#vted Reads about PBIS

Listener, how do you feel about positive interventions, behaviors and supports? I don’t mean in general — in general those all sound fine and dandy — but when they come within 100 yards of a school, they turn into PBIS. And that’s another ball of wax entirely.

Today author Thomas Knestrict joins me on the show. We’re going to talk about his book Controlling Our Children: Hegemony and Deconstructing the Positive Behavior Intervention Support Model. If that sounds like a hot n’ flossy title, then listeners you are in for a treat. And even if it doesn’t, you’re in for a treat anyway, especially if you, like me and like Dr. Knestrict, are deeply suspicious of the PBIS model.

(Spoiler: we’re deeply suspicious of the PBIS model.)

That said, we do try to be fair in examining what PBIS can and can’t do for Vermont students.

(Okay, we’re mostly fair.)

But I’m still Jeanie Phillips, and this is still Vermont ed Reads: books by, for and with Vermont educators. Let’s chat.

I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads  We’re here to talk books for educators by educators and with educators.  Today I’m with Thomas Knestrict and we’ll be talking about his book Controlling Our Children: Hegemony and Deconstructing the Positive Behavioral Intervention Support Model

Thanks so much for joining me, Thomas. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Thomas:  So I am a professor of education at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio and I’ve been here for 15 years.  Previously, I was at a couple other universities you may have heard of: Miami University and then a very small liberal arts college called Mount St Joe’s.

I taught for 15 years before that in public schools. Mostly Special Ed. That’s kind of where my interest in Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS) really came from, because of the work I did in Special Education.

And I had two areas of research. One with PBIS, and the other with studying families who are raising kids with special needs, and something called family resiliency.  Both are related to Special Ed, but they’re a little bit different. 

I am a professor of early childhood education though they hired me years ago as a kind of ah to infuse the program with inclusive practices and ideas of equity, those types of things.  So I found a home I’m here to stay so married got three kids adult kids all graduated from Xavier, all doing well and now my wife and I we sit around and we hike and we drink wine and have great time, so it’s wonderful.

Jeanie:  Sounds like a fun life in Ohio.

Thomas:  It is.

Jeanie:  Thanks so much for joining us to talk about your book and its relationship to what’s going on in Vermont.  I guess my first question is: why write a book about PBIS?  

Thomas:  I’ve done a lot of teaching. And so coming from a teacher perspective, I always saw behaviorism is kind of “the poor man’s management system”. I saw a lot of problems with it. 

In my early teaching career, I taught special education. I taught kids with emotional disturbances. And it was a completely behaviorist model that we used in the classroom: it was all rewards and punishment. 

And what I found was that rather than teaching new behaviors? We were very good at controlling behaviors. But when we were there or when students moved on to another environment? They failed. They hadn’t internalized anything. 

I likened it to — and I think I do in the book as well — to kind of a drug addiction. You get addicted to rewards (and even to punishment) and when that’s withdrawn, you have withdrawals. You have difficulty dealing with things. So that’s kind of where a lot of my initial thoughts came from.

And as I became a practitioner of PBIS, I thought it was ironic that we called it *positive* behavioral intervention supports because it wasn’t very positive at all. It was just a method I saw through practice. This is an important distinction. 

I think there is good intentions with this model, but inevitably I found that the practice of the model devolves into its lowest common denominators: carrots and sticks.  And I found that it impacted kids of color more negatively, and kids who came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. I noticed that they were stuck. 

Then the last thing: being a special educator, I think what I’ve noticed is allegedly, PBIS is supposed to present special Ed placement.  The idea being that if we intervene soon enough on these behaviors, we won’t need to identify Special Ed. But again in practice what I see PBIS using is to quicken identification. To hasten that.  And that’s a whole another row you could walk down. We often call that the school-to-prison pipeline for good reason.

And so I thought with all of that going on, I thought: nobody is really taking a deep look at this and deconstructing it.  So I thought I’m going to do that.

Jeanie:  I so appreciate that. And there’s so many follow up questions I want to ask! But I’m going to start with equity, because you named that specifically.

In Vermont — as in many places around the country — we’ve been talking a lot in schools about equity. About doing professional development equity, and thinking deeply about equity.  For me what your book points out is that PBIS is a deterrent to equity. It’s mutually exclusive, really.

Part of it is that there just isn’t enough space in PBIS for diverse ways of being and knowing. To value diverse ways of being and knowing. And then it relies on hierarchical power structures and inevitably, as you point out in the book, it leads to disproportionate numbers of students of color and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds being stuck with the label of special Ed or being marginalized in other ways. Being pushed out. The label ends up harming them. I guess I want to expand a little bit more on how PBIS might exacerbate existing inequities.

Thomas: I think if you if you really take this apart, piece by piece, one of the first things they tell you when they’re teaching you about this is, “We need to have behavioral expectations and they need to be communicated to the students.”

