Implementing PBIS part 2

Level 2: The Second Level of Discipline Prevention

Focus on Prevention

Both Tools for Teaching and PBIS focus on the prevention of discipline problems. And both programs focus on practical, research-based procedures that have been proven in schools and classrooms.

In PBIS the language of prevention (primary, secondary, and tertiary) is superimposed over a broad range of behavior management procedures as an organizing principle. To help align Tools for Teaching with PBIS, it will be helpful to first clarify what PBIS means by primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention.

Primary Prevention: Primary prevention focuses on structuring the learning environment so that problems do not occur in the first place. This includes the teaching and supervision of rules and routines at both the school site and classroom levels as well as the use of incentives to reward student compliance. In addition, primary prevention assumes “high quality instruction” on the part of the teacher.

Secondary Prevention: Secondary prevention provides focused interventions to help students who are not responding to primary prevention. These programs occur in the classroom and include both individualized behavior management programs and targeted group interventions. Individualized behavior management programs are based on a functional analysis of behavior (i.e. behavior modification). Group interventions, in contrast, usually teach social skills and include “social skills clubs” or a targeted behavior education plan. The decision to use secondary prevention is typically made by the school’s planning team and/or behavior support team.

Tertiary Prevention: Tertiary prevention focuses on individuals who exhibit patterns of behavior that are dangerous, highly disruptive, and/or impede learning. The objective is to eliminate extreme behaviors and replaced them with appropriate behaviors so that the student does not need to be removed from the classroom. Tertiary prevention is synonymous, in practice, with an individualized program based on a functional analysis behavior for a student who has not responded to secondary prevention.

To appreciate the language of PBIS concerning prevention, it is necessary to appreciate the problem being addressed – the disproportionately high rate of suspensions and expulsions for minority students, especially in high school. The problem behind the problem is that most school districts have little or no training for teachers in classroom management and no system for responding to problems effectively when they are small.

Most teachers are on their own to handle problems as best they can until they can’t take it any more. Then they send the student to the office. PBIS is attempting to replace this lack of systematic management with skills and procedures that would prevent office referrals. Consequently, anything short of an office referral is considered prevention.

Problems of Cost

As with PBIS, to appreciate the prevention of discipline problems in Tools for Teaching, it will be helpful to understand the issues being addressed. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s my colleagues and I were part of the “behavior modification revolution” in which we learned that severe problem behaviors could be reduced or eliminated with well-designed contingency management programs. One by-product of that experience for me was an appreciation of how expensive these programs are.

They require the pinpointing of critical behaviors, the design of a data system to record those behaviors, the design of an intervention program, data taking, delivering contingencies and, frequently, the redesign of the program to improve results – all of which required a lot of the teacher’s time and my time. Next, I looked around the classroom and made a quick tally of the problems waiting to be addressed. My simple conclusion was that the traditional behavior modification technology was too labor intensive to solve more than a few of the management problems faced by teachers in typical classrooms to say nothing of special education.

The Evolution of Classroom Management

At about this time I had the opportunity to observe two “natural teachers” who, without the use of any formal programs whatsoever, made students with histories of severe behavior problems function as an orderly, productive, and respectful class. And they made it look easy! The breakthrough was in seeing that managing the entire classroom could be cheaper than managing a single student. This experience led me to focus on the classroom rather than the individual student as the critical unit of intervention.

Further observations revealed a high level of time wasting and “goofing off” in almost all classrooms. Only rarely, however, did this goofing off escalate into an office referral. Yet, during every class period, goofing off destroyed vast amounts of learning time while stressing the teacher.

In addition, when office referrals did occur, they often grew out of small problems that were mishandled by the teacher. The most common example was the teacher becoming embroiled in the student’s backtalk by arguing. Effective classroom management, therefore, appeared to be a direct route to preventing office referrals while reducing teacher stress.

