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PBIS and Tools for Teaching

Level 1: Primary Prevention in the Classroom

What Is PBIS?

In the 1990’s the Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education, founded the National Center for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), centered at the University of Oregon. The center’s objective is to give schools capacity for identifying, adapting, and sustaining effective school-wide disciplinary practices.


The Department of Education focused upon discipline management because of the disproportionately large number of suspensions, particularly out-of-school suspensions, being given to minority students. These referrals were not only ineffective in reducing behavior problems, but they were counterproductive because they increased the number of dropouts.


Most schools, particularly high schools, lack any discipline management program except for a “discipline code” that lists a hierarchy of consequences. In the classroom, teachers simply do the best they can for as long as they can, and then, when they are at their “wits end,” they bounce the kid to the office.


PBIS stresses the word, “proactive” because discipline management at most school sites is reactive. It stresses the word “positive” because most discipline management is punitive. And it stresses the word “system” because so many school sites lack any real system.


In order to reduce suspensions for severe misbehavior, PBIS focuses on the development of teachers’ classroom management skills to prevent typical behavior problems from escalating. The accompanying pyramid illustrates the type of interventions that should precede an office referral with a well-trained staff.



Content of PBIS

PBIS is not a specific program or curriculum. Rather, it serves as a catalyst. It engages school districts and school sites in the team building and consensus building required to produce a coherent system of discipline management.


The PBIS pyramid is based on the applied behavioral research literature dealing with classroom management, teacher training and the process of change. School districts and school sites rely on this research to provide the structure for change.


To get the ball rolling, state departments of education have taken the lead in promoting PBIS. School districts and regional education centers have developed the curricula and supplied the training. These programs emphasize the fundamentals:


  • Procedures: clarifying rules and routines at the school site level and teaching them thoroughly


  • Positive Reinforcement: implementing a range of programs in the literature for “catching them being good”


  • Negative Consequences: developing a hierarchy consequences that is clear to all and applied consistently.


  • Special Interventions: investing in intensive small group or individualized interventions for students with more severe behavior problems that do not respond to group interventions


  • Keeping Records: making sure that discipline incidents such as office referrals are tracked, compiled, and analyzed


Tools aligns with PBIS

The objective of Tools for Teaching is identical to that of PBIS. Both seek to develop and implement effective discipline practices. Both focus on primary prevention in the classroom. Both employ applied behavioral research to build an advanced framework for classroom management.


Tools for Teaching, having begun in 1969, represents nearly five decades of constant research, development, and field-testing. It represents a level of sophistication that reflects these four decades of work.


During that time Tools for Teaching has added a new generation of procedures to those described in the research literature. These new procedures are extremely cost-effective. They solve a wide range of problems for the entire class while they free up the teacher’s time for instruction rather than consuming it in program management.


Learning to Win the Game

When you spend enough time observing classrooms, you realize that the same transactions occur day after day at every grade level. The management of these transactions will determine a teacher’s effectiveness.


Consider classroom management to be a game with offense and defense, with fundamental skills, and with plays that recur predictably. Consider the following example.


Students typically pay attention with minimal “goofing off” while the teacher is presenting a lesson. During Guided Practice, however, the wheels fall off. Students in need of help raise their hands, the teacher begins to work with one of these students, the noise level rises, and soon the teacher is nagging:


“Class! There is no excuse for all of this talking. You all have work to do. I cannot be everywhere at once. If you are having difficulty, look at my example on the board (blah, blah, blah).”


This teacher is losing. But, how do you win? How, for example, do you give corrective feedback to students (the same ones everyday, it seems) without both losing control of the class and systematically reinforcing learned helplessness?


Another basic play in the game is backtalk – the source of most office referrals. The teacher says,


“Billy, I want you to turn around and get some work done.”


Billy responds,


“Why? I wasn’t doin’ anything. Just get out of my face (blah, blah, blah).”


What do you do next? If you mess up, this little altercation will spin out of control and end up at the office.


Here’s another play. You have a lesson transition. The students know that, as soon as the transition is over, you will put them back to work. They have a vested interest in dawdling. How do you get them to hustle?


To bring the variables from the research literature down to earth, you must study the game and learn to play it as it actually unfolds in the classroom. Once you begin to play the game, you will then find that certain critical issues have never been addressed in the research literature. To play well, you will have to invent.


For example, how exactly do you “mean business” so that your reliance on formal consequences for misbehavior is minimized? Or, to give another example, how exactly do you train a room full of seventeen-year-olds to act responsibly by this time tomorrow?


Tools for Teaching Is a Management System

Tools for Teaching is a classroom management system in that a) all of the necessary pieces are provided, b) the pieces fit together like a puzzle, and c) the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The pieces of the classroom management puzzle fall into three broad areas:


  • Instruction – maximizing the rate of learning while making independent learners out of helpless handraisers


  • Discipline – meaning business so that you replace goofing off with time-on-task while training students to be responsible


  • Motivation – giving students a reason to work hard while also being conscientious


Discipline management in Tools for Teaching begins with small disruptions in the classroom – everyday goofing off.  Small disruptions provide the best starting point because a) they destroy a huge amount of learning time, and b) when mismanaged, they escalate into large disruptions. This level of intervention corresponds to primary prevention – the bottom level of the PBIS pyramid.


