By Beth Baker, M.S.Ed., and Char Ryan, Ph.D., coauthors of The PBIS Team Handbook: Setting Expectations and Building Positive Behavior
Across the United States, 16 states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting or expressly limiting the suspension of students in preschool through grade 3. These laws are often deemed necessary to create learning environments that are inclusive of all students. According to a National Conference of State Legislatures report from April 2019, private child care providers expel kids at a rate four times greater than public preschools or Head Start programs do. The report also cites that while African American students make up only 18 percent of children enrolled in preschool programs, they represent more than 48 percent of all preschool students with more than one suspension. Children with disabilities also are suspended at a higher rate than their nondisabled peers are.
California recently became the first state to amend their education code to ban suspending students in grades 4–8 for “disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority of those school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.”
The move away from suspending students for disobedience or disruptive behavior is a smart one. Leaving teachers to decide what behaviors fall under this category was believed to give them a sense of power in their classroom. However, disruptive behavior is a subjective behavioral category and often results in greater suspensions for students of color, students with disabilities and/or IEPs, and students who identify as LGBTQ+.
Also, removing students from school denies them access to instruction and learning. Suspension is only one strategy, and it doesn’t teach students appropriate social and academic behavior. There are many more choices for educators.
When one strategy from a teacher’s tool kit is removed, it should be replaced with a different one. In this case, suspension has been replaced with tools to keep students in school. These tools include (and vary from state to state) PBIS, restorative justice practices, and curricula that focus on social and emotional learning.
These practices all emphasize getting to the function or the cause of the behavior and creating school environments that focus on preventing behavior, teaching new behavior, counseling programs for students, and training teachers and school administrators in being more culturally responsive to students.
PBIS is a proactive approach to increasing appropriate behavior. Proper and complete implementation of the PBIS framework encourages teachers to use strategies and interventions that might be new to them. The PBIS team should be training teachers to use these new tools in Tier 1. Tier 1 PBIS includes:
- A supportive administration that gathers the PBIS leadership team and guides school faculty to consistent implementation across the school.
- Data collection to show what, where, by whom, when, and why behaviors are happening in school. Efficient and effective data collection shows the big picture about what is happening across all areas of the school.
- Three to five positively worded schoolwide expectations that are used across the school by all teachers and support staff, including office staff, lunchroom staff, and custodians.
- A behavioral matrix based on the schoolwide expectations that provides students and staff with a guide for how the school should be. For example, if one of your expectations is “Be Respectful,” show what that looks like in the classroom, the hallways, the lunchroom, and all other areas of the building, and provide staff guidelines for teaching those expectations so all staff and students are on the same page.
- Relationship-building with students (and other staff members) to make sure everyone is looked after and cared for. It is through these relationships that teachers may change their ideas about students and behaviors. Knowing the backstory of a student and having a desire to help a student be successful in school are the first steps in reducing school disruptions that lead to suspensions.
- An acknowledgment system to reinforce the new learning. Many schools spend a lot of time and energy developing tickets, rewards, stores, and the like, but while extrinsic rewards are fun, ultimately students should have intrinsic motivation because they have learned the right thing to do.
After all this is started at your school, know that implementing the PBIS framework is a fluid, ever-changing process. What worked last week might not work next week. You might decide to have schoolwide celebrations every other Friday, only to have your data show that it isn’t affecting or reducing behaviors as the team hoped it would. Take your time.
Eliminating suspensions for common disruptive behaviors is like taking the crutch away and hoping the patient will walk. There will be some stumbling, of course, but what a great achievement when the patient finally figures out how to move muscles together and learns a new way to walk and run.
Schools are charged with creating safe and effective learning environments. PBIS, as a multi-tiered approach, offers a range of practices for educators to reduce the number of students with more severe behaviors. This allows schools to focus on teaching and learning and reserve precious resources for those students who need the most assistance.
Beth Baker, M.S.Ed., is a teacher and an advocate for students with special needs. During her twenty-plus years in education, Beth has taught in self-contained special education classrooms, implemented and coached PBIS teams, and worked as a behavior specialist. She was also a district program facilitator assisting staff with professional development around social-emotional learning and coaching them in supporting students with emotional-behavioral needs. Recently she has been teaching abroad and implementing PBIS at international schools. Beth loves creating positive paths to behavior change whenever and wherever she can. She presents frequently on social-emotional learning and PBIS in the US and internationally. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Char Ryan, Ph.D., is a PBIS coach, evaluation specialist, and Minnesota State SWIS (Schoolwide Information Systems) trainer. She is also a licensed psychologist and consultant with the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health. She is a frequent conference presenter and has been published in numerous journals, including Psychology in the Schools. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Beth and Char are the coauthors of The PBIS Team Handbook
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