Well, when you have schools who are primarily white middle class women and white middle class men you have a biased view of what’s expected behavior. That’s problematic right there. 

So a kid gets in trouble, discipline-wise and it may not have anything to do with his level of engagement in class, but he’s violated some norm that he didn’t even know he was violating. That’s a problem for me.

As a teacher for 15 years, the noisier my room was and the more chaotic it seemed from people coming in, typically the more learning that was going on in my classroom. And so I think you’re exactly right. We need to ask:

  • Whose behaviors are expected?
  • And who’s creating those expectations?

And almost never are the students involved in creating in the classroom rules. 

So I think that’s fundamentally a problem.

One of the things we’re working on here [at Xavier University] is we’re trying to recruit more students of color into the education program. We’ve had very little success in doing this. And I think that will help with disproportionality, right? If you have teachers who look like the kids that they’re teaching and come from that same kind of cultural window and perspective then your expected behaviors will be different as well. I think that they stand a better chance of learning and succeeding. 

Jeanie:  To me, part of what I’m hearing too, is it’s one size fits all behaviors, and that one size is white.

I know that in the book you really dive deeply into the roots of PBIS, specifically applied behavioral analysis.  And you link it in my mind pretty firmly to the same routes as eugenics, right? This idea that there’s a normal. That there’s one way of being normal. I keep thinking about how PBIS is a kind of sanitized white supremacy in action. Like, we don’t call it that, but that’s what I’m seeing it as. 

Thomas:  I could see that.

Let’s put it this way: there isn’t a conscious movement to make this something race-based. This is all underneath. It’s very subliminal. To me it’s like the idea of being “woke”, right?  If you’re not aware of your bias then you’re going to continue to recreate it.

So my hope with this book is that people start to really look at their practice, especially behavioral expectations, and say, “Yeah, that’s biased. I need to adjust it in this way.”

The purpose of this first book was to lay out the theoretical kind of foundations of what I’m looking at. But now the next book is going to be okay, now we have the foundations here’s how to do it and here’s what it needs to look like. My hope is this next one will be more widely read and we can start making some changes with this.

Jeanie:  Before we dive into sort of the way ahead from PBIS — how to reform it or change it or transform it — could you describe a little bit more about the roots of PBIS, and some of the problems that those roots pose when we talk about things like equity.

Thomas:  When you look at the research on PBIS, it’s almost exclusively done by people who have been trained as school psychologists

They largely have never been teachers and they’re almost always trained in a behaviorist way of looking at modifying behavior, typically applied behavior analysis.

The Alberto & Troutman book on applied behavior analysis is like a stalwart in behavior management classes and special Ed programs and regular programs all over the country and universities.  And it’s all behaviorism. It’s cleverly phrased and cloaked bribes is what I call them. “If you do this, then you get this,” right?

The idea behind all behaviorism is that if you structure the rewards and punishment in such a way, you will increase the behaviors that you want to see, and extinguish the behaviors that you don’t want to see. 

Well, it doesn’t work.

But the point is that within the context of school, when you’re teaching 30 kids in a classroom that’s just not a reasonable way to go. It automatically devolves into the lowest common denominator off very simple bribes. 

If you remember, PBIS is three tiers.

Image credit: Center on PBIS, https://www.pbis.org/pbis/tiered-framework

Tier One is the universal way of looking at how to manage behaviors in the classroom. 

When you look at the way schools develop Tier One, it’s inevitably a set of bribes. “If you guys follow these rules–” (which, by the way, the students didn’t have any play in creating) “–if you do this, then you’re rewarded with this.”

To me, that’s just kind of a lazy way to teach. It’s just not, as a teacher, what I’m interested in. I’m interested in how into it are the students? How engaged are the students in learning this? That’s absolutely nothing to do whether they earn a trip to the treasure box at the end of the day.

You have kids who you can tell immediately if they’re turned on by what they’re learning. And in my 15 years in the classroom, that’s what I focused in on. School psychologists don’t have that perspective; they have this theoretical perspective. They come from the outside into a classroom and impose this structure on us and say do this and everything will be fine. 

Jeanie:  To me it sounds really transactional.  

Thomas:  Right. When I present this to teachers in the classroom, they think it sounds really great, but they’ll say,

“Wait a minute, have you ever had one of those classes where you just got this really volatile group of kids and their behavior’s all over the map and you have to take control??”

Well, I’m very clear in this model there are going to be days where you have to take control of the classroom. You have to externally control behavior because of safety, or because of just the sheer level of chaos. But what I find in schools is they never come off of that right. They will say: “I need to control my kids so I’m going to bribe them and I’m going to threaten them and I’m going to do all this stuff externally and then when I get peace I never change, I continue with the bribes.”

Okay, well as a parent I know there are times when I have to lay down the law, because children need that reminder every now and then. But the predominance of my energy is on helping them develop new ways of choosing behavior.  We just stop with the control.

Jeanie:  Right, we never take time for the other things that usually takes longer, right.

Thomas:  It’s incredible. As a teacher it’s much harder.

Jeanie:  Yeah and teachers may not have the support they need, right? And if you’re in a PBIS school the whole school has to be PBIS, so…

Thomas: What’s the law now? You have the IDEA: the special education law mandates that they have PBIS system, a multi-tiered level of support behavior management model. It’s mandated which is another incredible thing.  I just find that so incredible that we were mandating it. 

Jeanie:  Do you want to talk more about that?

Thomas:  Well we’re mandating basically a racially and class-biased model of managing children’s behavior.  

And then on top of that —  I think this is what keeps me up at night — not only are we mandating it, but we’re producing students who are addicted to awards and punishment. Who have no better reason to do something hard other than they get something for it.

Jeanie:  You mentioned engagement earlier and we use in my work a lot the Schlechty Model of Engagement. So what you’re talking about right now is really equated with what he calls ritualistic compliance, right? And that’s not true engagement.  Are you familiar with that model?

Thomas:  Yeah,  exactly. You’re spot on with that. I don’t know if you’ve ever taught before, but when you’re in a classroom, there’s a difference between internalized engagement from students and ritualistic-based obedience. 

There’s some kids who could do that and they could do very well with that, but I’m telling you right now, there are fully a third to two thirds of kids who don’t do well with that.  So when we’re looking at the achievement gap inevitably they’re usually poor and they’re usually brown-skinned and it impacts them more dramatically.

There’s a really interesting area of research called field sensitivity, right? The research says that there are two broad types of learners.

You could be a field-sensitive learner, and that learner needs interaction. They need language. They need to talk about what they’re learning. And they need to share it with other people.

Then there’s field-independent, and it’s all internal with them. Our schools are predominantly field-independent places.  They don’t encourage that discussion and noise and collaboration and working with things. 

If we reward the field-independent learners, we automatically disadvantage the field-sensitive learners.  

And the other piece to that is that field sensitive learners are predominantly underrepresented people.  

Jeanie:  You’re bringing up for me a couple of books that have already talked about on this podcast and one is Carla Shalaby’s Troublemakers: Lessons and Learning from Young Children in School and thinking about the way that some of our learners are canaries in the coal mine for when school classrooms are unjust. 

And then I’m also thinking about our book at the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education, which is called Personalized Learning in the Middle Grades.

We have all these vignettes at the beginning. And the learning in those vignettes are compilations of really amazing classrooms we visited.  The learning is really chaotic, like you described earlier. Like it’s noisy, not everybody is doing the same thing right and it can feel really chaotic. 

And so what that brings me to is the way in which PBIS and behavioral methods in the classroom privilege the perspective of the teacher, right?

The power is all in the teacher and their comfort. Because I’ve been in that classroom. I’ve taught and I’ve been in the classroom where everything is chaos, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, is everything okay?” and then I realize I’m the only one *not* doing what they’re supposed to doing.  I’m the one that’s looking around and everybody else is learning.

So it’s that difference between being able to spot the difference between compliance and engagement. 

Thomas:  Yeah. That engagement question led us to the second study that we did.

We looked at Tier One strategies. And one of the first ones was, “What kind of things do kids engage with?”

So we went into a bunch of schools in the urban area here and looked at classrooms that were doing project-based learning.  We measured — and this is really simple, but it was really simple — we looked at the level of engagement *and at the same time* charted behavior using the PBIS model that they were forced to use.

Very often what we see is we’d see terrible behavior reflected on the PBIS point sheets, but deep learning in our research on engagement. 

So it’s obvious project-based learning is something that many kids respond to. Not all kids, but many kids do. Pedagogy is never talked about in a Tier One strategy. It’s not ever talked about, because there are certain things that kids respond to and there are certain things kids don’t respond to and that’s just the fact.

Jeanie:  Oh I love that! I just want to say that again: pedagogy is not talked about as a Tier One strategy. That feels like a huge oversight.

Thomas:  There’s this fidelity index you’re supposed to use when you’re developing your Tier One. 

Constructed by school psychologists, the only time they mention the word “pedagogy” is when they say, use the appropriate pedagogy to teach the children about behavioral expectations. They don’t mention teaching strategies; they don’t mention grouping. There’s a ton of research on pedagogy and engagement, but they don’t look at any of that and it’s because they’re not teachers. That, to me? That’s the point. They’re not teachers, so they wouldn’t think of that.

Jeanie:  So essentially instead of fixing systems and making systems designing systems to be more engaging for young people we’re trying to fix kids.

Thomas:  The fact that we think a kid needs to be fixed is a problem to begin with.

Jeanie:  Exactly, oh my gosh. Yes, okay.  I see that in a different way even than when I read your book, so thank you for that. 

I want to talk pedagogy a little bit. And I want to talk about Vermont.

You’re probably not familiar with our Act 77, but it’s this legislation we have that asked us to personalize learning for our students in Vermont. It has these three main components.

  1. Knowing students well; so thinking of that as personalized learning or PLPs, we often think of it as personalized learning portfolios or plans. 
  2. Providing flexible learning pathways, so that learning is more personally meaningful to learners. 
  3. Proficiency or competency-based assessment; assessing what matters. 

They’re intertwined, like DNA strands, right? They’re spiraled together.

So I was starting to think about the ways in which PBIS — which is in all of our Vermont schools, or most of our Vermont schools — is interconnected with these three different parts of the law. And I wanted to process that a little bit with you. I wondered what you thought about PBIS and how it either promotes or prevents teachers from knowing students well, knowing students and their families well.

 Thomas: Theoretically I think if in good faith you look at what Tier One is supposed to do, like what the outcomes are?  They say a solid Tier One strategy will be enough for 85% of the students to manage their behavior; they won’t require anything else. Good Tier One strategies would include getting to know the kids and creating a relationship.

Our education program here at Xavier is based upon this really great, great quote, and it goes:

“There’s no significant learning without significant relationships.”

James Comer said that and that, to me should be the fundamental base of all Tier One strategies.

Jeanie:  So can I just ask you… Can I needle you a little bit about that quote in your book?

Thomas:  Yeah I know what you’re going to say, but…

Jeanie:  Alright, do you know what I’m going to ask?

Thomas:  Well I think it comes from a book that is very controversial and people find ironically to be very culturally biased, but I don’t think it takes away from the quote itself.

Jeanie:  Okay it is the only place I checked that you cite Ruby Payne.

Thomas:  But I’m not, I’m citing James Comer, go ahead.

Jeanie:  From her book.  But I have to say finding her in your bibliography was surprising, and my friend Alex Shevrin Venet pointed this out:  there’s this uncritical reference to her [Ruby Payne], so I was curious about that.

Thomas:  So we all know the impact of Ruby Payne and we all know people have jumped on that for various reasons, but I love James Comer and I like what he has done in the schools in DC. 

The whole human capital piece, I find compelling. When you’re looking at social justice, this is my perspective anyway — and realize that I’m at a Jesuit university, so we have kind of a Jesuit version of social justice.

But it’s the idea that when you limit or prevent opportunities to people, including access to resources and including access to human resources, that’s a social justice issue.  So that James Comer quote comes to me from that social justice place.

Jeanie:  Could you just repeat it, because I feel like I threw a wet blanket over it and it’s actually a really great quote.

Thomas:  Yeah, so:

There is no significant learning without significant relationships.

Jeanie:  Yeah.

Thomas: You’re not the first one to call me on that, by the way.  

Jeanie: I’m going to read a little bit from your book, because this is a piece that when I was revisiting your book, jumped out to me. It feels significant about this knowing students well and it’s talking about the model that PBIS is based on. 

This [PBIS] perspective of human behavior is logarithmic in nature and denies any heuristicly derived information or insights. This is a specific perspective of human behavior that denies anything but observed behavior and affects the lens in which they view children.  ABA requires that the behavior be targeted, observable and quantifiable. An outside manipulator is required to create the external controls necessary to motivate students to behave in a way that those in power deem as appropriate and desired.  Often the content of the child’s life is not taken into consideration when problem solving.

Thomas:  God, who wrote that? That was beautiful.

Jeanie:  I am a person who questions the impact of PBIS a lot. And when I challenge PBIS, people who are PBIS fans will say to me, “Well, it’s not always implemented correctly is the problem.”

But this seems like it’s baked into this idea of like, “Oh no we’re going to give the same reward. You get more tiger bucks!” Or your otter paws, or whatever it is. It doesn’t seem to take into account the specific context of a kid’s life. 

Thomas:  You’re absolutely right. I do think there is something to be said about implementation, I think.

Not because there’s anything theoretically correct about PBIS. It’s about *this* model merging with the model of engaging teaching: they just don’t mesh together. You can’t have a PBIS model and really emphasize engagement in the classroom. To me, they’re mutually exclusive. 

So when I’m talking about the heuristic nature of human behavior, I’m talking about this emphasis of identifying and targeting behaviors and looking for that one behavior and not having any discussions about what’s going on in this kid’s head or in his life. Not knowing anything about the context that he’s bringing into the classroom.

So many times — and I use this in my class a lot — I say chapter one happens when the kids aren’t at school. They bring all that affect from chapter one into chapter two when they come into your classroom.  It probably would serve you to know what’s happening in chapter one.

That’s what I’m talking about. That’s not valued at all in the development of interventions, typically.

Jeanie:  So that that makes me think of a couple of things.