The following thumbnail sketch will give you a sense of the “nuts and bolts” of those discipline practices in Tools for Teaching that comprise primary prevention. As you can see, prevention in discipline management quickly takes you to the center of the instructional process.



Working the Crowd: When students are near you, they tend to be on their best behavior. Effective teachers make an art form out of working the crowd – otherwise known as “management by walking around.”


Room Arrangement: To make working the crowd as easy as possible, you will have to rearrange the furniture in your classroom. The optimal room arrangement allows you to get from any student to any other student in the fewest steps.


Helpless Handraisers: Once you focus on working the crowd, you immediately confront the natural enemy of working the crowd –“helpless handraisers.” During Guided Practice, a typical teacher tutors the same helpless handraisers day after day – a process that takes several minutes per student. As mentioned above, by tutoring helpless handraisers, you quickly lose control of the class while inadvertently reinforcing helplessness. This raises the question, “How do you help a student who is stuck?”


For starters, corrective feedback must be brief – a simple prompt that answers the question, “What do I do next?” By simply telling the student what to do without giving a “post-mortem” of the error, you guarantee that feedback is always positive which is a powerful confidence builder. In addition, a brief prompt maximizes clarity while avoiding cognitive overload. This process is referred to as Praise, Prompt, and Leave.


Visual Instruction Plans (VIPs): Next, the prompts must be visual. The steps of the lesson’s task analysis must be posted where any student can see them. This reduces performance anxiety which causes help-seeking while providing a level of clarity that accelerates learning. More importantly, by prepackaging prompts visually, the duration of your helping interactions can be reduced to under 10 seconds. This allows you to resume working the crowd which immediately suppresses goofing off.


Say, See, Do Teaching: The most direct way of minimizing the need for corrective feedback during Guided Practice is to teach the lesson correctly in the first place. There are two basic ways to package the activity of learning. The first is:


Input, Input, Input, Input – Output


This pattern characterizes most teaching, especially at the secondary level. Imagine a lecture followed by a brief discussion. The second pattern is:




This pattern is characteristic of coaching and skill building in general. Students learn by doing with constant monitoring and feedback.


Educators have always pointed to the link between effective instruction and effective discipline management. But what, exactly, is that link?


What separates successful teachers from their colleagues is not the curriculum. The difference is in process – the organization of learning activity. Successful teachers coach performance, whether it is the mastery of a skill or the expression of a concept. Their students are constantly busy. When students are both busy and successful, discipline problems plummet.



Classroom Structure: Once the teacher has an effective model for instruction, they are in a position to teach classroom routines to mastery and to maintain that mastery throughout the semester. Carrying out transitions and routines quickly and efficiently constitutes one of the teacher’s major time-savers and stress reducers. In addition, by making expectations crystal clear, the teacher simplifies the task of rule enforcement.


Meaning Business: Highly successful teachers can get a student who is goofing off to “shape up” by simply looking at them. How do they do that?


When we finally cracked the code, we realized that meaning business is largely body language that signals calm, commitment, and the willingness to follow through. It teaches the students that “no” means “no.”


Once this understanding is established, teachers can signal students to “cool it” using progressively smaller cues until a word, a look, a pause, or ultimately, the teacher’s mere presence is enough to enforce limits. Rather than providing formal consequences, the teacher becomes the consequence. When the teacher walks into the classroom, the management program has arrived.


Since meaning business involves body language, teacher training in this area is quite physical in nature. Say, See, Do Teaching is as important in staff development as it is in the classroom.


Of course, formal consequences can be employed at any time to enforce rules. But, with meaning business, these relatively complicated and expensive procedures become rare.



Why Should I?: Before an unmotivated student will work hard, the teacher must answer one simple question, “Why should I?” The student will need something to work for – something they want – something in the not too distant future. It is called an incentive or preferred activity.


The trick with classroom incentives is to make them learning activities.The risk of incentives, however, is that students may do fast and sloppy work in order to get the preferred activity as soon as possible. How do you train students to be both hard working and conscientious?


Continuous Accountability: For students to learn to be both hard working and conscientious, you must be able to check their work as it is being done. Connecting accountability to learning in real time requires two things: a) Say, See, Do Teaching so that you have time to check students’ work during each input-output cycle, and b) plenty of time to check work during Guided Practice rather than servicing helpless handraisers.


When work is being checked as it is being done, the teacher is then in a position to excuse students to do preferred activities once a specified amount of work has been done correctly. As you can see, the systematic management of motivation is one of the final pieces of the discipline management puzzle to fall into place.


Tools Provides the Practical Specifics

As you can see from this brief description of primary prevention in Tools for Teaching, we are not dealing in generalities. Rather, we are describing specific skills, and the book Tools for Teaching plus workshops and videos provide training in those skills.


In addition, 40 years of working with school sites to implement Tools for Teaching has taught us about the complexity of producing lasting change, particularly in a high school. The Tools for Teaching Study Group Activity Guide provides a step-by-step tutorial for building professional learning communities (PLCs) and for coaching the classroom management skills contained in Tools for Teaching. Once again, the alignment with PBIS is perfect because we are attempting to do the same job.


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