Intervention strategies evolved over a period of years based on a detailed systems analysis of the classroom. The elements of classroom structure most directly related to the primary prevention of discipline problems – particularly aspects of the instructional process – include:

  • Room arrangement to facilitate working the crowd

  • Working the crowd (mobility and proximity) to preempt goofing off

  • Making independent learners out of helpless handraisers so you can work the crowd during Guided Practice rather than tutoring the same students everyday. Weaning the helpless handraisers requires:

  • Praise, Prompt, and Leave: a brief answer to the question, “What do I do next?” rather than reteaching a portion of the lesson

  • Visual Instructional Plans (VIPs): the lesson’s task analysis depicted in a step-wise, visual form. Prepackaging prompts in this fashion further reduces the duration of helping interactions while supporting independent learning.

  • Say, See, Do Teaching: learning by doing” one step at a time with monitoring and feedback during each step of performance. This further accelerates learning and provides accountability while reducing helplessness.

  • Teaching classroom rules and routines to mastery

  • Meaning business which integrates calmness, consistency and effective body language to set limits on typical disruptions

  • Providing incentives for completing work correctly which requires the checking and correcting of work as it is being done. This in turn requires Say, See, Do Teaching as well as weaning the helpless handraisers so the teacher can work the crowd and monitor work during Guided Practice.

The Secondary Level of Prevention in Tools for Teaching

PBIS defines secondary prevention largely in terms of individualized behavior management programs to eliminate persistent problems or group interventions to teach social skills. Individualized programs typically involve incentives for appropriate behavior.

Once again, the objectives of Tools for Teaching are perfectly aligned with PBIS, but its separate developmental history provides a different perspective. For decades, the “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” for incentive management in terms of cost containment has been group incentives. Imagine one group program that could do the work of dozens of individualized programs.

It sounds good, but nobody could get it to work. There were steep technical hurdles. Group incentives are by nature “all for one, and one for all.” What if the group doesn’t feel like working together? What if one kid in the classroom feels like throwing a monkey wrench into the whole system just to prove that he or she is in control? What if some kids want the incentive and others don’t?

Teaching Social Skills Through Group Incentives

Tools for Teaching provides the solution to the technical problems of group management in a program called Responsibility Training. Responsibility Training has built-in failsafe mechanisms that avoid the pitfalls of group incentive systems while enabling the teacher to train the entire class to cooperate in carrying out classroom routines quickly and efficiently.

Incentive systems, when properly understood, represent teaching paradigms. To train students to cooperate, you will need a group management program which structures peer interactions so that enlightened self-interest equals cooperation. Responsibility Training does exactly that. In so doing, it serves the goal of social skills training while representing very little cost to the teacher.

Responsibility Training

As incentive systems go, Responsibility Training is fairly complex due to the fail-safe mechanisms to keep it from being defeated. It is described in great detail in chapters 20-23 of Tools for Teaching for anyone wishing to implement it in the classroom.

At its simplest level, Responsibility Training teaches students to be responsible with time. We want them to save time for learning rather than wasting it with dawdling.

However, the class cannot learn time management without having time to manage. To start the program, therefore, we give the class an “allowance” of time. To serve as a reinforcer, it must be time for something that the students want. Call it Preferred Activity Time or PAT.

I will describe an example of Responsibility Training from a self-contained classroom. It works equally well in departmentalized settings, but it would take more space to describe.

Let’s imagine a fifth grade teacher beginning the day with the following announcement.

“Class, before we start the day, I want to point out the art materials on the project table over by the window. The art project will be your PAT this afternoon.

“As always, I have set aside twenty minutes for PAT at the end of the day. You know, however, that once you start a project like this, you always wish you had more time. Well, you can have more time. All of the bonus PAT that you earn during the day will be added to the art project.”

The students can clearly see that all of their hustle throughout the day will translate into art – which brings us to the topic of bonuses. The particular PAT bonus that produces hustle is called a “hurry-up bonus.”

