1–5 acknowledgements of good points of student performance to every 1 criticism, works for normal kids who have strong parents and a moral structure for their personal behavior. But a growing population of students who lack good parenting at home, and to whom personal morality is an alien concept, fail to respond to positive behavior support. When PBIS is the only behavior system used to address students with more severe oppositional and anti-social issues, it actually compounds the problem, and this is why:

The only way to get people to abandon a destructive behavior is to make the consequence of that behavior very uncomfortable. The unpleasant consequence that comes as a result of a given behavior must be greater than the reward that comes from doing the behavior. PBIS, clumsily implemented, ends up giving oppositional students rewards as a condition for stopping the undesirable behavior. But clever anti-social, lazy, or devious kids simply escalate their bad behavior in order to compel their authority figures (teachers, administrators, parents) to offer bigger rewards. The more out-of-control a student becomes, the larger the reward he comes to expect for stopping the naughty behavior.  This is major pitfall of PBIS that even many behavior “experts” fall into.

Case study I: Tyler

Tyler is a boy in 4th grade. He is attending a summer school program geared toward helping him improve his literacy skills which is governed by a PBIS system for discipline. Tyler has 6 class rotations per day. At the end of each period the teacher makes a note of his personal behavior and work ethic and he gets a STAR card when he has performed well. Tyler does not like his 5th and 6th period classes because the teachers are firm and the subjects are challenging. He becomes increasingly oppositional in those classes, to the point of disrupting the lessons, swearing at the teachers, and even throwing a chair. He doesn’t get STAR cards from those two teachers and is sent to the “behavior interventionist” after throwing a chair. The interventionist gets Tyler to promise he will calm down, and when Tyler says he will, the interventionist gives him 5 STAR cards and sends him back to class. Tyler repeats this behavior throughout the summer term, with his 5th and 6th period behavior issues becoming increasingly dangerous and frightening to the other students. The 5th and 6th period teachers have no choice but to send Tyler out of the classroom. Nevertheless, the behavior interventionist continues to lavish him with extra STAR cards each day when he temporarily calms down and promises to go back to class and control himself.  Tyler receives the double reward from the behavior interventionist of both extra STAR cards as bribes to stop his behavior, as well as engaging an adult in lively conversation while avoiding challenging school work. By the end of the summer, Tyler has as many or more STAR cards than other students who posed no problem in their classes and who worked hard to learn the content. Tyler redeems his stack of STAR cards for an electric scooter provided as an incentive by the behavior interventionists.

This is a true story, and I was one of Tyler’s strict teachers for that summer semester. Everything I did in an attempt to correct Tyler’s oppositional and disrespectful behavior was undermined by the “behavior experts” on site. This is why “Severe Needs Behavior” programs are exploding in public schools across the country.

Errors made by “behavior interventionists”:

Case Study II: Miss Goldberg’s Classroom

Miss Goldberg is a young teacher with a teaching endorsement in Special Education. She was hired to run a Severe Needs Behavior (SNB) class in a local elementary school. She has 4 students on her caseload and 3 aides. She does not teach content in her classroom because all 4 of her charges are in general education classrooms 50 to 90% of the time. Her fully equipped, large classroom, complete with a padded “tan room” is designed as a place where kids who disrupt, blow up, melt down, and are otherwise oppositional and/or anti-social can go to “cool down.” She nor her aides cannot touch the students except in extreme cases where they require a “restraint hold” to keep them from self or other-harm. Specialized training is required to legally do such a restraint hold, and each instance of restraint must be documented. Brian is a 3rd grade boy who is disruptive, and will run out of the school into the playground, up a tree, or across the street. The staff cannot force him to comply by physical means, so more often than not, they will call the School Resource Officer (SRO or policeman) to coax Brian back into the school. This will repeat 2-3 times per day. Shania is a 3rd grade girl who is oppositional, physically aggressive, and urinates in her clothes as part of that aggression. Shania has an explosive temper, will throw chairs and classroom materials, strike the teacher and aides, scream, and is unable to stay in the regular classroom for more than a few minutes at a time. The only time Shania is sent home is when she is so wet from urinating on herself that her grandmother must pick her up. Brayden is a 5th grade boy who has difficulty reading and avoids challenging work in his classroom, so he will blow up and go to Miss Goldberg’s classroom for “time-out.” During time-out he will play with a toy, lounge around in the tan room, engage the aides in lively conversation, and act oppositional until the challenging class time is over. He will then voluntarily join his classroom friends for recess or lunch. Rigoberto is a 4th grade boy who is physically and verbally aggressive and ill-tempered. He conflates his family’s gang activities and acts like a gangster himself. He threatens aides and other staff on a regular basis.

This account is also true. An alarming fact is that SNB classes, such as the one I described, are popping up like mushrooms throughout my school district. The district hired a “behavior expert” in 2007, and it seems that she is perpetuating her own profession because, since this highly-paid specialist was recruited, behavior problems in the district have exploded. She and those under her continue to make the mistakes I’ve pointed out here.

Errors made in SNB classrooms:

Conclusion: Expensive, over-staffed SNB classrooms are rarely needed. There are some children with genuine organic mental illness who do need specialized plans and treatment. The majority of children in these SNB classrooms are oppositional, ADHD, disorganized, aggressive, or as we used to say when reality had more sway on policy, rotten. PBIS works for normal kids. The rotten kids need something more akin to boot camp.

When I refer to SNB classrooms or children with nebulous diagnoses such as ADHD, I am not including those students who are on the Autism Spectrum, or who have an authentic learning or cognitive disability. Those students need legitimate specialized support and instruction, which I fully support.

Please leave your comments for more lively discussion about the exploding behavior problems in public schools.

Author’s note: The names have been changed to protect the rotten.

by Marjorie Haun  1/13/14

  1. scott yagemann

    Right on, Marjorie! Why don’t they hire you?! You probably don’t want the job but you are absolutely correct (of course). I worked in a Special Education school for children and teenagers with emotional problems and this is very much the way they operated. The only explanation I can give is what you mentioned about the administrators expanding work and money for themselves. It’s just like the ESL (English as a Second Language) program in Los Angeles. These programs didn’t work and common sense should have made that obvious but these ESL programs produced a lot of funding for schools so they just kept expanding until finally it became obvious that the best way to teach those children who couldn’t speak English was through total emersion (duh). When they did that, these non English speaking students learned English almost immediately. Public school is more about the teachers unions than it is about helping kids. Sorry but those are the facts. Another great article Marjorie!

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