PBIS and the Boy Elephant in the Room: Some Thoughts

I remember being a starry-eyed, youthful 36-year-old English teacher (okay this was 5 years ago, and if I was starry-eyed, it was thanks to Clinique Ultra Volume Mascara) when my colleagues and I gathered in the library to be introduced to another acronym that would save the state of public education: PBIS. PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support, was a multi-tiered system of wraparound services to encourage positive behavior and achievement and discourage negative, anti-social behavior. It was responsive to the social and emotional needs of students, would ensure equitable and appropriate discipline for students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and would ensure that students understood our school’s simple and consistent behavioral expectations. We would all have to become comfortable with changing the ways in which we handled classroom discipline, starting with lessening our reliance on office referrals and ISS. For the most part, we were on board, accepting the research that this was good for kids.

5 years is enough time to implement a new program, train staff, work out some of the kinks, and evaluate the successes. It’s also enough time to step back and look at what our challenges have been and ask ourselves some tough questions. Teachers work and learn in community, so for my maiden blog post, I would like to have a conversation about PBIS, and its edgier sister, Restorative Justice, which I, admittedly, have zero experience with, but which has been implemented by some area districts.  

When I was doing my National Boards (no mascara tube big enough to make me starry-eyed that year), I remember thinking, “I’d be a REALLY awesome teacher if I didn’t have students all the time.” Like many ed reform measures, PBIS works really well on paper. Its implementation was the tricky part. Our district was a PBIS leader in the region, so some of our changes took on the feel of science experiments- “I hypothesize that…90% of students will achieve success under this change!” Most changes were easily accepted by our staff, who’ve enjoyed a long reputation for caring about all kids and having good rapport with students. The most controversial change was shifting discipline away from ISS (many of us thought that ISS was closed for business) and handling disruptive behavior and minor infractions in our classrooms through use of a “buddy system” called Refocus, where students we would usually send out to the hall or to ISS would now be sent next door to a designated colleague’s room where they would ponder their crimes and engage in some deep soul-searching while filling out a half-sheet on how they can make better choices. The rationale? ISS was not an effective deterrent and it pulled kids away from learning. With Refocus, after 5 to 10 minutes in another classroom, they would emerge like a chrysalis and re-enter our classrooms with vigor and a determination to read Romeo & Juliet without their phones out.

We had some skeptics, but we are nothing if not team players, so we tried. And by the year’s end, some found Refocus to work, but many of us quietly swapped it for our own system that did not involve sending kids out to disrupt our co-worker’s classrooms. Five years later, our whole department uses whatever system works best for us and our students. Turns out- one size does not fit all. What have we gained? Better identification of students needing services, incentives and rewards for students doing well and showing improvement, and a lot of conversations on the roots of student misbehavior (trauma, mental health issues, home-school disconnect, culturally unresponsive teaching, kids being kids, etc…) This has been good and necessary, but it’s too early and results are too mixed to declare victory yet.

I asked a dozen colleagues recently about PBIS and what we need to actually implement it successfully. Our long-time ISS supervisor (who many kids regard as a tough-loving mother-figure) said “STRICT discipline.” Another staff member who handles major discipline asked for a simplified system without so many steps or warnings before serious consequences are used. A counselor and two administrators said, simply, “staffing”: that we need a full-time mental health counselor or clinician to keep pace with the growing rates of anxiety and depression among teens. That, and alternative means of schooling for students who are not able to work within a traditional school environment.  

As for my answer? I worry about a system so forgiving that teenagers develop unrealistic expectations for the world that will greet them after graduation: that bosses will praise their simple act of showing up and punching in on time, that multiple chances will be granted after violating a university’s (or society’s) code of conduct or rule of law, that life will be less flexible and empathetic in meeting their individual needs, shortcomings, desires. I want them to be successful. I want our school to set them up for success. I think we can all do better- myself included. The student group that we can and need to do better by? Boys. 5 years after implementation of PBIS, I looked at the data on our school disciplinary rates by sex. Males made up 74.9% of tardy referrals and 75.2% of referrals for all other infractions. Our school is not an outlier by any means: boys across the country (and developed world) are overrepresented in school discipline and underrepresented among students thriving academically. If a disciplinary system does not work well for half of our student body, it’s time to examine why and work to change it.

8 thoughts on “PBIS and the Boy Elephant in the Room: Some Thoughts

  1. Jeremy Voigt


    My school is facing similar challenges and I share many of your concerns. I have found myself in many leadership team meetings asking why we don’t have a simple, streamlined list of behaviors and consequences. Our admin’s policy is to treat each case individually. I really admire their desire for empathy, but I fail to see why a more straight forward consequences approach would not work and still allow for exceptions. I find myself using similar language as you do in your final paragraph.

    ” I worry about a system so forgiving that teenagers develop unrealistic expectations for the world that will greet them after graduation: that bosses will praise their simple act of showing up and punching in on time, that multiple chances will be granted after violating a university’s (or society’s) code of conduct or rule of law, that life will be less flexible and empathetic in meeting their individual needs, shortcomings, desires.”

    Yes, yes, and yes.

    My recent phrase is, “why can’t we show empathy and have clear and firm consequences?” I even believe that having clear and firm consequences is an act of compassion and does not preclude empathy and think your piece offers clear support. Thank you.

