Problematic Behavioral Intervention Strategies: It’s not working for the child (Part 2)

Today’s guest author is Sandy Eyles

Sandy is a parent of two children – one with a disability and one without. She lives in NC with her husband, two children, two cats, and one dog. She works full-time as a designer but spends her free time advocating for children with disabilities and equity in our public schools. 


One of the key issues with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is the lens used to identify the function of behavior. PBIS guidance suggests that “staff should minimize reinforcement of the behavior.” Let’s break this down. This belief is rooted in the view that the function of the behavior works for the child.

Instead, in my experience, the function of the behavior is to communicate a lack of skill or ability. Dr. Ross Greene explains, “You may want to reconsider your definition of ‘function’… it’s not that the student’s challenging behavior is helping him get, escape, or avoid, but rather that the behavior communicates that he’s lacking the skills to deal with the demands being placed on him in a more adaptive fashion.” 

When a child struggles with school avoidance, we could easily assume the child just doesn’t want to go to school, and therefore the behavior “works” for them by avoiding going to school.

We might say things like they are avoiding a “non-preferred” activity. Or, we can look at the behavior and understand that the function is to communicate that they are struggling in some way and do not have the skills to attend school as expected. In his book, Lost at School, Dr. Greene teaches us how to use his Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model to collaborate with children to solve the problems they are facing. 

This approach allows the staff (and parents) to identify the problem versus blaming the child. Maybe the child is being bullied. Perhaps the child is a perfectionist and is afraid of failing tests. Maybe the classroom environment is overwhelming for the child, and their sensory needs are not being met. Without talking with the child and understanding why attending school is difficult for them, we miss an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with the child. The child also misses the opportunity to learn skills that allow them to succeed in school and life. 

The common PBIS approach is to use a token economy to reward the child if they meet an expectation. From a PBIS Guide for Educators, the guidance to consider a token economy. “Thanks for working quietly on math for 10 minutes—very responsible! You earned a point!” A token economy does not address skills. It addresses behavior. Behavior is the symptom of a problem that needs to be addressed – behavior is communicating that a child needs help. 

In the case of school avoidance, sticker charts or a reward is commonly offered if they attend school X amount of days in a row. Or to punish them at home and make being at home miserable when they do not go to school. The more effective approach is for the team to identify the problem and work on skills the child needs to learn to address the actual problem(s) they are experiencing.

Token economies do not solve problems and backfire when we consistently ask a child to do something they are not capable of doing. 

Two very different approaches. One works. One does not.

Dr. Ross Greene says, “Kids do well if they can .” All children want to do well. They want to meet expectations. All of us do. None of us go through life wanting to fail. We want to do our best. Just as jeans day doesn’t support a teacher, these external motivations do not support children. The token economy promoted by PBIS is flawed. The work of Dr. Mona Delahooke and Dr. Ross Greene provides better, more effective ways to support children. Because we can do better, we must do better. Our children deserve it. 


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