One is, it’s not just that it interferes with knowing students well, it interferes with doing something. Applying that knowledge of how we know individual students well, to their educational plan or to our teaching or to what they need in an educational setting, right?

In Vermont a lot of teachers — myself included — have lived in small towns where we like, go to the grocery store with the kids we serve, we know their families, we taught their siblings. It’s not– these are not big schools.  And so we might know students well but PBIS might get in the way of us actually applying what we know about students for their best interests.

Thomas:  You’re going to be seen as a giver and a taker and that doesn’t develop relationships very well at all.  If you’re seen as the manipulator, then they’re going to resent you in the end.

Jeanie:  So it’s transactional. 

Thomas:  Yep.

Jeanie: The second component of our Act 77 in Vermont schools is this idea of personally meaningful learning opportunities for young people. This idea of flexible pathways. That school doesn’t need to look the same for all students.

And this really gets at pedagogy.

When we think about this at the Tarrant Institute, we’re thinking about project-based learning, and service learning. We’re thinking about education for sustainability, building in lots of voice and choice for students. And really I think this is also where social justice education fits in, right? Kids having a real role in the world. And so I’m wondering if you see any contradictions between PBIS and flexible pathways.

Thomas:  Oh absolutely. I mean, inherent in the DNA of PBIS is imposed structures and imposed norms.

So yeah: the kids don’t have much say in any of the interventions that are developed in Tier One, Tier Two or Tier Three. 

I do see teachers who have managed to create meaningful relationships and flexible pathways for kids in spite of having to also do PBIS interventions as well. A lot of times when I’m talking about this book people think I’m just like, negative on everything. Now, there are a lot of teachers doing really good work in spite of this, but it’s always *in spite of* PBIS.

With flexible pathways to me, the whole idea of it used to be called differentiated instruction. And now the big term is Universal Design for Learning. And all these ideas basically come back to what you’re talking about: the idea of finding what flips the switch for the kid and engages him. And I don’t think we need a fancy name for that: it’s just engagement.

It’s about these 10 kids over here in your classroom are switched on by this, and these other 10 are switched on by something else. There’s very useful strategies that we can teach people in order to give them flexible pathways to learning, but it’s always *in spite of* PBIS.

Jeanie: That’s interesting to mem because I think of Universal Design for Learning as a way of removing obstacles to learning. Like, being really cognizant of what the obstacles are and removing them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which we tend to plan for the middle, and PBIS seems to be about creating the middle, and getting everybody into this middle zone, right?  And I’ve been thinking a lot about how UDL asked us to plan for the margins, right.

I was your field-independent learner, right? And for so many of us it’s really easy for us to plan for other field-independent learners or to plan for that middle: those well behaved children. Those kids who were without learning disabilities, or kids who look like us, act like us, are like us. So what would it look like to instead plan for the margins?

Not just pedagogically, not just instructionally, but also in our classroom environments and in our the structures and the culture that we build in the classroom.

Thomas:  Now, my career started in outdoor education. I would take kids who were from urban Cleveland, who had behavior problems and we would take them out into the woods and they’d camp and they’d hike. Here are the kids that were horrible in the classroom and their behavior was really dangerous many times, but we took them out into this new environment and they’d have choice and voice. They had choice and voice.

Because that’s one of the fundamental things about outdoor Ed, is choice and voice. And then there were no behavior problems.

So I’m thinking why don’t we take that and apply that into school?

We try to fit all these kids into this square peg, the square peg of public education and they don’t all fit. So why don’t we change the hole that we’re trying to stick them into? I’m all for that.

What I’m finding those politically and culturally is that it’s a really tough nut to crack. It’s really hard to get people to listen to that, especially now in these times. Montessori, though? I gotta tell you Montessori has done a really nice job with this. They have a very loyal, almost militant following with families who have their kids in Montessori school, so I know it can be done.

Jeanie:  You’re also reminding me of something we talk about at the Tarrant Institute which is that project-based learning, PBL, shouldn’t be dessert. And so often we’re so focused on skill-building, like, “once we get all the skills in place then we’ll do the fun stuff.”

I think that what flexible pathways and what really good pedagogy tells us is that if kids are engaged enough doing rich, meaningful, relevant learning, they’ll learn the skills. 

Thomas:  Again, from my experience in the classroom I found that to be true. But I also found it to be very labor-intensive for a teacher to teach in that way.  Again, it’s much easier to do it teaching to the middle than it is to teach to the margins. It takes a lot more planning and a lot more energy.

Jeanie:  The third part of Act 77 is proficiency-based assessment, and what we at the Tarrant Institute think about as assessing what matters.  And so part of–

Thomas:  Wait, who determines what matters?

Jeanie:  Well yeah thank you! Do you want to say more about that?

Thomas:  No, I want to hear what you have to say about it.