  2. Jamie Sullivan

    Thank you for your response, Jeremy. You have the honor of being my first response to my first blog post, so I am almost giddy over here! That, or it’s the fact that I am not teaching right now and have time to drink an entire pot of coffee. I will not get too specific, but I have had students (we all have) that we saw such potential in. Kids that we loved and pushed and wanted to do better. Two in particular (and this is not at all the norm for my district) are doing life terms in prison for a very serious crime. I had both in Freshman English. Loved, pushed, taught them. I think of them often and wonder what our role was. I wonder if we gave them unrealistic expectations that they would always get a second chance before the gavel dropped. Maybe I’ll go and visit them and ask. My own anecdotal evidence (as teacher and mom) suggests that many steps leading up to a negative, unpleasant consequence is perhaps ineffective.

    Maybe boys need something different. Maybe this is a brain development thing, and their impulse control/ ability to see consequences takes longer to develop, so consequences need to be quicker and more uniform. I just know what would happen if, in my classroom, I said “Jack this is your first tardy reminder- when I get to 8, you will have a lunch detention!” Most seasoned teachers (and parents…and grandparents…) know this would be ineffective. This is the work my PLC is engaged in all year, and maybe next. Thank you for replying. *sips coffee

  3. Gery Gerst

    Jamie, thanks for such meaningful reflection on this serious topic. I agree with Jeremy that your last paragraph raises the right question/s. To offer what I can to the dialogue, my experience suggests the following: ALL kids need some basics, the same basics: to feel valued/loved, and capable, and safe…and to feel that their world (home/Teachers/etc) are both fair AND reliable/predictable. The ‘safe’ part of course includes freedom from bullying but also it includes Knowing they can be transparent and vulnerable with teachers, friends, family. Many do not. Fair to students doesn’t mean there aren’t natural consequences for choices but also it means the school rules are consistent and equitably applied…to kids that = fair. Finally, the predictable part in my experience is met when a teacher/school/parent etc. rules and expectations are reliable, meaning that rules/teachers/expectations ‘say what they mean and mean what they say’. This helps students make sense of their world and know where the fences are. From hundreds of former students I’ve interviewed, the message is clear: warm demanding, or compassionate expectations with boundaries, is seen as “they care about me, and I’m safe here…I can count on them.”… NOT seen as ‘they’re out to get me.” The kid who complains about a curfew is really bragging that “they care about my safety.” I’ve heard this dialogue between students.
    I also think teachers make the best preventative counselors. Students who feel a teacher meets their 5 basic needs (above) will seek out that teacher to confide in about a problem, be it in my case about suicidal thoughts, abuse at home, anorexia, trouble with tests or special assignment help. So I advocate/d for staffing time for teachers to be available as counselors and paid for same. I often did this during lunch time, but also before or after school. This availability I believe heads off many behavior problems and further feeds into the basic needs of feeling valued, safe, etc. I think students should be able to ‘book’ time with a teacher of choice, or a teacher should have discretion to invite a student in for a “listening/coaching” 1 on 1, starting with “What’s going on?”, then “How can I help you meet expectations/rules?” and this should be paid time. This gets at the ‘staffing’ point you raised.
    Just sharing; thank YOU for caring so much and promoting dialogue on this

    1. Jamie Sullivan


      Your idea about paid staffing time for students to talk to a trusted teacher is a good one, and very proactive. Thank you for reading and responding. Hope all is well!

      1. Gery Gerst

        Well it is, especially seeing so many like yourself not only doing well in teaching but being change agents and leaders in reforms. I’m lucky: still teaching history, at the Oly Senior Center to about 25 adults each quarter. How fun with life-long learners like yourself.
        Hoping YOU are well personally and professionally, J, always. PS: your witty humor enhances your blog 🙂

  4. Mark

    Yes. We need to think of this core concept about systems: Every system is perfectly designed to produce exactly the outcomes is produces, and nothing else. What in our systems is causing such outcomes for our boys?

    I have three sons. The oldest is relatively introverted, excels in school because he is compliant, focused, and hard working. The second, the most introverted, is successful because he knows how to just be quiet and not be noticed. The third is extroverted the hyperbolic extremes, pushes every button, tests every rule, wants to know the why behind everything, verbally narrates every thought that passes through his mind, and simply needs noise and movement in his life. All three have strong academic skills, do well on tests, all those measures. Of course, guess which one helped us get to know the principal.

    Being talkative, extroverted, needing movement… our system does not want these things as they have the potential to disrupt hierarchies and well-laid lesson plans…and therefore the system makes them deviant behaviors even if they are actually normal for humans at large.

  5. Robyn Jordan

    Thank you for your vulnerability in laying out what is essentially a problem that no pedogogy or approach to discipline currently solves (entirely). We’re all still looking for ways to lead students to success, especially students that don’t meet behavioral expectations. As we search and try, more pots of coffee!

  6. Jan Kragen

    I have a student this year who, at the beginning of the year objected to any adult telling him to do anything. He left the room without permission. He got into trouble in every venue of the school. He was a frequent flier in the office where he would have complete meltdowns.

    I never yelled at him. I never got mad at him. I would sit with him and talk and find out what was going on.

    He always got a major consequence from me for any major infraction, but he got it in the context of an adult listening and caring.

    Last week a parental unit came by. She said he told her I’m his favorite teacher ever. (Really? I thought. I ride this kid on a daily basis.) “Why?” I asked.

    He says I’m fair.

    By the way, his behavior is vastly improved from the beginning of the year.


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