Let’s look at a hurry-up bonus as it applies to a lesson transition. Lesson transitions are a major source of lost learning time due to dawdling. A typical lesson transition takes five minutes. If the class hustles, it takes about thirty seconds. Let’s follow the action as our teacher announces a lesson transition.

“Class, before you get out of your seats, let me tell you what I want you to do during this lesson transition. First, hand in your papers by laying them on the corner of my desk. If you need to sharpen your pencils, now is the time to do it. If you need a drink of water, now is the time to get it.

“I want my clean-up committee to erase my boards and straighten up the books on the shelf. I want everybody to pick up any paper you see laying around the room and get your desks back on their marks.

“I will give you two minutes to get this done. But you know from past experience that you can get it done in less than a minute. So, let’s see how much time you can save. All of the time you save will be added to your PAT.

“Let’s check the clock. (Pause until the second hand passes the six or twelve.) Okay, let’s begin.”

The teacher immediately begins to work the crowd to keep students moving while breaking up any chit-chat over by the pencil sharpener. As students take their seats, our teacher heads to the front of the class only to spy a piece of paper on the floor not far from a student who is still standing. The teacher says,

“Class. There’s a piece of paper over there on the floor.” (pointing)

The student says, “It’s not mine.”

The teacher shrugs. But several students, already seated near the student who is standing, whisper,

“Hey, man, just pick it up.”

Welcome to one of the key features of group incentives – “all for one, and one for all.” When students share a vested interest in hustle, they use their peer pressure to make sure that everyone hustles. This removes the burden of management from the teacher. Yet, the form that peer pressure takes is gentle – usually “urgent whispers.” To get snide would not be cool. Besides, we have additional fail-safe mechanisms should anybody get bossy.

As the last student sits down, the teacher says,

“Thank you class for doing such a good job. Let’s check the time. You saved one minute and twenty-seven seconds. Let’s add that to your PAT tally.”

The teacher walks to the board and adds a minute and twenty-seven seconds to the PAT tally. The students are all smiles.

Of course, if the students dawdle beyond two minutes, they could lose time. While being logical, this is also a failsafe mechanism. Without the possibility of losing time, it would not be “cool” to tell your buddy to hustle. You would look like a “suck-up.”

But, even though it is possible to lose time, the system is rigged so that students come out ahead. You give in minutes, but you take in seconds, and taking rarely occurs after the first week. Time-loss remains in the background – a possibility more than an actuality.

Yet, the possibility of time-loss introduces the possibility of abuse by negative teachers who think that discipline equals punishment. For that reason Responsibility Training, to be successful, must rest on a solid foundation of training in the skills of primary prevention.


This simple example of Responsibility Training is meant to give a flavor of the program rather than to serve as a guide for implementation. It does, however, illustrate how an incentive system can serve to teach social skills – in this case, cooperation to support the teacher’s management goals. This constitutes a form of secondary prevention analogous to targeted social skills training. Yet, Responsibility Training teaches everyone simultaneously while saving time and energy rather than consuming it as a teaching exercise would.

Tools for Teaching should be considered, however, as a supplement to the procedures described in the PBIS literature, not a replacement. In dealing with the wide-range of “squirrelly” behaviors possible in a classroom, you will need all of the ideas that you can find.

Nevertheless, the four decades of work that have gone into Tools for Teaching have produced some significant breakthroughs. Broad areas of classroom functioning not previously considered part of discipline management have been placed in the service of primary prevention. And, advanced group incentive systems have been harnessed to serve the goals of secondary prevention.

Perhaps the greatest breakthrough, however, is in reducing the cost of behavior management. To paraphrase many administrators and school psychologists who have served at sites implementing Tools for Teaching over the years,

“When classroom teachers deal effectively with management problems when they are small, it eliminates most of our IEP meetings and most of our office referrals.”

Next month we will look at tertiary prevention. How can the teacher deal successfully with the most oppositional students quickly and easily while harnessing the power of the peer group?

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