Jeanie:  So, in Vermont, we’re big fans of local control. The AOE, our Agency of Education, put out some guidelines, but each school, each district determines what matters for proficiency-based graduation requirements.  I’m a big fan actually, of proficiency-based assessment as a lever for equity, because I think it more clearly (ideally, in a well planned proficiency-based system) outlines what the goals are for students to learn. Ideally, there’s some flexibility in there, too. 

There are certain things that every kid needs, and then there are places where kids can explore and develop their own expertise. Those indicators are really clear. Kids demonstrate that they’ve met the indicator through a body of evidence, right? And so it takes some of the guesswork out, and the bias that goes with that. 

In our setting, schools also have to develop a set of transferrable skills, these skills that cross traditional disciplines.

Instead of just science and math and language arts and history, kids also need to demonstrate their growth in collaboration and communication and creative problem-solving and self-direction. 

And that’s a place for me where the rubber meets the road with PBIS. 

In many of the schools I work with, they have PBIS systems K through 8 and I’m talking to middle school teachers in grades 5, 6, 7, 8, and the teachers are like: “These kids can’t. They just can’t do self-directed learning.”

That’s problematic for me because it’s a really deficit viewpoint. To me, it’s like, no wonder! They’ve been given tokens and treats and rewards for compliance all along, why would they be self-directed learners by the time they get to you in a system that rewards compliance??

Thomas: Right.

Being an early childhood educator, authentic assessment is really important to me, right?  The idea that the way you’re assessing the kids’ proficiency has to match with how they learn and what they learn, right? My problem with a lot of what we call proficiency-based assessment now (at least in Ohio) is that it almost never matches what they’re experiencing in the classroom. Or their learning style.  It doesn’t give you an accurate read, right?

My view on this is that you establish what you’re measuring, all right and you use it in a way. You establish what you’re measuring and then you have multiple data points, multiple and diverse ways of measuring those things. Then also measure it over time as opposed to just one moment of assessment.

Again, though that takes time and that takes energy. It’s much easier to give a standardized test than it is to do authentic assessment.  So I do think PBIS caters to kind of a more standardized way of measuring things, right. So if you look at the way interventions are measured, it’s largely quantitative. If you look at the research on PBIS, they always measure it in terms of what we call ODRs, Office Discipline Referrals.

Jeanie:  Oh, oh, oh, I am familiar with ODRs. I am the mother of a son, I know all about ODRs.

Thomas:  What that measures is how often you’ve been kicked out of class, right. It does not measure engagement. It does not measure any growth over time, it just measures that one thing. 

Jeanie:  Oh it totally makes sense. I also think, like, don’t we want to graduate into the world engaged citizens and not obedient citizens?

Thomas: In a capitalist society we want obedience. And to me that’s the larger book I have out in my future is linking these ideas to capitalism. I think that there’s a lot to be said about that connection. How our structures of schools evolve, what our expectations are to what we teach, and how we teach it, and how we assess it. It’s all about creating obedient citizens and especially obedient underrepresented citizens. We don’t want them to be assertive, no, we want them to be very well behaved and know their place. 

I think again: it may not be eugenics, but it is blatantly racist.

Jeanie:  Well, I’m troubled by that because I do want to graduate engaged citizens and I know many Vermont educators do; we want students engaged in the democratic process. We want students engaged in their social institutions, right. 

And I want to step back a little bit and say: I totally heard what you said and I should have been more clear that proficiency-based assessment actually for me only works if instruction changes. If we’re clear about what we want to teach, then we teach it in a way that kids can learn it and they get lots and lots of formative feedback. 

While you were talking it occurred to me that these rewards, these Tiger Bucks and Beaver Paws or whatever they are that kids get as a part of PBIS are their own kind of feedback.

And it’s not feedback that asked for growth or changed, right. We’re teaching kids that feedback is just something that you get.

I know in schools having taught K to 12 that one of our struggles is teaching kids how to engage feedback for growth.  How to give feedback so kids can grow and learn and then how to help kids learn to take feedback and use it to grow and learn.  In a way these tokens, this tokenized system is counterproductive to the kind of ways we want kids to receive feedback. 

Thomas:  Absolutely, can I recommend a book to you. 

Jeanie:  Yes please always.

Thomas:  Okay so we use this in our assessment and observation class, it’s called Embedded Formative Assessment by a guy named Dylan Wiliam. He’s a Brit but it’s exactly what you’re talking about; it’s authentic formative assessment. It really emphasizes how to get feedback, how to guide learning and guide behavior.

Jeanie:  The other thing that I’m hearing about all the time, all over Vermont schools, is trauma-informed instruction right. We’ve got all these schools that are talking about equity, talking about personalized learning, talking about trauma, and then spending a week every summer going to the Best Institute to learn about PBIS. 

And so Alex Shevrin Venet, an educational leader in Vermont (and a really fabulous person), does a lot of PD work around trauma-informed practices. I recently went to a webinar with her where she talked about how these two approaches are mutually exclusive.

