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Behavior Battles

The best behavior management plans hinge on good communications.

There is evidence that new approaches to discipline are working, and even being fine-tuned – helping to fight nagging, time-devouring behavior problems in schools that have been around since the dunce cap.

Functional behavioral assessments, restorative justice, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and other alternatives all have roots dating back a few decades, but they continue to be improved upon and refined, and a collection of research now shows their effectiveness. However, we are also seeing their potential weaknesses.

Experts say now, for instance, that the success of PBIS, one of the most common approaches, hinges on four key things that too often are lacking in its implementation.

  • Outcomes: academic and behavior targets that are endorsed and emphasized by students, families, and educators. (What is important to each particular learning community?)
  • Practices: interventions and strategies that are evidence based. (How will you reach the goals?)
  • Data: information that is used to identify status, need for change, and effects of interventions. (What data will you use to support your success or barriers?)
  • Systems: supports that are needed to enable the accurate and durable implementation of the practices of PBIS. (What durable systems can be implemented that will sustain this over the long haul?

The key, these systems suggest, is the handling of information, and some experts say that is where these new approaches lose steam.

Two other experts on PBIS, Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan and John Hannigan the husband and wife team responsible for books such as to Don’t Suspend Me: An Alternative Discipline Toolkit, and The PBIS Tier One Handbook, note that the system requires a clear understanding of "response to interventions" – and good communications about the reporting process. They say a lack of such structures is typically the reason PBIS is not successful.

In an article titled "It's Not PBIS that's not working" they point out that often teachers become frustrated with the system which is a sign that "collaboration and communication is not taking place…in a timely fashion".

In a study at Tulane University, researchers found that PBIS was very effective in schools, but especially if it was implemented on a platform designed to provide information about the plan and individual students and collect and disseminate data.

And all of this suggests that the key is communications.

Here are five ways that schools need to assure they are communicating about behavior issues:

The quick update. Having a robust useful communications network for behavior involving counselors, administrators and even parents and students (with varying clear levels of access) can allows everyone to share information about a student who may be struggling (One, for instance, who perhaps has had a tragedy in their family or is being bullied or who inexplicably is struggling – or about one who has chronic behavior issues). It can bring attention to an issue and provide options for handling it.

The bigger plan. Students with significant behavior issues often can only improve when they have a formal behavior plan that is consistently used by all staff members who interact with them. Such consistency makes the plans more likely to succeed – but also lets the student know that everyone is on board with it, often a powerful deterrent. It also makes results measurable.

Program explanations and data. Behavior programs are often difficult to explain and it is hard to generate buy-in without a clear understanding of them. A good system for communicating about them can help a great deal. It should also be used to describe successes by students and staff.

Parental input. Too often responses to behavior issues by the school and the home operate separately and counterproductively. Having a system where information can be shared about changes in behavior, reward systems, successes and challenges and other issues can make behavior management much more successful.

Follow through. It isn't enough to have a good process for handling behavior in a school, nor a good plan for an individual student. It is critical that the work be evaluated (The PBIS home page has an extensive list of evaluation tools for schools.) And those evaluations – and necessary adjustments – will only be successful if there is confidence that communication has taken place throughout the process, and if good data is collected through such a platform.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (