Our Thoughts on PBIS and What Truly Motivates Behavior

Recently, one of our colleagues posted this article in our Slack #Learning channel – Problematizing PBIS: Resource Round-up, by Alex Venet (on the blog Unconditional Learning). It inspired a conversation about how we approach our work in schools here at BELONG Partners. In the article, Venet points out that the roots of PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) lie in behaviorism. In this school of thought, people have no internal motivation or self-determination. 

While we recognize this and other shortcomings of the PBIS framework, we partner with many schools that use PBIS, and we appreciate many of the structures that those communities have in place. We don’t insist educators abandon any of the tools they currently use. We work alongside them to grow their mindset and practices and help them decide how to implement systems and tools that strengthen relationships with students. Stronger relationships help create equitable communities that center student dignity, agency, and voice. 

What is Behaviorism?

Educators have debated which strategies are most effective for changing student behavior for centuries. PBIS is one of the most widely used strategies in the U.S. and is intended to support student behavior in schools through behaviorism. The central tenant of behaviorism is that to change people’s behavior, you simply reward what you like and punish what you don’t like. 

Early behaviorists such as Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson based their theories about behavior change on dogs, rats, and other animals. Critics of the field note that human behavior change is more nuanced than our four-legged friends. Behaviorism is deeply immersed in American society, from our criminal legal system to performance-based employee incentives. However, as we can see with rising crime and recidivism rates, despite our society’s behaviorist approach to law and order, human beings require a more nuanced approach to truly change behavior.

Students with trauma suffer in behaviorist classrooms

Behaviorist theory argues that humans can be extrinsically motivated by rewards or punishment to manipulate behavior. In the classroom, this can look like students with star charts becoming more escalated if they do not receive a sticker or prize. It can also look like students feeling unworthy and isolated if they aren’t allowed to participate in class parties due to their behavior. Students who experience trauma and have big behaviors as a response to their trauma are often the most discouraged by these reward systems. They experience the most acute pressure from these rewards systems. Consequently, behaviorism in classrooms often leads to decreased self-esteem and self-efficacy of all students, especially those who have experienced trauma.

In the Rethinking Schools article Prizes as Curriculum, educator Kelly Lagerwerff shares that she had a student with a lot of trauma in her life who was repeatedly being punished for behavior. Regardless of the frequency or intensity of the punishment, her behavior was not improving. When a new approach was attempted – by letting the student have input into her behavior plan, the teacher reported, “[my student] needed to feel she had some control over her environment. And her behavior turned around when she created her own behavior plan. That plan wasn’t about compliance but letting Nicole have some power over her own life. Rewards deny children the opportunity to reflect on their behavior with the help of adults. [In the current practice], students are given a token. Like a slot machine: stickers in, correct behavior out.”  

Who decides what is appropriate behavior?

PBIS provides positive support for “appropriate” or desired behavior. As an organization, BELONG Partners recognizes that the notion of what “appropriate” behavior is in the U.S. public education system is often rooted in ableism and white cultural norms. Given that the field of educators consists primarily of white women, behaviorist practices allow for implicit biases to seep in as educators decide what behaviors are disrespectful. This framework often harms students of color, whose voices are frequently engulfed by labels of “defiance,” “disruption,” and/or tracked into Special Education or funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline.

As Subini Ancy Annamma, a co-founder of the field of Disability Critical Race Studies, shares, “[we must] shift the question from ‘how can we fix students who disobey rules?’ to ‘how can teacher education and existing behavioral management courses be transformed so that they are not [steeped in racist biases]?’ As traditional models of punishment and behaviorism continue to churn out the same behaviors, we must explore new ways of being in public education. We need to authentically shift the culture of rewards and punishment in schools.

Collaboration vs Compliance

At BELONG Partners, we believe change comes from collaboration with students, not through compliance and control. We recognize the pressures of academic success make it extremely difficult to slow down enough to critically analyze educator practices. However, based on what brain science teaches us, students who are experiencing trauma may physically be unable to sit quietly long enough to “earn” a sticker.  

One BELONG Partners Whole School Principal reflected, “There is a reward system in PBIS that when it’s not extinguished, then kids really as they get older are always asking, ‘What’s the reward?’ And getting to that intrinsic motivation, it just doesn’t happen. And particularly in a school or with kids whose lives are so disrupted and everything, they don’t really have, what I say is a horizon to look at to get their balance and adults who kind of align with that. And I just really like the approach of firmness with kindness.”  

Students – like all humans – need connection. We must feel that we belong in our communities just as we are; belonging cannot be contingent on behavior. By letting students know they belong, regardless of their struggles, we build bridges that lead to intrinsic behavior change. Just as change is more effective from within, we know that students who feel better, do better. Those who feel more connection, belonging, and care from their educators and classmates will behave in more pro-social ways.

Supporting educators to reflect on their practice

In our work with schools, we invite educators to reflect on their teaching practice and its desired effects on student behavior. It is not our practice to ask educators to abandon strategies they currently utilize, like PBIS. Instead, we work alongside educators to problem solve around changing systems and creating more welcoming environments for all students, especially those who have trauma and lagging skills. 

One alternative or supplement to PBIS is building authentic relationships rooted in the idea that students are full humans who deserve our respect and care. Rather than blaming students for their behavior, which often promotes shame and embarrassment, we believe that engaging in emotionally regulating activities before reflecting with a student about their behavior is more likely to lead to long-term change. By practicing problem-solving in the classroom rather than stigmatizing and labeling students, we develop students’ social-emotional skills while responding to conflict with care. 

There is no replacement for human connection, and no quick fix to cultivating classroom communities where every student knows they matter and belong.


Annamma, S. (2019). Applying Disability Critical Race Theory (DISCRIT) in the Practice of Teacher Education in the United States. Oxford Education Encyclopedia. https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.783.

Benecci, L. (2021). Recidivism Imprisons American Progress. The Harvard Review. https://harvardpolitics.com/recidivism-american-progress

Bornstein, J. (2017). “Can PBIS Build Justice Rather Than Merely Restore Order?” In The School to Prison Pipeline: The Role of Culture and Discipline in School. http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/S2051-231720160000004008

Lagerwerff, K. (2020). Prizes as Curriculum. Rethinking Schools. https://rethinkingschools.org/articles/prizes-as-curriculum-how-my-school-gets-students-to-behave/

Explore these ideas further with our experienced facilitators in a personalized coaching session, or in community with other educators at a workshop. If you would like any further information – contact uswe’d love to hear from you!