Thomas:  That’s a really important point, I haven’t done a lot of thinking about that but that’s absolutely true.  Yeah because when you also factor in the idea of knowing children, right, they make it mutually exclusive. Because honestly a lot of teachers don’t want to know about the trauma students are experiencing. They’re like: now I teach reading, I don’t want to know about trauma. Can you imagine?

Jeanie:  I don’t want to put words in Alex’s mouth but from learning from her, I think what she would say is we don’t need necessarily to know kids’ specific trauma histories.  What we need to know is the way that trauma impacts kids’ behaviors and their ways of showing up in the class. She uses a term a lot that I saw in the last chapter of your book where you’re starting to outline some solutions or ways to make PBIS more socially just, which is: unconditional positive regard. 

How do we hold kids in an appreciative way with unconditional positive regard even when they’re struggling, even when their behaviors are completely inappropriate? Because there may be logical reasons, logical things happening outside of our classroom that are feeding into that, that we need to understand. 

Thomas:  Right. And PBIS often doesn’t accommodate that type of thinking. It’s like either you’re behaving this way or you’re behaving that way and I really don’t care about what the reasons why we just need to stop it, that’s just that’s fundamentally part of behaviorism by the way.  I mean if you go back to the root of  Skinner and watch and they’re like no there is no inner life that matters.  The only thing that matters because we’re a science after all is what we observe and that that DNA is still visible within PBIS practice.

Jeanie: That just breaks my heart.  I have to tell you that I loved that I could see where you cited Parker Palmer, I’m a big fan of Parker Palmer’s, and his book, Courage to Teach and his reflective practice. So this idea that we operate under a system that denies an inner life to folks? And then the contrast of Parker Palmer ,who’s all about authenticity and showing up and being reflective about your inner life? There’s a lot of dissonance there for me.

Thomas:  Lots of dissonance, yes. 

Jeanie:  Okay so I want to get practical here. I know you’re going to write a book about this and I can’t wait to have you on to talk about it and to read it, but many of our schools all of our schools are deeply invested in PBIS, so I guess I’m asking: what are some tangible steps they can take if they’re not able just to ditch it?

Thomas:  In the book, I start to develop this a little bit, but my observation is that when people are intervening on student behavior, they often start with the student and they start with this deficit model. 

“What’s defective and how do we fix this about the kid?” 

And I think they’ve got that backwards.

I’m a big fan of Urie Bronfenbrenner and the whole ecological way of looking at development. When you’re looking to intervene, you start on the outside and work towards the child. The child should be the last place you end up. You should be looking at these subsequent ecosystems to see what’s going on there.

In my mind, as a consultant who does a lot of behavioral consults for schools, it’s almost always something else besides the kid that is the cause of these behaviors.

Very often it’s the teacher and what’s going on in the class. They don’t really like to hear that, but that’s been my finding.

So if we start from the outside and start looking at where this kid is coming from:

  • What’s happening in his chapter one?
  • What’s happening at home?
  • And what do other teachers have to say about him?
  • What do other people have to say about him?

Then slowly only go towards the child.

But when you’re talking about behavior change it’s an inside out.

Jeanie:  Again I hear fix the system, not the child. It’s not a child, the child doesn’t need to be fixed, the system needs to be fixed.

Thomas:  I will say this: there are kids who are damaged. I don’t know that “fixing” is the right word we should use, but they need a different kind in a different level of support. 

But I would say 2% to 3% is all we’re looking at for kids who are so damaged that they require some control, actually. 

I think there are those kids out there, but regardless: there’s still the impact of all these ecosystems. Start there. 

In the second place is this idea of responsiveness, right? The idea that a classroom in a school has to be responsive to kids.  It has to be. The kids have to have power within that ecosystem.  They have to have the ability to choose, the ability to control, they should be the ones helping you create the rules in the classroom and the culture in the classroom, and it should be based upon what they want out of their school year, right?

Jeanie:  A lot of our schools have responsive classroom and it seems interesting that they’re holding both PBIS and Responsive Classroom. 

Thomas:  Does it.

Jeanie:  I love what I consider in the last chapter of your book — which I highly recommend people interested in transforming PBIS read. There are a couple of things that seem to be just like these guiding principles, or things we should all believe. And we should believe them not just in the back of our heads, but actively believe them. They should show up in our practice.

And they are this:

You say each child is to be respected. I would rephrase that as children deserve to be respected. Every single child deserves respect.

The second is all children can learn. Absolutely! Like, that should be a fundamental belief that we act on every day. 

The first six years of a child’s life are a sensitive period for learning.

And then I love number four: children naturally enjoy learning and working hard if allowed to direct their learning. 

Like, children love to learn! And when people say these kids don’t want to learn, I’m like: what have we done to them then? That seems like it’s our problem because anybody who’s been around young children knows they love to learn and experiment. 

To me, these are  fundamental principles that should that should show up everywhere in a school culture, these beliefs. 

Thomas:  There’s a researcher, her name is Constance Kamii.  And Constance Kamii, she’s a Paiget-based scholar and she looks at child development that way.  But one of the things that I love about her work is this idea of: why do kids hate math? Why, when they’re older, do they say, “I just want to avoid math and I don’t like it”. 

And she traces it back to how math is taught. 

One of my ideas about intellectual autonomy comes from her, this idea that our pedagogy has to want to develop kids who engage. But kids who are intellectually autonomous who can talk about their thinking, they can defend their thinking. If they’re working on a math problem they could defend their answer and explain it. 

When you teach math from that perspective it’s freeing, it creates autonomy and it’s fun to learn.  And to me that really speaks to this whole idea of why people hate school.

The research shows that by third-grade kids define themselves as either liking school or hating school. As either being good at math or bad at math. Good at art or bad art by third grade. You’re what, nine years old?

Jeanie:  I had to overcome the trauma of fourth grade being kicked out of chorus. I didn’t sing out loud again until I had an infant in my life, for years. You probably still don’t want to hear me sing but …

Thomas:  You got a cool microphone to sing into.

Jeanie:  So you’re reminding me of a couple of things and like, really coalescing for me a couple of ideas. One is, I’m going to use some language from Parker Palmer, which is this idea that learning math is one of our birthright gifts.  And that we are taking those from children when we don’t provide environments where they feel like mathematicians and learners. Because we are born as humans to do math, every single one of us.

And you mentioned Constance Kamii. But I think of Rochelle Gutierrez and her work around re-humanizing mathematics.

Thomas: Yeah exactly. I so wish I could go back in time and learn math that way because I don’t like math at this point. I avoid doing math and I’m here I am at this university where there’s all these eggheads around me and I got to admit sometimes, yeah I don’t like, I don’t like math too much.

Jeanie:  So no quantitative research for you.

Thomas:  Well I could do it. I don’t like it though.

Jeanie:  There’s a lot more in this chapter about how to transform PBIS, are there any other big points you want to make before I ask you one last question?

Thomas Preparing the environment, I think is underrated. And I think that there’s a lot more to preparing the environment than just how you set your room up, right. It’s this planning.

One of the things I do, one of the activities I take my students through, is this idea of the work you do before the kids even come in the classroom is important. It’s proactive and it is a Tier One strategy: thinking through your routines, thinking through the age group and the developmentally appropriate practice that you need to use in things like restroom breaks and lining up and cafeteria. Those things you have to think through, we call them the RRRs: Rules, Rituals, and Routines.  You think about those things before they happen.

Those are Tier One and I think the bottom line is if you have to be forced into a PBIS model, then let’s spend a whole lot of time developing this Tier One. 

Let’s really hit 85% of the kids who require nothing else than we think through deeply these things that will proactively prevent disengagement and misbehavior.

That’s kind of the final word I would say.

I also talk about preparing the curriculum, right.  There’s a lot to be said pedagogically.  There’s a lot wrong with what we do pedagogically, particularly in fourth through 12th grade. 

I think preschool through third grade thankfully we do a fairly good job across the country. But beginning in fourth grade, because we switched to a departmental model, we become much more content-oriented.  I think we have decreasing productivity and decreasing developmentally appropriate practice as the kids get older.  So I think there’s a lot of preparation that could be done with pedagogy too.

Jeanie:  One of the things I often think about is how as educators, we can have our imaginations limited by what school was for us. It’s one of those professions where you enter into a profession that you experienced is a young person. 

You don’t usually do that if you become a police officer or a lawyer or even a doctor — you don’t spend every day at the doctor’s office like internalizing what being in a doctor’s office looks like. 

But school we internalize all these things about what schools should look like from our own experience in school and then we come into school and we often reproduce that — even if it wasn’t good for us and our classmates. 

And so I guess one of the things I’m thinking about is the way in which your book asks us to imagine classrooms and schools in a different way. To look at them in a different way. To like, actively hope for something different than what we experienced.

Thomas:  Yeah that’s very well put and I believe it can happen and I’m not a young man anymore, but it’s what keeps me coming to work every day because I know I’m having 100 students come through my program every year and I’m sending them out with these vibes and I think that’ll make a change.

Jeanie:  So that’s a really hopeful, that’s a really hopeful way to end.

I’m really grateful, thank you so much for talking, I could hear your email dinging, and I know you’re a busy person.  I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about PBIS and to do so in a way that isn’t fatalistic, to do so in a way that’s hopeful and leads us forward.

Thomas:  Well and thank *you*. Everybody has an ego and it’s so nice to be recognized for having written something and that people like, so thank you.

Jeanie:  Well I like your book a lot, it mattered a lot to me and I can’t wait to read your next one.  Thank you so much.

Thomas:  You’re welcome!

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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